Knights of haute couture

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Fashion illustration lies at the crossroads of fashion production, marketing and fine art. The visions created by some of the key figures from fashion illustration history sought to create not only a guide for those making the clothes on how to manipulate the fabric and create movement, but also a guide for the wearer on how the items should be treated and presented – what mood they should invoke. These drawings also provide important clues for the mere mortals who will only get close to high-fashion creations through the medium of illustration; they sell an aspirational lifestyle of Great Gatsby parties, sumptuous Roman feasts, moody Rockwell city living or royal society. The characters depicted in these illustrations are just real enough to touch and just far away enough to still exist in the world of dreams.

Museums and galleries all over the world thankfully see the value in collecting illustration work from important artists from fashion history. It is possible to see examples by figures such as Léon Bakst, Erte, George Barbier, George Lepape and J. C. Leyendecker in numerous permanent collections, as well as in frequent special and touring exhibitions.

Léon Bakst was a Russian ballet designer who was illustrating and creating costumes in the late 19th Century. His illustrations, filled with colour, are all movement and display the artist’s knowledge of not only what the ballet costume would look like on the performers, but how they would be worn and feel. Many of his works on paper and actual costumes can be seen on display at the V&A, London, which also contextualises the artists work in terms of the importance of ballet on the world of European fashion.

Another Russian artist, and proof that many that are now known as the fathers of fashion illustration were also talented designers in costume, set and stage, was Romain de Tirtoff (known as Erté). His beautiful and theatrical illustrations have an Oriental formalism. Women posed as swans, as striking Roman goddesses with ram horns – these ladies are poised and gorgeously perfect, like cut-out dolls from a magazine. He contributed many illustrations to key fashion publications, such as Harper’s Bazaar, throughout his career. The last major retrospective of his work was organised way back in 1967 by the Estorick Collection in New York (another one is long overdue). Following this, the Metropolitan Museum of Art bought the entire 170 suite of drawings on display and now Erté’s work can be found in special exhibitions frequently and viewed by appointment permanently.

George Barbier, a French fashion illustrator who was working in the early 20th Century, had a similar but sketchier style than Erté that also often utilised classical imagery. He, again, designed ballet and theatre costumes and sets but also later branched out into jewellery, home furnishings and wallpaper design. Barbier unfortunately died in 1932 at the height of his fame and his work can now all be seen at the V&A. Their blog contains several excellent posts by the curators of the museum going through the various strands of his practice.

Barbier was part of an elite circle of designers, illustrators and artists that all hailed from Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris and were nicknamed by Vogue ‘the Knights of the Bracelet’. Part of this group was Georges Lepape, one time assistant to Paul Poiret, whose illustrations and clothing designs have a smoky moodiness to them. The women he depicts are strong independent city dwellers, yet still wear items influenced by the flowing lines of the Ballets Russes. Lepape’s work is held by both the V&A and the MET and from 2016, along with Erté and many others from his circle, will be seen in a major touring exhibition organised by the V&A, which will tour the UK.

@James Vaughan

@James Vaughan

Finally we move on to J. C. Leyendecker, an American illustrator working in the early 20th Century. Leyendecker produced bold, almost propaganda style, posters and magazine covers and was most famous for a string of influential covers for the Saturday Evening Post in the 1930s and 40s. He would go on, as war broke out across the world, to produce illustrations for the war department. Leyendecker’s work is so important to the history of fashion illustration for its introduction of lifestyle visuals that would become part of the fabric of everyday life, such as the first rendition of our modern-day red-suited, slightly overweight Santa Claus. The artist’s work is held in various museums and collections across the world (and also in several military museums). His last major exhibition was held in the National Arts Club, New York, in 2013 and we can probably expect to see his work on this side of the pond over the next few years; a European outing is long overdue.