Exhibition Review: Drawing Fashion at the Design Museum

Design Museum, London November 3, 2010 thorugh March 6, 2011

At the ticket desk for the Design Museum’s current exhibition Drawing Fashion, a small placard reads: ‘No photos – sketchbooks encouraged.’ Before ascending to the gallery, visitors pass a display advertising a student drawing competition.  These two pronouncements immediately signaled  that this exhibition is not only a history of fashion illustration but seeks to engage visitors in a dialogue about its future.

The gallery is comprised of a labyrinthine system of translucent vellum walls.  This exhibition design transforms the space into a seemingly endless landscape of light-boxes. The explanatory texts are printed straight onto the wall surface, in soft gray and by way of a highly legible sans serif typeface.

The introductory text suggests that fashion drawing as we know it developed in the early twentieth century when expressive and stylised fashion images came to prevail over the detailed renderings of clothing produced for fashion plates in the nineteenth century. Significantly, this initial text panel also ruminates on the current state of fashion illustration, stating ‘Today the skill of drawing clothing is still taught at art schools, but very few graduates are able to make a living from the practice.’  As I read this, there are numerous university students roaming the gallery, sketchbooks and pencils to hand.

Before embarking along the timeline of fashion illustration from the 1910s onwards, I turn to the video screening room installed at what might be the beginning or ending of the exhibition, depending on the direction you are walking.  The inclusion of this footage is somewhat puzzling, so I commit to watching the whole loop.  It consists of a broad range of film clips, from a 1932 Chanel collection presentation, to Viktor and Rolf’s Russian Doll Collection of 1999.  Taken together, the films trace a history of the runway show, illustrating how the format, choreography, and speed of fashion have changed over the decades.  I presume that the exhibition’s curators want the visitors to keep this progression in mind as they navigate the exhibition.  However, no other reference is made to the relationship between the development of fashion shows and fashion illustration, leaving me to wonder whether the video gallery was put in place for its own sake, or as the seed of a concept that was never fully woven into the exhibition.  Retrospectively, I found that I hardly remembered what I had watched, but I certainly did remember numerous individual illustrations in the succeeding galleries.

The first section, entitled From Gold to Silver focuses on the period 1910-1929, declaring it as an era of ‘intoxicatingly shallow and fabulous fun – for a very small section of society.’  This age of steel, silver and titanium was reflected in fashion by sleek lines, hard edges and bold colour, epitomised by the illustration works of Erté, Geoerges Lepape and Eduardo Garcia Benito among others. The early years of fashion illustration, as seen on the pages of the Gazette du Bon Ton, and later Vogue, are characterized by elegant isolated figures, with occasional scenic additions towards the end of the 1920s.

Short biographies of the featured illustrators accompany the artworks, and provide just enough information to foreground the work without pulling focus away from it.  Throughout the exhibition, the minimalist presentation works invites our contemplation of them as artworks – in contrast to the more familiar experience of viewing fashion illustrations in periodicals, books and increasingly, on computer screens.

The next zone, Change and Decay: 1930-1946, presents the period as a critical time in fashion illustration’s development as an art form in competition as well as conversation with fashion photography.  In this section, we see how illustrators such as Christian Berard and Bernard Blossac sketched the ‘archetypal international fashion shape’ into existence, presenting the public with, ‘an impossible dream that women have tried to emulate ever since.’  I found this to be a rather bold and insightful statement, and one that can really revolutionise our notions of the tyranny of the fashion ideal by recognising that this was always a fantasy.  The fashion figure was an idealised image created by artists, not by fashion designers, and certainly not by the small percentage of women who were able to fashion themselves in the image of the archetype.

In New Rhythms: 1947-1959 we follow fashion illustration into its golden age, with René Gruau at the forefront.  Last week I reviewed the concurrent exhibition on Gruau at Somerset House, which focuses on his work for the House of Dior.  In Drawing Fashion Gruau is contextualised historically as a virtuoso talent who epitomised the glamour of mid-century couture but was also able to move with the times.  Thankfully, the exhibition also acknowledges that although he is lauded as an innovator in his field, his drawings are reminiscent of Toulouse Lautrec’s in their mastery of shape, silhouette and gesture. 

Rene Gruau, Rouge et Noir

Toulouse Lautrec, Jane Avril 1890s

Antonio Lopez for The New York Times 1970s

Moving ahead to the period 1960-1989, Liberty and Licence showcases the work of Antonio Lopez, arguably the most well-known and influential fashion illustrator of the second half of the twentieth century.  Lopez was an extremely versatile and prolific artist, whose work for the New York Times, Women’s Wear Daily and numerous magazines, came to epitomise the essence of fashion in the 1980s, and of New York City as the locus of the industry.  His influence really is pervasive, and although it is slightly cringing, I can’t help but point out that the ubiquitous decals seen in beauty salon windows are derivative of Antonio’s ideal 1980s femme fatale. In addition to original illustrations, collages and sketches, the exhibition presents archive video footage of Antonio at work.

Although the next section of the exhibition is entitled 1990-2010:The Tradition Continues, it fixates on how changes in the business of fashion and technological advances threaten the survival of fashion illustration as an applied art.  Featuring the work of the few commercially successful illustrators of recent memory such as Mats Gustafson and printmaker Francois Berthaud this final section offers up a paradox.  (The absence of work by Ruben Toledo is notable, and really disappointing, considering that his regular spreads for Bergdorf Goodman in American Vogue, are a prime example of fashion illustration’s continued presence in the mainstream fashion media.)

While these few innovators have built viable careers around their signature styles, working for high profile clients, and also selling their work in galleries, the exhibition’s final message seems to be a lament, an elegy even, for a doomed art.  The notion that a fashion illustration can surpass the impact of images created by a camera is championed, and the works on display certainly attest to t his point.  However, in reducing the situation to a perpetual feud between the camera and the paintbrush, or between commercial interests and artistic ones, the exhibition comes close to negating that which it celebrates.  And in doing so, it gives no recognition of the possibilities of the fusion of digital and manual illustration, and does not consider the manipulated photograph as a form of illustration on the rise.

The last piece of work in the exhibit is a wall mural depicting garments from Gareth Pugh’s spring summer 2011 collection painted by Alistair Guy and commissioned by the Design Museum.  This work was in some sense a satisfactory example of the potential impact of fashion illustration on a large scale.  However, it is a strange choice considering that Gareth Pugh is a designer known for spearheading innovation in the presentation of his annual collections, privileging video and multimedia presentations over live catwalk shows.  The reason for this has not merely been a creative decision, but an economic one, as the production of his collection videos proves far less costly, and no less dramatic than a runway show.  Perhaps, from this example, we can see another possibility for the future of fashion illustration.  In this age of global economic downturn, the work of the illustrator can be revitalised for its position as an economical alternative to fashion photography’s costs and excesses. The availability of journalistic catwalk photography reduces our first impressions of each season’s collections to something similar to the highly rendered fashion plates of the nineteenth century.

One hundred years ago, talented illustrators hearkened to the need for a more expressive art form, capable of capturing the intangible essences and attitudes of fashion. After visiting Dior Illustrated and Drawing Fashion, and considering the volume of unimpressive fashion imagery we are bombarded with, I think it just may be an ideal time for fashion illustration to come gliding back onto the scene in full force.

The upcoming events programme includes numerous interactive sessions, and a master class in fashion illustration.  Previously the Design Musuem hosted an fashion illustration themed evening event where visitors were asked to wear white clothing, onto which their own fashion illustrations were projected.

The exhibition catalogue is an eloquent encapsulation of the exhibition, and is printed so beautifully you might mistake the illustrations for original sketches.  It is a repository of fashion glamour that you will be hard pressed to look at just once.  If your New Year’s resolution has anything to do with immersing yourself more fully into the history and/or practice of fashion, then you will want this book close to hand in 2011.

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