Polygence blog / Student Spotlights

High School Research Student Alexia finds her passion for historical fashion design

10 minute read

Alexia is a rising sophomore from Danville, CA who studied historical fashion design with her Polygence mentor, Katharina. Before her project, Alexia dabbled in sewing, but after working closely with Katharina, she has developed her technical drawing skills into a powerful tool for bringing her designs to life. Through guided readings, film analyses, history lessons, and engaging discussions, Alexia has also developed a broad understanding of fashion designs from different historical periods which interest her. Her Polygence project solidified her passion for the history of fashion, and she hopes to become an academic who can study this field in depth. You can read more about Alexia’s Polygence experience in the interview below.

How did you get interested in fashion design and historical fashion? Did you have any experience with design before your project?

When I was really young, I used to watch a lot of Agatha Christie films and TV. I always loved these stories, and as I got older, I started noticing and becoming interested in the costumes in these pieces. This drew me more into costume design and historical design. I was just starting out with sewing before I took on my Polygence project. It was interesting to work on by myself, but I didn't really know what I was doing. So I came into my project with a basic understanding of sewing and I really liked history, but I couldn't really communicate my design ideas. I certainly didn't know how to sew these really elaborate costumes, so being able to draw them was a really important next step for me. I wasn’t expecting Polygence to have mentors for costume design or fashion, but then they did! I got matched with my mentor Katharina, who has been amazing to work with.

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What did a typical session with Katharina look like? What assignments did she give you for outside of session?

My homework each week consisted of a variety of activities. I would do about nine sketches, and we’d start our sessions by discussing them. Katharina would give me readings about how certain clothes were constructed, when they were popular, and what they meant to people in the time period. Each week I’d also watch a movie set in a certain time period and analyze the costumes. Katharina would give a history lesson each session, where she would teach me more about the time periods. Like for the 1860s, she taught me more about crinolines and corsets, and for the 1890s she taught me more about belle skirts and the distinct silhouette found in the 1890s.

I've taken a lot of classes where the whole thing has just been readings, or just sewing. It’s great to have that chance to refine one skill, but—in order to get everything I wanted to learn from Polygence—doing all of these different kinds of exercises really helped me. I'm not going to lie and say it was easy—there was a lot of reading to do, there was a lot of sketching to do, and it was quite an undertaking to sit down and get it all done, but it was so beneficial to me.

What kind of feedback did you receive from Katharina each session?

She would give me feedback on my drawings and how to make them more realistic, proportionate, or just better. For example, she might say the shoulders on this sketch need to be higher, because it doesn't make sense for the shoulders to be at the same place as the bust. She’d also give me advice about costuming in general—taking the set into consideration, matching costumes with characters, how you want the fit and the colors to look—any little tips or general insights into costuming or fashion.

How did you and Katharina put together your portfolio of sketches for your final project?

This portfolio is meant to show how my sketching skills progressed throughout my ten sessions. For the first session, Katharina just wanted me to sketch what I knew. So I took a picture off of the internet of some Victorian ladies and men walking and sketched them front, side, back. This was to see what I knew about sketching coming in. Then as we started to go on, and I learned about actual proportions, we started to see a lot of improvement in my sketches, and we thought it'd be really interesting if we compiled them from start to finish. You can see where I started, from basically tracing something off of my laptop, and how I progressed to finding the right proportions and seeing where things would actually hit on the body, to trying to find seams and where things would go.

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How has studying historical fashion influenced how you think about fashion in the present?

I think it has made me think about how modern styles are directly influenced by the past. There's no real change—they just get recycled. For example, I recently read an article about the 2020 Spring Summer fashion trends. I saw a lot of corsetry, and more boning in tops. These corsets wouldn't be worn underneath things—they would basically be the top. It was cool to see that, because they were really similar to corsets in the past. Although they might change placement, they might not be underneath three other layers of clothing now, they're really similar to corset designs in 1860.

What kind of advice would you give a student who's about to start their Polygence project? How can they make the most of the one-on-one learning model?

One thing that was super important was asking the right questions. For my project, there were a lot of elements that we wanted to jam into the 10 sessions—I wanted to learn more about what it's like on set, the actual costume design, how to sketch, and also the history of fashion. It was really difficult to narrow it down to what I actually wanted to do, so it was super important to ask the right questions to get us on track. I think as long as you're willing to absorb everything you can and try your best, you'll figure out where you’re going and get the most out of the experience.

How has Polygence influenced your plans for the future?

Now, I definitely know that I want to do historical costume design, and not so much contemporary design. I was already really interested in fashion design, and when I started Polygence, I was trying to figure out whether I wanted to do historical or contemporary design. Katherina had done some of both, so that ended up working out perfectly. I think in the first session, she started talking about each one, to help us get to know each other and to figure out where I wanted to go with this project. I think in that first session, I was still sort of unsure, but I just went with historical costume design, because it sounded like there was just more to see in that, and I'm really glad I chose that because although I was on the fence when I started Polygence, now I'm absolutely certain that I want to do something with history or historical design.

How do you imagine historical fashion design will play into your future career?

I think costume design is really cool. I think that's the most obvious opportunity I could go into— it’s definitely the thing you'd expect when you do historical fashion, to hop into a theater and do costumes for Shakespeare's plays or whatnot. That's really interesting, and I love that idea. But at the same time, I really want to be able to study history super in depth. I would love to become an academic, work at a university and study fashion from classical Greece or whatever historical era. It’d be really cool to take what is unknown about historical fashion and try to uncover it.

How was your learning experience with Polygence different from your experiences in school or with other learning services?

It's so specific! I could probably say, I'd love to learn about marine biology, and Polygence would respond with yeah sure, what specifically? Do you want to work with a specialist in frogs? Whales? I think it’s really amazing and important to have that sort of specificity. Just the amount of topics that I could go into, and having control over what I was doing, was really interesting. It was a really hands-on experience, and any questions I had were answered by my mentor in a super direct and helpful way. It felt like I had more freedom and control over what I was learning, as opposed to having it written out for me and then getting work every week.

What are the most important skills you've developed throughout your fashion design project? If another student is interested in fashion design, what could they hope to learn through Polygence?

For me, the basics of sketching was definitely the most important. I was really hesitant to make that my goal because I thought, it’s just drawings—what can you really get from drawings if it's not real? But I actually learned more about a dress from sketching it than I would reading 300 books about it. Sketching is visual without being real and permanent, so you can mess around with so many different things. It's so valuable to me to have that. Now I can transfer the ideas in my head to paper, and see if they’re actually possible. Since Katharina has taught me how to sketch technical drawings that show where seams are and how embellishments would be put on and whatnot, I can already see that my sewing has gotten a lot better. Now I have more understanding of how things will lay on a person.

Sketching was super important to me, but if you’re doing fashion design, you can also learn the basics of sewing, like what a seam is, or if you're doing history, just a general idea of fashion throughout the historical eras. Polygence is great because you can always start with the basics, and then go a lot deeper into what exactly you are trying to learn.

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