Distance Learning Apparel Design Degree Program Information

Dec 12, 2019

Find out about online fashion design courses and in which degree programs they're most commonly offered. Get course descriptions, program info and online requirements to make an informed decision.

Essential Information

Apparel or fashion design degree programs are very uncommon in an online format, but they do exist. These programs can be completed fully online, but students typically need to purchase or have access to a list of materials in addition to a computer, which include different types of sewing machines, measuring tools, fabrics, a digital camera and Adobe Creative Suite. Prospective online students should know that a fashion design curriculum involves a heavy amount of practical work and consider whether attending a campus-based program and having access to facilities would be beneficial.

Students who prefer online learning and have access to a workspace and necessary equipment may choose from associate, bachelor's and master's degree programs; at least one online program is available at each level. A portfolio demonstrating design talent may be required for admissions, especially for advanced programs. Students may want to inquire if online programs require or offer voluntary internships, since experience is essential to obtaining a job in the apparel design field. Additionally, master's degree programs are available for those holding an undergraduate degree, and these programs typically culminate in a master's thesis.

Associate Degree in Fashion Design

Online options leading to Associate of Arts in Fashion Design are limited, but are available to students looking to begin their education in apparel design. Students must have a high school diploma or a GED to enroll in an online AA program in fashion design. Students should also be creative and interested in artistic pursuits, since the bulk of the curriculum is devoted to the design and construction of garments. This technical coursework is supplemented by some introductory business and management courses, which students will need to survive in the highly competitive fashion industry.

Program Information and Requirements

Most online associate's degree programs in fashion design can be completed in two years, provided the student is enrolled full time. Typically, there are no on-campus requirements and students complete all of their coursework remotely. Relying on discussion boards and online conferencing software, students interact with their classmates and professors in a virtual classroom setting. They use email to submit assignments and can communicate with their professors and advisors via e-mail or phone. Online videos and interactive slideshows are also used to give lectures and demonstrate techniques.

In order to learn the practical design and construction skills covered in an online associate's degree program, students need specialized tools and equipment. In addition to photo editing software, such as Adobe Photoshop or a Web-based application like Picnik, students must purchase a digital camera, a printer and a scanner to document their projects. Other required equipment includes sewing machines, dress forms, irons and an array of fabric, notions and tools, as needed for projects.

Course Topics

At the associate level, the curriculum for an online fashion design program includes courses on practical sewing and garment construction skills, fundamental business concepts and design theory. Over the course of the program, students will compile a professional portfolio of projects they've completed for their classes.

Fashion Illustration

A course in fashion illustration teaches students how to draw the human body and how to use techniques like blind contour drawing and bold line drawing to accurately portray garment designs. Students in online associate degree programs typically take several consecutive fashion illustration courses.


Covering both hand- and machine-sewing techniques, an introductory sewing course teaches students to use basic patterns and assemble basic garments. Students also learn to use an array of different stitches, seams and finishing techniques.

Fashion Business

A fashion business course at the associate's level gives students a basic understanding of the structure and function of the fashion industry. Coursework examines the relationship between elements of the fashion world, including textile design, clothing manufacturing, market research, advertising strategy and retail management. The course also introduces various career paths in the industry.

Fashion Design

Developing a line of clothing requires extensive research and planning, which students learn in this course. Students design a clothing collection, using visual research to help define their concept and keep the collection cohesive. Using the skills learned in their fashion illustration course, students present their collections as a series of figure drawings called croquis.

Patterning and Garment Construction

Often taken in the last semester of the program, a construction and draping course teaches students to create a garment without a pattern. Typically, the coursework includes draping and fitting a garment on a dress form, drafting basic flat patterns and manipulating existing patterns to alter the style of the finished garment.

Bachelor's Degree in Fashion Design

Students interested in a Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) in Fashion Design have a small number of online options. Most online BFA programs accept transfer credits if a student has already completed an associate degree in the field. Students who hold a bachelor's degree in another field may transfer all general education credits.

BFA programs emphasize hands-on training in the design of clothing collections with supplemental coursework in art history, textile science, design technology and business administration. Fashion students develop an array of creative and technical skills, as well as an understanding of important theories, trends and practices in the fashion industry.

Program Information and Requirements

Online BFA programs comprise four years of coursework and are offered fully online. Students use interactive forums to discuss course materials and concepts with classmates and instructors. While many courses have set schedules and deadlines for each unit, students can ask questions, participate in discussions and complete assignments at their own pace. In addition to textbook readings, online BFA programs often incorporate instructional videos and slideshows as part of the fashion design curriculum.

Students must have a digital camera, a flatbed scanner and a color printer, as well as photo editing and design software, such as Adobe's Creative Suite package (usually CS4 or higher). This equipment is used to put together photos and scans of their finished assignments to submit for grading. They must also have access to a full range of sewing equipment, including domestic and industrial sewing machines, adjustable dress forms, a sewing table and a full set of measuring tools. Students will be expected to purchase the fabric and notions they need for their class projects.

Course Topics

Nearly half of the coursework for a typical online BFA in Fashion Design comprises practical courses in illustrating, designing and constructing garments. The remainder of the coursework covers art and design history, business and professional skills as well as general education requirements.

Intermediate Fashion Design

At the bachelor's level, a fashion design course teaches students to develop a design philosophy and effectively convey artistic perspectives in a collection. Students hone their illustrating skills, learn about pricing structures, study international fashion markets and practice targeting collections to specific demographics. In the final year, online fashion design courses are typically devoted to students' senior portfolios, which they use to land jobs in the industry.

Intermediate Patterning and Garment Construction

Patterning and garment construction courses at this level teach students advanced tailoring techniques, as well as advanced draping skills, which include fabric-specific draping techniques. Intermediate patterning and garment construction courses, especially during the last year of the online BFA program, are often devoted to the construction of the garments for the student's senior portfolio.

Advanced Fashion Illustration

Because many fashion designers work with a team, they must be able to communicate their ideas clearly. Building on what a student has learned in introductory illustration classes, an advanced illustration course teaches students to refine their fashion figure drawing, convey design details clearly and render accurate representations of specific fabrics and materials.

Fiber Technology

Choice of textiles is a central consideration for any fashion collection. Fiber technology courses teach students about the specific properties of the fabrics they use in their designs. Students learn about the weave structure, fiber content and performance of a variety of natural and manufactured fabrics.

Computer-aided Design

While many designers still use non-digital media to render their original concept, they often transfer designs to a digital format, allowing easy alterations and adjustments. In a course on computer-aided design, students learn to use layout, photo editing and illustration software, typically from the latest Adobe Creative Suite package.

Master's Degree in Fashion Design

Fashion design students, who hold a bachelor's degree, may pursue a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) through the few online programs available. To enroll in an online MFA program, students must provide transcripts from their bachelor's degree program, evidence of professional experience in the fashion industry and a professional portfolio.

Coursework in an MFA program builds on the skills learned at the bachelor's level, offering advanced training in designing haute couture collections, mastering complex construction techniques and cultivating a cohesive design philosophy. Most online MFA programs culminate in a master's thesis project, comprising of a clothing collection that demonstrates conceptual and technical mastery of fashion design.

Program Information and Requirements

Typically, online fashion design MFA programs require three years, with the final year dedicated to the development of a student's thesis project. Coursework is completed remotely and students interact with classmates and professors via online forums and conferencing software. Because much of the MFA coursework is focused on the master's thesis, students should expect to communicate often with their thesis advisor. Students use e-mail to submit photos and scans of their completed assignments for review.

Online MFA students typically have access to the materials and equipment required, since they're expected to have professional fashion design experience. In addition to having access to industrial and domestic sewing machines, students need a well-equipped workspace in which to draft, cut, fit and construct projects. Technical requirements include design software, such as Adobe's Creative Suite package, which is used to prepare documentation of their assignments. Students must also acquire materials necessary for garments construction.

Courses Topics

The bulk of the coursework for an online MFA in Fashion Design comprises design and construction exercises, both for class-specific projects and for the cumulative thesis collection. In addition, students have a few general education requirements, typically related to the student's chosen area of concentration for the thesis project.

Advanced Fashion Design

A graduate-level course on fashion design focuses on fleshing out students' individual design philosophies. Students explore the influences and inspirations behind their choices of materials, proportions, silhouettes, color palettes and design details. The class also includes in-depth examination of international fashion markets and demographics.

Advanced Patterning and Garment Construction

Building on existing patterning and construction skills, this advanced course focuses on complex 3-dimensional patterns for bodices, shirts, trousers and skirts. Students learn to drape these complex garments while taking into account prints or stripes that must be carefully aligned in the final garment.

Directed Study

In directed study courses, students develop, research, document, design and construct their collections for the master's thesis project, with assistance from an advisor. Roughly one third of the coursework in an online MFA program is given over to directed study credits.

Career Information

With an associate's degree in fashion design, students are prepared to join a design firm in an entry-level position. Because competition is quite tough in the fashion industry, students may choose to intern, for little or no pay, at a design company, to gain some job experience and make professional connections. Entry-level positions with a fashion studio include sketching assistants and pattern makers. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimated that the bottom ten percent of people who work as fashion designers, including entry-level designers, were making $36,420 a year, as of May 2018 (www.bls.gov).

Graduates with a BFA in Fashion Design enter a very competitive job market, and as such, getting a good job depends not only on the degree, but also the quality of a portfolio and professional connections. This high level of competition is not expected to change. The BLS has predicted that job prospects for fashion designers will show little or no change between 2018-2028. The BLS reported that the average salary for a fashion designer, as of May 2018, was $87,610 annually.

Graduates with an MFA in Fashion Design may choose to enter the industry as an independent designer, opening a private design studio, or pursue a position as a designer for a design house. Most job opportunities for fashion designers are located in large cities, like New York, Los Angeles, London, Paris and Milan, where there are larger fashion industries.

The BLS reported that 24% of designers managed their own design firms as of May 2018. Upper-level design positions at a high-end fashion house, which likely fall in the top ten percent of the wage bracket, could earn an annual salary of $155,470, according to the BLS.

Though apparel design is very hands-on by definition, there are options for students who wish to pursue a degree in this field online, both at the BFA and MFA levels. An extensive list of home materials and electronic devices would be necessary for those studying through distance learning.

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