What is Aesthetic? Definition, Origins, Types

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What is Aesthetic?

In its most fundamental sense, an aesthetic is a collection of visual and physical elements, including but not limited to patterns, motifs, colors, prints, shapes, silhouettes, and materials, used to create a distinctive look that represents a community, subculture, or an individual’s style.

Aesthetics are fundamental to several disciplines, such as fashion, arts, architecture, digital design, and music.

The Origin of Aesthetic

The term ‘aesthetic’ originates from the Greek word ‘aisthētikós,’ which translates as one’s perception or sensorial experience.

The term aesthetic can be used to describe any visual patterns, motifs, colors, and materials such as houndstooth, paisley, Fleur-de-lis, Argyle, plaid, hexagonal tiles, cashmere, Kente cloth patterns, Kanji calligraphy, etc.

Aesthetic Elements: Different types of patterns.
Different types of patterns.

Aesthetic patterns and motifs are more than decorative elements but the foundation of communities and cultures, serving as the visual language that communicates their history, values, and ideals.

Aesthetic Elements Across Centuries and Cultures

12th/16th Century – Gothic Aesthetic

Gothic architecture's pointed arches and intricate stonework, influence Goth fashion with sharp angles, elongated shapes, and dark materials like black velvet and lace.
Gothic architecture’s pointed arches and intricate stonework influenced Goth fashion with sharp angles, elongated shapes, and dark materials like black velvet and lace.

Emerging in the late Middle Ages, Gothic architecture’s pointed arches, ribbed vaults, stone carvings with motifs of religious iconography, and intricate lace-like stonework are the aesthetic roots of the Goth fashion style.

The pointed arches inspire the sharp angles and elongated shapes used in Goth clothing, while the dark atmosphere of Gothic buildings is seen in black velvet, lace, and embroidery.

17th/18th Century – Baroque Aesthetic

 Ornate details evoke drama, grandeur, and religious ambiance in various art forms of 17th-18th century Europe.
Ornate details evoke drama, grandeur, and religious ambiance in various art forms of 17th-18th century Europe.

The detailed and even exaggerated aesthetic elements like ornate patterns, gold accents, and intricate details of the Baroque architectural style produced drama, tension, and grandeur in sculpture, painting, literature, dance, and music.

The Baroque aesthetic is linked to creating the religious atmosphere of 17th and 18th-century Europe.

20th Century – Art Deco Aesthetic

Originating in the 1920s and 1930s, Art Deco architecture is known for geometric patterns, zigzags, streamlined forms, chrome and glass materials, and sunbursts and chevron motifs.

Originating in the 1920s and 1930s, Art Deco architecture and its geometric motifs influenced the 'Flapper' fashion of the Roaring Twenties.
Originating in the 1920s and 1930s, Art Deco architecture and its geometric motifs influenced the ‘Flapper’ fashion of the Roaring Twenties.

Art Deco aesthetic influenced the ‘Flapper’ look of the Roaring Twenties with the geometric patterns applied to dresses and angular shapes to accessories.

Mid 20th Century – Brutalist Aesthetic

In reaction to the ornate styles of the past, the mid-century Brutalist architectural aesthetic employs raw and unadorned use of concrete and glass to communicate a utilitarian philosophy.

Geometric shapes and lack of external decor are at the core of this style, often replicated in fashion as a minimalistic approach to design.

What Are Key Aesthetic Elements?

Patterns, motifs, shapes, silhouettes, colors, materials, and prints are all aesthetic elements.

Aesthetics are everywhere: in clothes, paintings, and architecture, and each discipline adds layers to how we see and interpret them.

Literary movements like Romanticism or Post-Modernism have their own aesthetics comprised of recurring themes, patterns, motifs, and ways of expression.

The aesthetic elements of Romantics are found in Bohemian fashion style through plant-based materials, floral patterns, flowing shapes, and natural colors, depicting freedom and love for nature.

Romantic aesthetics meet Bohemian fashion with plant-based materials, florals, flowy shapes, and earthy tones, conveying freedom and nature love.
Romantic aesthetics meet Bohemian fashion with plant-based materials, florals, flowy shapes, and earthy tones, conveying freedom and nature love.

Impressionism, Surrealism, and Abstract Expressionism each have unique aesthetics, be it the fleeting effects of light and color in Impressionism or the emotional rawness in Abstract Expressionism.

Surrealism aesthetics are found in the words of Salvador Dalí and designer Elsa Schiaparelli, as seen in absurd and fantastical creations like shoe-shaped hats or dresses patterned with lobsters.

Patterns like Chevron in the Palace of Versailles flooring reflect the Baroque era’s love for intricate details.

The Argyle pattern, rooted in Scottish heritage, is a crucial aesthetic element of the Preppy fashion style often found in sweaters and socks.

Argyle pattern rooted in Scottish heritage
Argyle pattern rooted in Scottish heritage.

The Fleur-de-lis motif, historically associated with French royalty, appears in modern art, fashion, and architecture to evoke elegance and sophistication.

The red terracotta of colonial American buildings made of bricks represents a key color and aesthetic in the Preppy fashion style, signaling durability and colonial heritage.

The hexagonal tiles found in Islamic architecture, like the Alhambra, serve functional needs for tessellation while embodying Islamic aesthetics that avoid portraying living beings.

hexagonal tiles in Islamic architecture
Hexagonal tiles in Islamic architecture.

The extensive use of glass in Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House exemplifies the modernist ideal of transparency and minimalism.

Cashmere, a material from the Kashmir region, signifies luxury and rarity, hence its use in high-end sweaters and scarves.

What Are the Different Types of Aesthetics Across Cultures?

Aesthetic elements like patterns, motifs, colors, shapes, and materials vary across cultures and subcultures like Harajuku aesthetics in Japan, Gothic aesthetics in the UK, and Preppy in the United States.

African Aesthetics

  • Patterns and Motifs: Dashikis, Kente cloth, Ashanti gold weights, Yoruba beadwork, Ndebele wall paintings
  • Colors: Burnt umber, ocher yellow, and cobalt blue
  • Materials: Cowrie shells, indigo-dyed cotton
  • Origin: Yoruba community in Nigeria and Benin

Japanese Aesthetics

  • Patterns and Motifs: Cherry blossom prints, Kanji calligraphy, Ukiyo-e woodblock prints,
  • Furisode shapes, Shinto shrines with “torii” gates
  • Colors: “Sakura” pink, “Sumi” black
  • Materials: Washi paper, tatami mats
  • Origin: Edo Period Japan

Indian Aesthetics

  • Patterns and Motifs: Kashmiri paisley, peacock feather designs, Lehengas with gold Zari work, Tanjore paintings, Taj Mahal marble work
  • Colors: “Rani” pink, emerald green
  • Materials: Zari embroidery, silk saris
  • Origin: Mughal Era, Northern India

Scandinavian Aesthetics

  • Patterns and Motifs: Herringbone and pine tree patterns, woolen knits, Finnish Aalto vases, Danish “hygge”
  • Colors: “Svart” black, “Is” white
  • Materials: Norwegian wool, Finnish birch wood
  • Origin: 20th-century Modernist Scandinavia

Latin American Aesthetics

  • Patterns and Motifs: Incan geometric patterns, “Sarape” stripes, Huichol yarn paintings, Oaxacan baroque motifs
  • Colors: Turquoise blue, ‘Copa’ red
  • Materials: Alpaca wool, agave fibers
  • Origin: Quechua and Aymara cultures in the Andes

What is the Role of Aesthetics in Fashion?

In fashion, styles such as Preppy or Bohemian represent complex assemblages of aesthetic elements depicting the subculture’s roots, values, lifestyle, and direction.

Depicting aristocracy and tradition, the Preppy fashion style is deeply rooted in the Ivy League academic subculture, which draws aesthetic inspiration from British culture through patterns like argyle or plaid, materials like wool or tweed, and navy, cream, and green colors.

Preppy fashion draws from Ivy League culture with British-inspired patterns, wool materials, and navy, cream, and green colors.
Preppy fashion draws from Ivy League culture with British-inspired patterns, wool materials, and navy, cream, and green colors.

Likewise, the Bohemian fashion style depicts a free-spirited life void of financial pursuit.

The look is built on garments made of cotton and linen adorned with Persian paisley and floral patterns inspired by the ’70s Flower Power movement and Buddhist Mandala motifs.

So whether you’re looking at the casual-chic French Riviera style with clothes in nautical stripes and from natural materials like linen or the gloomy look of Gothic fashion style in dark garments and silver embellishments, each fashion style is built on aesthetic origins, each carrying unique meanings and cultural narratives.

The Role of Aesthetics in Fashion Design

There’s no fashion design without aesthetic elements.

The fashion design journey starts with conceptualizing a garment or accessory rooted in aesthetic principles.

The selection of materials, patterns, and motifs is not just functional; above everything, it serves as a medium to communicate an aesthetic heritage and the designer’s vision.

From ideation to runway, every stitch and seam is a narrative depicted through aesthetic elements found in clothes, accessories, footwear, and complete outfits.

Key Fashion Designers and Their Use of Aesthetics

Alexander McQueen

McQueen was renowned for its unique blends of Gothic aesthetic elements with British patterns and materials from the Tudor era.

Royal blue skull motifs, feathers, butterflies, and ornate embellishments like brocade are mixed with luxurious silk and velvet in crimson red and distressed leather to evoke contrast.

Christian Dior

In another example of aesthetic use, Christian Dior’s New Look was a reaction against the austerity of World War II by drawing inspiration from the French Belle Époque aesthetics of exaggerated femininity.

Floral motifs were applied to layers of luxurious fabrics like silk and taffeta in soft pinks and whites to accentuate femininity and detailed handmade beading.

Vivienne Westwood

Spearheading the dressing style of the British Punk subculture, Vivienne Westwood’s designs incorporate aesthetic elements from 18th-century British and Scottish attire.

Distressed and deconstructed tartan plaids in bright reds and yellows were combined with provocative graphic prints and accessorized with chains and safety pins.

Coco Chanel

Chanel’s creations combine aesthetic elements from World War I – particularly from nautical and military uniforms, and patterns from the Art Deco movement, emphasizing streamlined geometric forms.

Houndstooth and quilted patterns, jersey fabric, and tweed are always found around simple palettes of black, beige, and white, reflecting the Art Deco emphasis on simplicity and function.

Issey Miyake

Miyake’s work showcases motifs from the Japanese concept of “Ma” (negative space), the art of origami with its intricate, geometric shapes.

These patterns are found in Miyake’s pleating and folding that resembles three-dimensional forms, neutral and monochromatic colors, and an occasional pop of deep indigo in a nod to traditional Japanese dyeing techniques.

Yves Saint Laurent

Saint Laurent’s creations showcase a rare blend of aesthetics from the French colonial uniforms, Russian folk embroiders, and Moroccan patterns and motifs.

Lush furs and velvet, silk, and satin in deep purple, gold, and red were inspired by the work of artists like Piet Mondrian and Vincent van Gogh and turned into garments reflecting a blend of French tailoring with global aesthetics.

What is the Future of Aesthetics

As we move further into the 21st century, the concept of aesthetics will continue to evolve, adapting to technological innovations and shifts in global consciousness.

The focus will be on creating experiences that are not only visually stimulating but also aware of the broader social and environmental impacts.

Future of Aesthetic smart textiles

Advances in Artificial Intelligence, Virtual Reality, and Augmented Reality will offer new canvases and mediums for aesthetic expression.

New patterns will emerge from interactivity, three-dimensional designs, dynamic motifs that change in real-time, smart textiles, and biotech materials like lab-grown leather.

The digital medium will allow a new range of iridescent colors and neon hues.

Final Takeaways

Present in fashion, architecture, art, literature, or the digital world, aesthetics are an intricate tapestry of subcultural threads comprised of patterns, motifs, colors, and materials.

From Coco Chanel’s monastic austerity patterns to the dizzying complexity of Art Nouveau architecture, aesthetic elements are vital stories of our cultural and individual identities.

Understanding aesthetics is not just an intellectual exercise; it’s a prerequisite for anyone involved in the creative process, be it fashion design, arts, or architecture.

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After years of managing hundreds of fashion brands from London's office of a global retailer, Mandy has ventured into freelancing. Connected with several fashion retailers and media platforms in the US, Australia, and the UK, Mandy uses her expertise to consult for emerging fashion brands create top-notch content as an editorial strategist for several online publications.

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