“Figure/Fabric/Fantasy” highlights the appeal of fashion drawings
Published: Saturday, May 5, 2012
Updated: Saturday, May 5, 2012 10:05
Today, one hardly even notices the pages upon pages of beautiful models wearing clothes from high-end designers that fill many magazines. Glittering jewelry and haute couture have become almost commonplace, somewhat removed from the glamour and refinement they once held. Yet, upon closer inspection, it becomes obvious these are incredibly calculated images. We forget these pictures are meant to seduce us, to capture our attention and entice our imaginations, all in the hopes that we may buy the products being shown. This is the realm of fashion advertising.
“Figure/Fabric/Fantasy” is on exhibit now at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, featuring 50 fashion drawings from the 1940s through the 1980s by 26 different artists including Womens’ Wear Daily’s Kenneth Paul Block, New York based fashion illustrator Morton Kaish and American couturier Arnold Scaasi. These pieces were drawn from the museum’s collection of over 10,000 fashion drawings. Each of the pieces was originally intended to be copied and distributed as advertisements in magazines nationally.
In the ‘Notes from the Collector’ displayed in the gallery, Jean S. Sharf writes, “This exhibition marks the first time that a major American art museum has devoted an entire gallery to displaying fashion drawing…Fashion art does more than simply illustrate a garment. It describes the social life of its moment, and opens a window into the lifestyle of the era in which it was created.” Indeed, the collection is holistic and provides a survey of many different types of clothing. The prints depict slender, elegant women modeling everything from evening gowns to kimonos to fur stoles. In an image by Larry Salk, a group of beautiful young women are seen lounging, set against a sand-colored background suggesting a tropical and exotic locale.
Some of the prints are markups of ads, with tag lines scrawled hurriedly across the image. Others have quickly colored neutral backgrounds of black or grey. A few details, such as a flower or the glimpse of a beach, give the viewer a sense of where the clothes would be worn. The rest is left to the viewer’s imagination. This aesthetic has continued to today and is used by many fashion magazines such as Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar.
Also in the exhibit is a video interview with Morton Kaish, a prominent New York fashion illustrator and trained painter, about the evolution of fashion images. Because these images were made to advertise the clothing product, artists had the unusual task of creating wearable looks that the average American woman could imagine wearing rather than simply creating beautiful clothes. Oftentimes, glamorous and sophisticated designs compromise practicality. Yet the artists had to show that the clothes could exist off the runway in the real world, whether or not that was in fact the case. This was a departure from the elongated figures of fashions past.
Instead of simply drawing beautiful women, the artists had to consider their clientele and their needs while also creating an alluring, elegant and marketable image. Kaish states, “As a fashion illustrator, my focus was always on the object, on describing the object, as the goal, and along the way, the effort included investing a degree of glamour, style and desirability in that image.” The focus was on interpretation and impression over pure likeness. Artists were able to render the draping of fabric or texture with the minimal amount of lines, allowing even more room for the consumer’s imagination.
The prints in the exhibit are captivating images with plenty of advertising appeal. They cater, however, to a select group of women. The women in the advertisements were meant to embody the true “American Woman.” While the images were meant to appeal to the “majority” of the population in order to be effective marketing, it is glaringly apparent that they only try to understand the affluent and shapely woman. There is a sketch for Shiseido Cosmetics which features models of Asian descent; however, many of the prints are targeted towards Caucasian, upper-middle class women who apparently typified the average American woman in the mid-1900’s. Since these images were published, the fashion industry has made significant strides in embracing women of all ethnicities in their marketing campaigns, which should be considered a great success.