Favourite Book(s) | Helen L. Brockman, The Theory of Fashion Design; Pamela Stecker, The Fashion Design Manual 2

Front cover gallery of Helen L. Brockman, The Theory of Fashion Design, and Pamela Stecker, The Fashion Design Manual 2.

PLEASE NOTE: Unfortunately, neither of these books can be listed on my Bookshop page.  However, if you’d like to support independent bookstores in general, you can do by supporting Bookshop.org.  You can read more about my support of Bookshop.org here.

Last week I mentioned that I’d follow up with a couple of specialist fashion books that built on the work of Maitland Graves, and here they are!  Both books provide a general view of how the fashion industry works, but from the perspective of the designer.  Both books also contain invaluable information about the elements and principles of design as applied to fashion or clothing – particularly The Fashion Design Manual 2.  I’ll begin with Helen L. Brockman, The Theory of Fashion Design, published in 1965.

I have a soft spot for mid-20th century fashion books because for me, they mark a point of change in fashion and clothing production.  Until around the 1970s, fashion design and pattern cutting books are one and the same, chiefly because design conceptualisation and pattern cutting were still viewed as one by the industry – or at least had not separated enough to merit a book on each topic.  My pattern cutting teacher was of this post-war generation; she was adamant that designers should be able to realise their own designs.  Consequently, she taught my group that pattern cutting was a holistic, joined-up part of conceptualisation rather than the skill of being able to interpret someone else’s line drawing and turn it into a paper pattern.  I was already in love with knitwear at this stage, and I think that my abilities there – the evidence of being able to make as well as create – was part of my bond with my teacher.  Finding The Theory of Fashion Design gave me the points of reference that she would’ve had throughout her studies and early career.

Contents page of Brockman, The Theory of Fashion Design.

After an initial discussion of how fashion houses operate, and an introduction to wholesale pricing and mark-ups (the points here are very interesting for designers thinking about marketing and how to price their patterns), there is an absolute gem of a section on pages 16-27:

The silhouette is the fundamental factor in apparel styling since it dictates the outline shape that a garment gives to its wearer.

Brockman 1965: 18

On one hand, this is obvious.  On the other hand, the way Brockman exemplifies the point by using “twins” is great.  This is one of my favourite parts of the book because it shows the imagination and versatility that designers need to have, and presents it in a practical manner.  Every teacher I had at the London College of Fashion stressed that there’s always a lot of mileage in one basic idea or look.  This facet of design development has been invaluable to me ever since: the ability to produce numerous variations of a look, and how to change it using line, pattern, fabric choice and more.  This harks back to Graves’ elements and principles, and we haven’t even got to the chapters where these are discussed in particular detail.

Makers who like customising or reinterpreting existing designs or garments will also enjoy reading this book. The key sections for designers are chapter 5, ‘Application of Fine-Arts Principles’; chapter 11, ‘The Effective Use of Trimmings’; and chapter 12, ‘The Effective Use of Fabric’.  Again, modern fashion books do discuss fabric, trimmings and design, but not in a holistic, problem solving way that is accessible to both designer and customer. For this reason alone, Brockman’s work is helpful if you design crochet or handknitted knitwear; because you are working directly with the yarn, constantly constructing and handling fabric, it’s handy to refer to a source that doesn’t assume you’re putting together a mood board and need to communicate with other members of the design team to develop the garment in more detail. You can alter a basic idea to suit your knitters, crocheters, season – and so on and so forth.

Instead, the designer is assumed to take ownership of the design right up to the first pattern is produced – that is, the modern equivalent of a creative pattern cutter – after which it goes into the hands of the production pattern cutter and grader.  The relationship between the designer/creative pattern cutter and production pattern cutter and grader is not dissimilar to the relationship between a handknit or crochet designer and their tech editor.  (For clarity, the ‘first pattern’ is the one used in the sample room to develop the final design or look; this first pattern is then given to the production team and turned into a production pattern that is suitable for manufacturing and meets quality standards.)

The “fine-arts principles” in chapter 5 are:

  • Golden Mean
  • Rhythm
  • Balance
  • Scale
  • Eye-Fooling Lines
  • Unity
  • Economy
  • Focal Points
  • Directional Lines

There is no doubt that Brockman was impressed with Graves’ earlier work; her own book was published within 15 years of his, in response to demand.  I can only imagine what her students at FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology, New York) must have thought at the time!  Here is Brockman’s interpretation of rhythm as applied to fashion design:

Rhythm in design results from lines or masses that act as accents, because they are repeated in an orderly, predictable pattern. … Rhythm is of two types: uniform rhythm, with beats of equal intensity that are repeated often enough to form a distinctive pattern; and diminishing rhythm, with beats of successively weakened intensity.

Ibid: 88

After reading sentences like that I was more than keen to make a start on my own work, and being the kind of reader that I am, I was disappointed to find that there were so few perspectives on how to approach clothing design. I say clothing, because I’d already had the first few inklings that a career in the fashion industry would not be for me. At best, I’d feel comfortable in a small business; the kind that has the shop in the front and the studio in the back. I had to keep looking for resources (and employment) that suited me and the kind of work I wanted to do.

I definitely don’t claim to have read every fashion design book going, but I have read several, and so far, Pamela Stecker is the only author to have built upon the work of Helen Brockman and Maitland Graves.  The Fashion Design Manual 2 (2009) does a similar job to The Theory of Fashion Design, but on a far larger scale and from an up-to-date perspective – particularly with reference to how the fashion industry works.  (One note here, for those interested in the business side and who owns what, is that the PPR group is now known as the Kering Group; the other two luxury conglomerates are LMVH and Gucci Group.)

The contents page of The Fashion Design Manual 2.

The Fashion Design Manual 2 is written especially for those living and working in Australia and New Zealand, but the processes and principles of design are recognisable and applicable to anyone in the world.  Stecker’s equivalent of Brockman’s chapters 5, 11 and 12 are chapters 3-6; respectively, these are:

  • The nature of clothing and fashion
  • The elements of design
  • Value and colour
  • The principles of design

I would be surprised if anyone was disappointed in this book.  All specialist terms are explained, and the captions are superb.  As you might have guessed, I spent a LOT of time Googling after reading The Theory of Fashion Design, desperately searching for any other fashion book that I felt spoke my language and presented design in a meaningful, accessible way.  After waiting months to get my hands on this book, I was very excited to see if it was worth the money and time.  It absolutely was!

One thing I particularly like is the inclusion of fashion illustration techniques; knitwear gets some attention on p.122.  If you are a self-taught illustrator, it can be very difficult to access good books on technique; there is no substitute for taking a class – as for any practical subject – but it’s always handy to have some good reference books.  This is where Stecker’s depth of knowledge really shines; she’s included sound advice on how to use art materials, right down to the different ways you can hold a drawing pencil.

Contextualisation is a great strength of the Fashion Design Manual 2.  There is enough information for the reader to make a decent start on their own before deciding on what to do or who to contact next.  The clarity of Stecker’s diagrams and words make a large and detailed book accessible and engaging.  As she puts it, “Everyone wears clothing; not everyone wears fashion” (Stecker 2009: vii). That sentence alone reeled me right in! And again, the versatility or potential to get a lot of mileage out of one basic idea is emphasised (see image above right, again utilising the “twin” approach, to show the effect of different style lines and stripes). I would only add, based on my own professional practice, that this versatility is one of my best protections against burnout or ‘running out of ideas’. It means that you can design with more depth and empathy, which leads to more evergreen work that can be styled according to the wearer’s wishes. if you’re like me, and don’t design trend-led items, this working practice is invaluable.

Another distinct advantage of this book is the amount of depth and range of knowledge throughout, particularly in chapters 3-6.  It is difficult to resist reworking your existing ideas when the possibilities and methods for doing so are so well explained and presented.  I have no idea why this book hasn’t been adapted for the international market; these four chapters alone make a strong enough case for doing so, the general advice is sound, and I don’t think the book would be made any less valuable by removing specific references to policies and practices in Australian and New Zealand.  If you agree, please let the publisher know!

Final thoughts and how to source the books

Like many fashion books, Brockman and Stecker focus on womenswear and woven pattern cutting; consequently, any reader will need to adapt and apply the knowledge to their chosen field.  I will admit that I found both books very accessible because of my training in this area, but the notes on shaping, proportion and general styling are definitely applicable to knitwear and crochet.  I often feel that the styling components of knitwear design are often overlooked in favour of constructed textiles and the possibilities with fabrication; the truth is that both are equally important.

Unfortunately, I cannot connect either of these books to my Bookshop page, but you can find Helen L. Brockman’s book second-hand (no ISBN, but an internet search will do nicely), and Pamela Stecker’s book now has limited availability. I bought mine direct from the publisher, Palgrave MacMillan (this was the cheapest option, at least when I bought it); or you can get a used copy of the first edition of the Fashion Design Manual (ISBN: 978-0732907167.  The ISBN for the Fashion Design Manual 2 is 978-1-4202-5606-2.).  The main difference between the two editions concerns the industry information; the design tuition is mostly the same, but some of the diagrams have changed.

Please note that the link to ‘buy now’ from the Imageworks website, Stecker’s company, does not work, so if you cannot get a second-hand copy, contact the publisher directly.

If anyone reading this article has found it useful, or has any other design books they’d like to share, let me know in the comments! I am always on the lookout for helpful materials, and happy to talk about any of the books mentioned here and in other posts.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Those look like really interesting and informative books!

    1. They’re invaluable to me – I referred to them a lot when learning, and now whilst teaching. They make design so accessible 👍🏾

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