The Genteel
January 20, 2021


Illustrated Vogue covers from the first half of the 20th century.
Erin Petson fashion illustration
Illustration by Erin Petson.

Somewhere in a prehistoric cave, a person equipped with a stick and paste scrawled the first fashion illustration on a rocky wall. Indeed mankind's desire to capture the look of those around him dates back much further than vintage covers of Vogue or sketchbook drawings of designers. Over time, methods of illustrating style have run the gamut from said cave drawings to fashion plates, and a simple paper and pencil.

But then came the rise of photography and now technology, both challenging traditional fashion illustration. Despite this, the craft seems to be creeping back into popular culture, showing up more frequently in catalogues, magazines and even on the step-and-repeat backdrop of this year's Oscars red carpet. Could it be that our love affair with fashion illustration is on the rebound?

Before the 1900s, illustrations mostly functioned as photographs, capturing the fashion of the time, suggesting what people should wear, or simply serving as social commentary. From frescos on pyramid walls, to 17th-century fashion plates, and the pages of 18th- and 19th-century magazines, drawings were the only way to visually communicate current styles. But then photography entered the picture.

Vogue's first illustration-less cover in 1932 was a turning point in the future of the craft. In 2008, Laird Borrelli, author of several fashion illustration books, explained to Business of Fashion that "[fashion illustration] has gone from being one of the sole means of fashion communication to having a very minor role. The first photographic cover of Vogue was a watershed in the history of fashion illustration and a watershed mark of its decline." So while sketching has remained a vehicle for designer brainstorming sessions, its value in the public realm had notably dwindled.

As photography took over, fashion illustration not only became less aesthetically popular, but also less convenient. Explains Raymond Wai-Man Au in his thesis The Future of Fashion Illustration, "It was a time when the emphasis began to shift from haute couture towards technology and machine-sewn, profit-making pret-a-porter, which accelerated photography to replace fashion illustration as the chief image-maker in editorial pages of fashion magazines."

Fashion illustration always makes use of the best available technology; what is constant is that illustration and technology cannot be separated.

Combine that with the passing of some the industry's most famed illustrators, such as Carl "Eric" Erickson and René Robert Bouché, and an era of sketching started to take new form, if not fade into the background. Illustrations still made the leap from sketchbooks into mainstream media but weren't, by and large, the focal point.

Fast forward more than half a century, and the art form is once again becoming more prevalent beyond nostalgic sprinklings on the pages of publications like The New Yorker or Vanity Fair. Fashion illustrator Erin Petson is seeing this change first hand, and believes the internet is actually largely responsible for the growing interest in her line of work. "[Fashion illustration] more available to people now, they can browse drawings they like on websites, follow artists on Twitter and Facebook, purchase affordable unique prints."

Technology seems like an unlikely bedfellow with fashion illustration. The rise in the use of computer-aided design has brought up concerns ranging from authenticity of artwork, to its aesthetic value and what really constitutes an original piece in the first place. Despite this, much of fashion illustration's recent success appears to be helped by technology and the internet, as opposed to hurt by it.

Explains Ana Stankovic-Fitzgerald, a Fashion Drawing and Fashion Illustration lecturer at the London College of Fashion, "Access to new technologies has brought a total democratisation of the medium, changing the way content is created and delivered."

Not only that, but technology also means artists can take advantage of new programs, allowing for improved speed and accuracy, and the ability to make quick fixes rather than wadding up discarded designs. So it's no surprise that Stankovic-Fitzgerald embraces it: "Fashion illustration always makes use of the best available technology; what is constant is that illustration and technology cannot be separated."

Illustration courtesy of
London College of Fashion Short Courses.

Increased exposure via technology is also changing people's interest in taking up the profession. According to Stankovic-Fitzgerald, "Easy access to user-friendly technology is changing the way [that] fashion illustration is created and who by; and at the same time increasing its potential audience."  

The growing popularity of the craft may also reach beyond just technology, too. It likely speaks to other changes as we make an about-turn, slowly shifting away from the aforementioned mass-produced, fast-fashion culture that warranted the need for photography in the first place. Perhaps fewer photo-shopped models and more handcrafted artwork signals a return to the authentic and hand-made. Said Lucie Muir in the New York Times, "Fashion's renewed interest in illustration is part of a move toward a more personalized, less anonymous brand experience."

Whatever the cause, it's undeniable that fashion illustration is regaining a position in the public spotlight. It has grown so much that many schools now offer courses, and even majors in its study, showing confidence in its value for the future. Stankovic-Fitzgerald, who has been teaching at the London College of Fashion since 2003, says she has "noticed a definite rise in interest in Fashion Illustration and Fashion Drawing courses."

Indeed, come photography, technology or shifts in our sartorial culture, it seems the magic of fashion illustration is here to stay, for both those who create it, and those that consume it. As Petson simply puts it, "Creating a drawing comes from within; I don't think you can beat that."



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