Even in our increasingly technological times, fashion illustration still has a transcendental allure that eludes many a photographer. It’s the art that has undergone numerous reinventions and portrays fashion faithfully by putting pen to paper. And it’s an art that is still very much alive.
Two marvellous exhibitions have recently paid homage to the unsung candescent glory of the history, present and future of fashion illustration. Dior Illustrated at Somerset House and Drawing Fashion at The Design Museum have both captured the timeless qualities of drawing clothes- despite how oxymoronic a term ‘timeless fashion’ may seem.
Dior Illustrated took a detailed look at the illustrator René Gruau’s relationship with the house of Dior. Christian Dior and Gruau met on the fashion desk of the French newspaper Le Figaro in 1936 and thus began one of the most fruitful partnerships in artistic history. John Galliano once that “to be inspired by Dior is to be inspired by René Gruau”, testament to their kindred spirits and Gruau’s talent for capturing that which is elegant and youthful in both men and women. The exhibition predominantly displays Gruau’s illustrations for the Dior parfum advertisements, including Diorissimo, Diorling, Dior-Dior and Miss Dior, to name but a few. The gesture and attitude in Gruau’s illustrations from the 1950s to the 1970s reflects his understanding of the spirit of the age. There is something deliciously, mischievously modern about the liberated poses of the women in his visions.
Gruau's work with Dior Parfum was extensive and dramatic.
The mutual loyalty between René Gruau and Christian Dior translated into a loyalty between the artist and the house of Dior after the designer died in 1957. The 1960s rise of photography solidified the enduring relationship as Dior stayed faithful to Gruau’s work. Gruau’s focus on line and silhouette is highlighted by the exhibition in many drawings for both the Dior clothing and perfume ranges. Each woman (and indeed man) appears engaged and sophisticated; their elongated limbs convey a poise which is simultaneously graceful and assured. When, in 1966, Gruau’s drawing of a pair of hairy, male legs scaled a full page of Le Figaro, it became clear that this was a man who could not only capture essence with startling accuracy, but one who could reinvent and break with tradition whilst still retaining his creative integrity.
Gruau reinvents 'the male'.
Whilst Dior Illustrated chose to concentrate on Gruau’s influence at Dior, Drawing Fashion spans a century of fashion illustration, and casts a provocative glance into the future of the art. Georges Lepape’s ‘Chapeau de Poiret’, drawn in 1912, and his 1920s drawings and covers for Vogue began the exhibition and set a wonderful precedent for a journey through history which fused fashion and art strikingly, beautifully and delicately. The Design Museum’s space was starkly lit, and led its observer around a pathway through time which impressed, if anything, the astounding amount of work that was produced by fashion illustrators in the first half of the twentieth century. One could not help but be taken aback by the sheer craftsmanship and the scale of the achievements of artists such as Romain de Tirtoff (known as Erté), Paul Iribe and Pierre Brissaud, who worked with materials including charcoal, watercolour and ink.
Moving through the century, past an extensive space devoted to Gruau, you reach the 1970s and 80s, and what can only be described as a shock of colour upon encountering the tribute to Antonio Lopez, or ‘Antonio’, as was his signature. Fashion exercised its greatest influence through magazines, as is still the norm today, but in these cases, that influence was conveyed through drawings. Even now, it is not difficult to see why the drawings of Antonio were a resounding success. His reach, as an illustrator, was prevalent and he captured the excitement of youth and the movement of the clothes through his vast array of work. Many of his pieces are resonant of Andy Warhol, and he was a master at drawing the attitude of the garments.
Antonio's vision of colourful liberation.
So where is fashion illustration now, and what does its future hold? Well, illustrators like Mats Gustafson, Francois Berthoud and Aurore de la Moriniere refuse to be crowded out by technology. The methods have moved on, and artists are now using monotype and collage to bring couture to life. This is a serious art, which, despite its depleted influence and lessened notoriety, is still very much alive. The current fashion illustrations are clean-cut and subtle, with a return to simplicity, perhaps a mark of our austere times. They are popular among Chinese and Japanese fashion magazines, where the are admired for their edgy rawness. There is a sense of mystery that compliments the anonymous nature of ‘the drawing’ as opposed to ‘the photograph’ and to many enhances the continuing allure of this particular art.
The chic austerity of Mats Gustafson.
What these exhibitions capture is our desire for the real, the visceral and the ‘imperfection’ of the past. The more we immerse ourselves in technology and the more our lives become web-based, the greater our yearning for human art becomes. Retrospective glances toward what has seemingly passed make us nostalgic, because you don’t know what you’ve lost until you think it’s gone. Thankfully for us, fashion illustrators and their beautiful depictions aren’t going anywhere.