The genius of fashion illustration

by Tiffany Tivasuradej

David Downton (his Vanity Fair portraits are pictured here), Antonio Lopez, Isao Yajima, and Tony Viramonte  – what do these people have in common? Fashion. More specifically, fashion illustration. Perhaps best defined as a combination of painting, illustration and drawing, fashion illustration is used as a method of communicating certain emotions, themes and ideas. It’s apparent in our everyday lives, whether it be via museums, magazines, the television, or inside a clothing shop. From vividly colored dresses to a simple, but elegant, sketch of a lace collar, fashion illustration aims to increase the value given to the garment and to increase the popularity of its brand.

The origins of fashion illustration is unclear, although there have been traces of it during the late 1800s and the early 1900s. During that time, fashion illustration was described as “stiff as society”. It was sophisticated, decorative and representative of the upper class, but it lacked individuality in that pretty much all of the illustrations were based on a particular style, that being the Gibson Girl ideal. These illustrations started to appear in magazines such as Vogue during the 1920 to 1930s. Afterwards, fashion illustration changed from an overly decorative and complex style to a more simplistic and feminine look, as a result of the Second World War; the economic depression created bankruptcy among the general population, meaning that families could not afford to buy delicately designed pieces of clothing. With each successive decade, the style of fashion illustration shifted continuously, from Pop Art in the 1960s, neon colors during the 1970 to 1980s, to today’s digitally enhanced designs. Today, fashion illustration is seen as a culmination of various historical and modern styles, undoubtedly providing the illustrator with great flexibility when designing.

Fashion illustration allows the garment to communicate different ideas and meanings from the illustrator to the individual. It can tell a story about the social situation apparent during the illustrator’s time, as seen in the Gibson girl by Charles Dana Gibson, who tried to portray the ideal female body figure and appearance during the Victorian period.  On the other hand, fashion silhouettes may also be symbolic of a particular desire that prevailed in the society at that time. The silhouettes created by Christian Dior after the Second World War, for instance, aimed to bring optimism and hope for a better future to the society. Moreover, illustrations reflect the illustrator’s own style and personality. Thus, they can be seen as a way of transcending the individual.

Illustrations are also used to market and advertising the products of fashion houses. Popular magazines today, such as Vogue, Elle and Harper’s Bazaar, are commonly filled with illustrations from numerous well-known brands. For example, the luxury department store, Neiman Marcus, always has a beautifully illustrated winter catalogue every year. It helps beautify the garment, tempting more and more individuals to buy the product. This subsequently helps the company develop status and popularity, as well as identity with that brand’s particular style of clothing.

Drawings and paintings can also help illustrate the historical elements of fashion. By looking back at the designs of different periods, individuals can identify, not only what styles of clothing were popular at that particular time, but also how it has developed into what the modern outlook of fashion appears to be today. With regards to development, it is appropriate to suggest that fashion illustration helps to portray the advancement of technology, where designs have developed from the simple pencil and paper approach to the computer-aided ones today.

In summary, fashion illustration is portrayed as a combination of multiple forms of art. It has had a long and continuously shifting history, and it is undeniable that it is still changing today. In terms of its purpose, it can generally be understood as a marketing tool utilised by fashion companies to promote their clothing, in the hopes that people will purchase them in order to establish identity and status. On a deeper level, it can be understood as more than just a way of representing a particular piece of garment. It is a method of communication that reveals particular ideas, beliefs and values to the individual that can often help transport them back into the inner world of the illustrator. Thus, fashion illustrates serves a dual purpose – a functional one: to sell, and a more internal one: to facilitate a social experience for the individual.

Photograph: Imprint

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