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It’s that time of year again — when the intricate fashion at the Met Gala transforms the walkway into a series of gorgeous demonstrations of physics, engineering, and mathematics that I never learned at school.
I’m a physicist, and dress in fancy ballgowns whenever I give public science talks. My current research project is figuring out landslides on asteroids, helping keep future robotic explorers safe from mishaps. I also work in the entertainment industry, figuring out how to insert plausible astronomy into a romantic comedy about the end of the world.
But I also got my first sewing machine when I was 6 years old, and my stash of yarn is both a treasured collection and raw material to feed my weaving and knitting. I’ve dabbled in crochet, flirted with needle felting, and have a complete set of tools for hooking rugs. I’ve yet to meet a textile art I don’t want to try at least once.
This pairing of interests has given me insight into how textile arts are another application of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Sometimes it’s blatant — I knit a hat featuring the home mountain range of the first landslide I studied, and my big brother burst out laughing when I gave him a binary-encoded scarf — but all of it is essential to understanding what’s going on in the creation of a gorgeous couture gown.
Think of it this way: Engineering is classically a field of bridges, buildings, ball bearings, and machines. But it’s also fundamental in transforming flat sheets of fabric, piles of feathers, and strings of beads into gorgeous gowns. Material science, geometry, kinematics, strength, structure, and cloth dynamics are all essential theory for successful fashion design.
Fabric starts as a flat sheet — pure Euclidean geometry, familiar from high school math classes, where the three angles of a triangle sum to 180°. But once cut, the flat pieces are sewn together to create curved shapes, entering the realm of non-Euclidean geometry where triangles are not so tidily contained.
SZA’s dusty rose tulle confection is the perfect example: those layers of ruffles and floof must have taken countless yards of fabric to take an inherently thin fabric and creating a near-solid block of skirt.
Transforming between Euclidean and non-Euclidean geometry is essential for, say, taking the straight pinstriped fabric of Michael B. Jordan’s suit, crafting it into curves yet still reading as straight lines.
Understanding how to create contours out of flat pieces gets even more impressive when designers incorporate heavy, drooping material, like the intense beaded swirls of Rihanna’s gown, where the material is entirely coated and yet still holds its draping shape familiar from more flowing fabrics. This grows even more impressive when viewed from the front, when her strapless sweetheart corset requires hidden engineering substructure to not just look good, but also firmly stay in place, preserving her coverage.
Fabric is such a complicated material that it has its own field of study: cloth dynamics. The bane of visual effects companies rendering cloth for movies or video games, real-life cloth is just as challenging when it comes to creating long, trailing trains like the one that chased Olivia Munn’s form-fitting golden gown, which was made even more complicated by requiring the same material hug tight for the bodice yet flow freely along the floor. Lili Reinhart’s flowing train looks more like water than fabric, yet that delicate silver fabric drapes entirely differently when angled and cut for her skirts and sleeves. Diane Kruger’s trail demonstrates yet another set of tactics, using a more structured fabric that can hold intricate folds at the expense of a stiffer flow along the entry stairs.
Zoe Kravitz’s barely-there lace held together with thin straps bows is another physics-defying look. Even assuming hidden tapes and glues, the deceptive delicacy requires full mastery of material science to avoid catastrophe.
A rule of fashion is that structure is key to many looks. A good designer incorporates fabric properties like bias and grain to achieve their desired look, but the real structural engineering is hidden from view. Frances McDormand’s cerulean blue gown is deceptively simple, yet is dependent in understanding how the fibre was woven in order to hold its artful folds. The feathering teal fascinator is even more complicated, requiring an optical illusions read as airy yet simultaneously holding the strength to keep the entire structure from collapsing in her face.
Mixing materials ups the challenge level. Katy Perry’s golden minidress with a layer of netting is complicated enough to match drape between materials, but the overwhelmingly enormous angel wings must involve full-blown architectural-style blueprints to ensure they keep their shape without drooping or tipping sideways over the evening.
The engineering challenge of fashion is compounded by the inherent kinematics of the problem — even haute couture needs to be dynamic, moving with models as they walk and pose. In a more involved situation like the Met Gala, the fashions need to be even more robust as celebrities tackle stairways, twist for photographers, and talk with colleagues.
The science involved in a gown goes beyond building the dress. Aesthetic theory borrows heavily from mathematics and optics, with artists using Fibonacci sequences, golden ratios, and optical illusions to craft pleasing styles. When I watch the the grand entrance for the Met Gala, I’m seeing not just incredible creative fashions, but masterwork projects created by stealthy engineers hiding in the fashion industry.
People rarely think about the engineering of gowns, or of fashion at all. This is part of a larger problem of treating traditionally feminine interests as non-science-related. Baking is practical chemistry, knitting is manual programming, makeup is about crafting optical illusions, and adjusting pattern sizes relies on algebra.
But gowns never appear alongside the ubiquitous thrown baseball in physics books, or pop up as exam questions. Understanding how to transform flat materials into complex three-dimensional shapes is just as challenging to spacial reasoning, and understanding how to adjust patterns to meet your own body is far more challenging than most tests I took in school.
That’s a silver lining in disguise — I’d break into a cold sweat if faced with a final exam question on the engineering behind Evan Rachel Wood’s feathery golden sequined cape. Even Doutzen Kroes’ ombre affair of folds, drapes, ruching, and train is a complex system I’m happy to admire without calculating out the math that makes it possible.