Designing Gestures in Fashion

The goal of a fashion designer is not just to make an appealing garment, but to make the wearer look appealing too. When making any assessment of the quality of a garment, and its ability to flatter the wearer or express a particular set of values, we tend to consider static features such as cut and colour. We often neglect to consider the style of motion that is enabled when a particular garment is worn, and how much that contributes to the messages transmitted as the garment is worn.

When we consider icons of cool, such as James Dean or James Bond, we don’t just associate their ‘cool’ appearance with their wardrobes,  but also with their posture and gestures. Their idiosyncratic gestures are an essential part of that cool. Many of those gestures are enabled by what they wear. Consider, Clint Eastwood tipping his hat, or James Dean throwing his jacket over his shoulder.

James Dean, costumed for Rebel Without a Cause (1955). Here he adopts a pose that is dependent on the style of his clothes, using his pockets to rest his hands, and so to shape his body posture.

James Dean, costumed for Rebel Without a Cause (1955). Here he adopts a pose that is dependent on the style of his clothes, using his pockets to rest his hands, and so to shape his body posture.

My colleague, fashion designer Nicola De Main argues for the value of pockets, not only as useful receptacles, but as a means of directing her models to adopt particular poses. “When you put your hands in your pockets, the body changes” she says. “You tend to become less vertical… and tilt your hips”. This pose creates an air of nonchalance, and causes the wearer to emit a relaxed “coolness”.

A model poses nonchalantly with her hands in her pockets, in a dress by Nicola DeMain.

A model poses nonchalantly with her hands in her pockets, in a dress by Nicola DeMain.

Design researcher Annalisa Dominoni (2015) suggests that designers create “not just objects but the gestures and uses people might make of them”. When designing, it is worth considering the ways in which wearers’ moving bodies will interact with the garment. People do not just stand still and upright like mannequins. They move and pose, and those movements and postures are informed, enabled, or even prompted by the features of what they are wearing. Perhaps the most obvious historical example is the hobble skirt, worn in conjunction with a hobble garter – garments which, as their names suggest,  are designed to force the wearer to walk with short, dainty steps.

A garment can be designed to encourage and accommodate pleasing or expressive gestures, not just because of function or experience of wearing, but as an extension of the appearance of the garment for the audience. It is possible to contribute to the potential meanings of the garment, by encouraging it to be placed in the context of a meaningful gesture. This includes movement performed while wearing, and also while dressing and undressing. Unzipping is an erotic gesture, because it forces the wearer to caress the contours of her body; A zipped dress, therefore, invites an erotic gesture. The designer can consider this when deciding where to place the zip, and by extension, what curves he/she wants the hand to caress when undressing.


The gesture of grasping the ends of the collar with both hands is an expressive action performed frequently by models who seek to express edgy aloofness. Without collars on their clothes, they would be unable to perfom this gesture, and hence unable to express this particular nonverbal message.

It may be helpful to learn from costume designers, who readily acknowledge that there is a close relationship between the style of a performer’s movement and the costume that he or she wears. The work of costume designer Sonia Biacchi (below), or Hussein Chalayan’s Gravity Fatigue, illustrate the extent to which costume and choreography can inseparable. “Garments may be designed to help determine the amount, type, and overall pattern of movement” (Brockett et al. 2016: 427), and costumes are often designed in consultation with the choreographer (McMullen et/ all, 2000: 31).

This is true not only of dance and theatre performances, where extravagant garments accompany equally extravagant gestures, but also of film and television, where apparently everyday garments play a signficiant role in determining gestures. In the case of James Bond, those costume-driven gestures have become integral to the character. Bond’s tailored suit, worn in action sequences as well as more sedate scenes, allows those scenes to be punctuated with meaningful and idiosyncratic gestures that we have come to associate with his character. In Skyfall (dir. Sam Mendez, 2012) Bond concludes an action sequence by jumping onto a moving train and then straightening his cuffs. The gesture reaffirms Bond’s unshakable demeanor, and is repeated in publicity shots for the film.

Bond’s use of clothing in expressive gesture can be seen in all incarnations of the character. In the image below, Connery’s Bond is shown loosening his tie. For a character who is so skilled at concealing his true emotions by keeping a straight face, the tie-loosening gesture is a way of revealing his inner frustration.


James Bond loosens his tie, a gesture that is no possible with a clip-on. This gesture has been used by filmmakers to express a range of emotions from fatigue to relief, and so the design of the tie is an important tool in enabling visible expression of internal emotions.


Brockett, O. G., Robert J Ball, R. J., Flemming, J. and Carlson, A. (2016) The Essential Theatre, 11th Edition, Boston: Cengage Learning.

Domonini, A. (2015), For Designers with their Head Beyond the Clouds [ebook], Santarcangelo di Romagna: Maggioli.

McMullen, S., Brightman, A. and Jaycox, H. (2015) Making Gestural frequencies”, in R. S. Adams, P. Buzzanell, and J. Siddiqui (eds), Analyzing Design Review Conversations, Purdue University Press, pp. 31-58.

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