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Fashion Illustration, Then and Now

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Fashion illustration in it's modern, current sense appeared at the beginning of the 19th century, largely as an extension of the work of painters and drawers. It was in the year 1908 that fashion illustration truly came into it's own - a fact which came in tandem with Paul Poiret's publication of his styles, illustrated by Paul Iribe. It was after Iribe, who would become Coco Chanel's lover, that a generation of fashion illustrators would become celebrities in their own right. Fashion illustration reached it's peak in the 1930s to the 1950s, with artists such as Iribe, Christian Bérard ("Bébé"), and Carl Erikson. However, it was largely replaced in popular journalism by fashion photography, a genre pioneered by Edward Steichen. Though some exceptions appeared, such as René Gruau and Antonio Lopez, magazines had little time for the illustrators of old. Today, fashion illustration is very rare in advertising or magazines, but a new generation of illustrators largely appearing in the 2000s, has championed it as a retro-chic form of advertising. 

The illustration of fashion has existed for nearly 500 years. Since clothing has existed, it has become necessary to translate an idea or image into a fashion illustration. Not only do the fashion illustrations show a representation or design of a garment, but they also serve as an art form. The fashion illustration shows the presence of the hand and is said to be a visual luxury. This having been said, however, fashion Illustration has gone from one of the only means of fashion communication to a very minor one. Vogue's first photographic cover was a turning point in the history of fashion illustration and a decisive mark of its decline. Photographs, no matter how modified or retouched, will always be associated with the reality and truth of their subject. One may think of the illustrations of fashion as prose poems which have more stories of fiction. They are more clearly filtered through an individual vision than photos. The illustration continues to live, but in the position of a retro-idea, whilst the photograph reigns supreme.

A photograph by Edward Steichen in a 1928 issue of Vogue

Towards the end of the 17th century, the first newspapers were published, notably in France during the reign of Louis XIV, with what could be called "the first fashion magazines". These publications evolved and culminated in the end of the 18th century. After the French Revolution, the centre of important publications passed from Paris to Germany and then to England. The beginning of the illustration of modern fashion, initially by anonymous artists, was around the beginning of the nineteenth century. From the middle of the century, Paris became the capital of fashion and remains a reference in terms of illustrations. Recent, emerging fashion photography is inspired in particular by fashion illustrations of the time made of poses frozen in artificial decorations; at the end of the 19th century, the creativity of illustration surpassed that of photography; but these two representations of fashion are still, in the early twentieth century, turned to the past, with strict dress codes: with the exception of Charles Dana Gibson, the illustration of fashion is "moribund on the aesthetic level". At this time, the illustration of fashion was perceived more as a craft than as a form of pictorial art.

The Italian portraitist Giovanni Boldini is considered by his peers as one of the first illustrators of fashion whose name is recognizable; he will be a notable influence of the next generation of illustrators with Sargent. The Journal des dames et des modes arose at a similar time, contributed to by artists, painters, dressmakers, and creatives. Their style of illustration developed from the pictorial technique of the stencil: the paint is applied layer by layer, colour by colour, through cut metal plates. Fauvism appears alongside it at the beginning of the century, followed by cubism, currents that are quickly found in the illustration of fashion and will renew it. In parallel, the 'Arrow Collar Man', under the pencil of J.C. Leyendecker, is created.

Leyendecker's 'Arrow Collar Man' in a 1911 tuxedo advert

Before the first world war, Paris was the capital of fashion, but also of Art: painters, poets, decorators, composers, theatre-people all rubbed shoulders there. Haute couture and styling are inseparable, like Paul Poiret who offers the services of the young Paul Iribe, who innovatively illustrated Paul Poiret's dresses, then Georges Lepape three years later for Les Things, also of Paul Poiret. The realization of Iribe brings the illustration to the rank of art, laying the bases of the drawings of the 20th century. A few years after Poiret, Jeanne Paquin asked Iribe, Lepape and Barbier to create a portfolio of her creations. In this milieu are founded many newspapers. Lucien Vogel and Michel de Brunhoff founded the Gazette du Bon Ton, which to this day is legendary for it's many writers and artists. The decorative arts of the time, such as Art Nouveau, Cubism or Art Deco, among others, was a reflection of time; all of which came together in the illustration of it's dress.

It would not be until the 1930s that the first sign's of the illustration's replacement would become visible. The first Vogue cover to use a photograph as opposed to an illustration was put to press in the 30s. It was a major turning point in the fashion industry. Laird Borrelli, author of Fashion Illustration Now stated;

The French school takes precedence over American illustrators. Some illustrators, such as Drian, Benito, Erté or Christian Bérard become particularly recognized, the American magazines Harper's Bazar or Vogue, the French Femina or L'Officiel, publish the biggest names of the moment. Magazines become essential for spreading fashion. Fashion design becomes less static, with an approach that is not only artistic but also descriptive, geared towards reporting: fashion shows, everyday life, cocktails ... are common, like the work of René Bouët-Willaumez. In the early 1930s, color appeared more widely in fashion illustrations, first in the American edition of the Vogue cover and then in the interior pages. The surrealist movement enters fashion magazines; the illustration also evolves towards a "new realism" from its demonstrative form to a more artistic orientation of which Eric is the representative. But the revolution of fashion photography will gradually change the place of illustration, each having his favourite field progressively: fashionable photography and illustration to advertising. Nevertheless, the diffusion and the influence of the fashion magazines progress, absorbing the artistic currents of the time, the photography in parallel with the illustration will benefit at the same time of these evolutions. each one having progressively his favorite domain: fashionable photography and illustration to advertising. Nevertheless, the diffusion and the influence of the fashion magazines progress, absorbing the artistic currents of the time, the photography in parallel with the illustration will benefit at the same time of these evolutions. each one having progressively his favorite domain: fashionable photography and illustration to advertising. Nevertheless, the diffusion and the influence of the fashion magazines progress, absorbing the artistic currents of the time, the photography in parallel with the illustration will benefit at the same time of these evolutions.

A painting by René Bouché, largely considered the last great fashion illustrator

A trend that began well before the war, the period saw the restriction of the budgets of illustration to the benefit of photography: the illustrators, who have mostly worked for either advertising or for shows, leave or return, more and more to these areas. In the mid-1950s, Kenneth Paul Block, with his charcoal technique, joined the team of half a dozen illustrators of the Women's Wear Daily; where he would remain there for 42 years, until the closure of the "Illustrations" department of the professional magazine. In the 1960s, the world of fashion is in full revolution: the capital of fashion settles from Paris to London, where ready-to-wear will upset the industry in the coming years. Furthermore, pop-art and the Hippie movement influence the fashion illustration. The death of René Bouché in 1963, a legend beyond replacement, symbolically marks the end of the omnipresent illustration of fashion in magazines. It is a period of quick change, the fashion illustration apparently reserved for advertising, lingerie and accessories. Photography reigns fully; fashion photographers like Richard Avedon or Irving Penn, for example, are the gold standard. The mishandled illustration will take refuge in teen magazines, where it is an alternative cheaper than photography, it serves to inspire or suggest, far from the principles of haute couture not suitable for readers of these publications. However, there will still be some fashion magazines, especially professional, to publish the work of the designers: International Textiles, Official Fashion, WWD, or Sir who retain the services of the best illustrators.

From the 1980s, the illustration of fashion seems to find a little space in the publications. The prolific Antonio Lopez, with his style always ahead of fashion and his varied techniques, is at the top of his career. Tony Viramontes is trailblazing at La Mode en peinture, an avant-garde fashion magazine, notable for being fully illustrated. Appearing in parallel, in the United States, the new version of Vanity Fair opens their pages to the illustration, just like Wallpaper in a broader context than fashion. Some illustrators, such as forerunner Jason Brooks, begin the process of digital illustration. Indeed, it is in the 2000s that the illustration again seems to find a significant place in the world. David Downton, first an illustrator with a wide variety of topics and who started in 1966 with haute couture before abandoning the subject and then returning to it, is recognized by his classic but modern approach to fashion illustration. Today, illustration is in an odd spot. It is nowhere near ubiquity, but is recognized almost universally as artistic. It is then the question, in the world dominated by photography, of whether or not it can break out of being merely a throwback.

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