2.3 Fashion illustration

The purpose of the exercise was to use research to answer the question: is there a difference between the imagery created by the fashion illustrators from the early twentieth century to the 1950s and those since the 1990s?

Key words from the brief:

  • Research historic and contemporary examples of fashion illustration
  • Has fashion illustration changed over this period or is it the fashion of illustration that’s changed?
  • What about the missing decades of the 1960s, 70s and 80s?

Historic and contemporary examples of fashion illustration

A definition of fashion illustration

Fashion illustration has two functions.

The first is functional. For the fashion designer it’s a way visualising ideas, either as part of the design development process or to communicate the look and feel of a piece of clothing once designs have been completed as part of the manufacturing process.

The second function is persuasive or editorial. For the clothing label, distributor or supplier, fashion illustration is about grabbing the attention of customers and potential customers, exciting their interest and communicating enough about the function and form of a design to make them purchase the product whilst staying true or working within the boundaries of a broader brand, label or house style. For the fashion editor it provides an interesting way to support articles and other forms of editorial content.

A brief history of fashion in the 20th Century

The first decade of the 20th Century saw a change from the ridgid Victorian fashion of the late 1800s, with restrictive bone corsets and S-shaped profiles moving towards a more natural figure. It’s perhaps no coincidence that the Edwardian era was also the period of increasing activism from the Suffragette movement with women taking more control over their role in society.

The First World War (1914 to 1918) had a huge influence on fashion and crystalised the move away from restrictive formal dress into more comfortable free flowing practical clothing.

Fig 1 – Florrie Westwood, fashion design, London

The 1920s saw a further shift in attitude. Young women, self confident after the experience of the war sought to break from the conservative dress of the previous generation. Hair and dress lengths became shorter and designs simpler.

This post war period saw the emergence of the Art Nouveau movement as a reaction to the war and heavy industrialisation with an ornamental organic style that heavily influenced illustrators and designers of the time.

In 1929 the stock market crash fostered in a era of austerity; the great depression started in the United States and lasted for a decade. The effect on fashion in the 1930s was to simplify and become more feminine.

The 1940s was another decade of massive upheaval with government control and regulations being introduced as a response to the Second World War (1939 to 1945). Despite these constraints, and perhaps in spite of them, couture design led by Christian Dior (1905 – 1957) blossomed.

This success continued into the 1950s and with it fashion illustration which found an outlet in the numerous fashion magazines that were available at that time. In parallel there was a rise in ready to wear youth fashion.

Fig 2 – Mary Quant, Fashion design, London

The austerity of the 40s and 50s was replaced by an increasingly creative and rebellious youth culture during the ‘swinging 60s’ that was a stark contrast to the previous decades. Couture fashion became stuffy and traditional. Art schools provided young creative fashion designers that, for the first time designed for a youthful audience. Fashion became mass produced, designer labels appeared for the first time.

During the 1970s fashion became a way to express individuality. There was a rise in men’s fashion. The end of the decade saw the emergence of the punk counter-culture that was to have profound effect on youth culture well into the 1980s.

The 1980s saw an emphasis on bright colours, expensive clothes and fashion accessories. This was the age of power dressing popularised in TV soap operas such as Dynasty and Dallas. Big hair and big make-up was the order of the day. Youth culture developed from punk into new romantic, hip-hop, heavy metal, skinheads and rude boys.

The 1980s also saw an explosion in the use of photography in fashion magazines that pushed fashion illustration, that was seen as old fashioned and not reflective of the times, into the background.

In the 1990s fashion became more minimal as a reaction to the previous decade. The fashion industry was heavily influenced by the rise of the supermodel.

Has fashion illustration changed over this period or is it the fashion of illustration that’s changed?

My argument is that the fundamental skills and qualities needed to be a successful fashion illustrator remain unchanged. Great technical and creative skills, knowledge of the subject and strong persuasive visual design.

Just like the subject it’s portraying, the fashion of illustration has changed and evolved along with the changing needs of clients and customers and the opportunities presented by new media; the domination of photography during the 1980s, the rise of digital and the explosion of social media channels such as Instagram and Facebook.

In an age where photography has become all pervasive, Sue Dray, course leader of BA(Hons) Fashion Illustration at London College of Fashion sums up the importance and opportunity for the contemporary fashion illustrator: “The illustrator, unlike the photographer, is their own make-up artist, stylist and art director and basically the sole creator of the image. There is a mystery to a drawing and the imagination can run riot, and this is perfect for the world of fashion that deals in creating fantasies.”


Journal articles (online)

Victoria and Albert Museum Fashion Drawing and Illustration in the 20th Century At: http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/f/fashion-drawing-in-the-20th-century/ (Accessed 15.08.19)

_Shift Why we still need fashion illustration At: https://www.shiftlondon.org/features/still-need-fashion-illustration/ (Accessed 15.08.19)

List of illustrations

Figure 1 – Westwood, Florrie Fashion design, London At: http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/f/fashion-drawing-in-the-20th-century/ (Accessed 15.08.19)

Figure 2 – Quant, Mary, Fashion design, London, At: http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/f/fashion-drawing-in-the-20th-century/ (Accessed 15.08.19)


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