Aesthetic is a word that gets thrown out a lot when it comes to fashion. It can refer to the personal fashion sense of an individual or movement, as when discussing the aesthetics of something, or it can be used as a stamp of approval, as when saying that something is aesthetic. Because of its wide application, putting an exact definition of the word can be a tricky process.
Fortunately, Daniel Patrick is here to explain the history of the word as well as the overarching implications it has in the fashion world.
Origins of Aesthetics
The original concept of the aesthetic in some ways served as a correction to 18-century rationalist philosophy as it related to beauty. Under rationalism, beauty, whether it be artistic or otherwise, could be analyzed and discovered through careful analysis.
Rationalists believed that beauty is something that could be as rigorously and strictly measured as a mathematical problem. The philosophy of aesthetics came about with the fundamental idea of comparison. Just as an individual is able to judge the quality of a delicious meal simply by tasting it, judgments relating to beauty can be innately made without the use of formal academic rigor or the study of the human mind.
One philosopher, Immanuel Kant, philosophized about beauty in regards to the way it relates to morality. Under previously established thought, it was believed that to judge something as virtuous or moral was to take joy in it, as it promised an improvement in your own living conditions or the conditions of others.
Kant proposed in his disinterest theory that judgments of beauty, rather than being motivated by the self-interest of a particular person, would be made regardless of whether or not they held an explicit benefit for the viewer.
Kant would be the first to popularize the use of the word aesthetics. This word is derived from the Greek term "aisthētikos" for "sense perception," thus giving it a sense of immediate kind of judgment.
Aesthetics in Art and Visual Media
Despite the notion that judgments on beauty can be innately made, there are still design principles underlying artistic works. Many visual designs rely on the artist theory called the Golden Ratio. This philosophy of art relies on a specific layout rooted in mathematical principles and symmetries used in such works as Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa.
The Rule of Thirds divides a given space into nine sections and suggests the user present their visuals in a way that matches the natural focal points of the eye. Gestalt principles refer to a series of design choices in interface designs, which make it easier for the user to parse information.
Unique Aesthetic Experiences
Designers, when presenting visual works where something needs to be conveyed, consider aesthetics. For example, in advertising, subjectivity matters: different cultures have different associations with specific colors and visual elements.
This cultural context is an important notion to wrestle with when understanding varying aesthetic experiences.
Down to the Exact Science
Aesthetics are also essential to understand purpose: Pure art may get away with eschewing or integrating artistic principles in a way specifically chosen to disorient or otherwise subvert the senses of the viewer.
However, in academia, scholars must rely on information being conveyed precisely and easily.
Media and Marketing
Also of importance in advertising is the notion of attractiveness bias. Marketers consider the outward appearance of a product when attempting to sell a specific kind of object to the public.
Consistent colors and images will lead to higher traffic and better results overall in the market. Aesthetically appealing designs make users more willing to overlook other flaws in favor of beauty.
All in all, aesthetics is an essential part of how businesses operate in the world. This is evident in social media, from Instagram to a trending Pinterest board.
Across the world, aesthetic judgments change. The aesthetic success of a product, like a particular car or outfit, can vary based on the general culture of a specific population.
What is popular in Western tradition might not be favored elsewhere. This is known as the perceptual basis of aesthetic judgments.
The Artistic Movement and the Problem of Aesthetic Theory
When it comes to art, the issue with defining aesthetics as something to be innately determined is that it forces people to reckon with what art is.
In 1917, Maurice Duchamp introduced a unique sculpture called “Fountain," which consists of a hand-signed urinal. Andy Warhol similarly precisely copied the design of brillo boxes in his artwork in the same way.
Critics stated that aesthetic philosophy rooted in heavily literal art could become problematic. This critical reflection stated that art based on direct imitation would render us unable to discern a difference between the artistic representation and the original item.
While aesthetics in philosophy, advertising, and art have a complicated history, it is fortunately far easier to define how it relates to fashion.
Aesthetics in Victorian Times
In fashion, architecture, and interior design, aesthetics first came to the forefront in the form of Aesthetes, late-19th Century designers who sought to produce beautiful images in contrast to the stuffy, overworked Victorian designs that emerged during the Industrial Revolution.
They rejected artificial designs and clothing such as bustles. Instead, they took inspiration from loose-fitting, classical robes as well as natural dyes to allow the wearer to interact with the world in a way that was both more comfortable and more natural.
While few go around wearing Grecian robes today, the importance of combining fashion and comfort is something we can still greatly relate to.
Aesthetic Fundamentals in Fashion
When it comes to fashion, aesthetics has undergone a great deal of change. On a base level, however, it can be seen as referring to the way people want to be seen and what they value in seeing others. While trends change, rightfully so, a few guiding elements recur over time for good reason.
Subjective beauty is always at the forefront, with the style of the day and models representing a given generation's “ideal” body type front and center. Although, modern inclusivity has thankfully resulted in modeling beginning to become a more all-encompassing environment.
There was also a change in how comfortable clothing was made to be. The early Aesthetes challenged the restrictive attire of Victorian times. This led to garments that were specifically designed and made of materials to feel good.
This is one of the contributing factors to the proliferation of athletic gear as high fashion.
While some fashion trends remain somewhat embarrassing reminders of specific decades, others retain a continual appeal that renders them timeless. Some of these styles are derived from classic fashion figures like Marilyn Monroe or Princess Diana. Others remain in use because of their evergreen popularity.
The “basics” for men include a wide range of gear, from athletic-oriented sweats and tee-shirts to more all-purpose pieces like shawls and polo shirts.
The Evolution of Modern Aesthetics
Though people have always needed to dress, individual fashion wasn’t always a major concern. Historically speaking, high fashion was the purview of the wealthy, elite classes. Most people invested in clothing from local manufacturers to fit a general style of dress rather than an essentially curated wardrobe.
Two key elements led to greater personalization of and a greater interest in fashion: Production and the movie industry.
Production is fairly self-explanatory: With new technological advances in sewing and other clothing manufacturing processes, it became easier to design and produce a greater variety of clothes.
Films began to become even more massively popular in the 1930s, as “talking pictures” improved the ability to tell stories with subtlety and gave audiences a greater sense of identification with the stars of the day.
The Rise of Individual Style
Different movie stars endorsed different products and were associated with different types of beauty or a different kind of attitude: Athletic, romantic, youthful, and so on. Fashion guides for women at this time began to suggest one should dress according to their personality type, a trend which would continue for decades after.
In the 1970s, trends moved away from dressing according to specific types and towards dressing more as an individual. Taking into mind age, preferred color palette, and the notion of “dressing for success” led to individuals cultivating wardrobes that more eclectically mixed statement pieces with carefully curated business attire.
“Style” became not only a way of dressing, but also a way of life in every aspect including what hobbies you pursue and, notably for businesses, what products you consume.
Numerous works of art in the 90s express and in some ways critique the way style during this time was, to some extent, commodified.
Modern Aesthetic in Fashion
In fashion, aesthetics has since been removed from its philosophical and regimented history to be used as a catch-all term to describe someone’s style. It can refer to specific styles of clothing, such as streetwear, or, more often, to full lifestyle movements like cottagecore, punk, and prep.
The notion of aesthetic is made alluring by its implication of being all-encompassing: The aesthetic experience refers not only to the clothes you wear but also your sense of decor, personal effects associated with you like plants or drinks. It can sometimes work as a mood board. It may reference a kind of experience or abstract passions like music, places such as coffee shops or libraries, or cultural centers.
In the modern sense, aesthetics has developed almost as a way of branding in a bid to instantly discern and classify style in the same way early philosophers sought to innately discern beauty. Detractors of its modern use in fashion and overall life believe that by seeking to classify everything, we strip away the role of an individual's personal taste when it comes to style.
Moving to Slow Fashion
One good aspect about modern aesthetics is that we as a culture are moving slowly away from fast fashion and consumerism to truly pay attention to what we invest in. With good design choices fit to meet anyone’s aesthetic sense readily available, the consumer is finally able to ask more of the manufacturer, and good designers listen to that desire.
More often, a brand's story—where they came from, how they got there, the individual detail they put into products, and the ethical business practices they pursue is an essential part of identity both for themselves and for the pride of their customers.
In the final analysis, while aesthetics were for a long time marked by consumption, a new phase in quality and accountability is beginning.
Essence and Esthetics
The word we’ve repeated so often here has gone through massive changes since its first introduction, both in its usage and in its meaning. Used broadly, your fashion aesthetic refers to an all-inclusive, quick categorization of your personal style and principle of taste.
Used with more discretion, your aesthetics refers to your sense of beauty and how this relates to fashion and art alike.
Whether you feel like the former gives you an easy understanding of your place in the world, or you prefer the more analytical approach of the latter, the evolution of aesthetics as a concept and as a real visual representation of culture will continue for as long as people admire the beauty around them.