Tuesday, February 18, 2014

When a Picture Was Worth 1000 Photos

Once upon a time illustration ruled the fashion world. Though far from reality, fashion illustration conjures Possibilities. And isn't that part of fashion's allure?

Once upon a time I wanted to be a fashion illustrator. That was after I wanted to be a professional gift wrapper. Some little girls wanted to be nurses or airline stewardesses. What can I tell you?

Illustrating fashion relied on the capabilities of printing. Well into the 1900s, by necessity fashion news was driven by drawings. Even as photography and film were forging ahead as the records of choice, illustration continued to be the messenger of fashion news into the thirties and remained viable as late as the 1980s. Who can forget Antonio and his glamazons?

Antonio Lopez 1984

Nowhere is fantasy-meets-reality better illustrated than the fashions of the twenties. Long, lean and impossibly flat, the whippet-thin figures gave us a woman on-the-go not seen in  most contemporary photographs. It would never be possible to fully emulate those illustrations, but they inspire us still.

Illustration style changed too. As early as 1903 Paul Poiret showed his avant garde styles with illustrations influenced by Art Deco. The real thing could be a little jarring in real life. At the least, it took nerve.

The illustration...
The mannequin...
Mrs. Paul Poiret pulling it off

As they move into the mid-twenties, the ladies of Downtown Abbey have adopted the familiar no-waisted silhouettes of the day. Not to say they all look fabulous. The regal Lady Mary seems to be swimming in her chemises, while the silhouette is quite flattering to her mother Clara. Middle daughter Edith is revealing her personality in jewel tones and interesting fabrics. The least riveting character heretofore, her clothes (and story line) are driving this season. Rose, the youngest titled lady, is dressing typically for her age— trendy and a little gaudy.

Downton Abbey dressing the part

This thoughtful approach to dressing the cast is thanks to the enormous work of Caroline McCall, Downton Abbey's costume designer, who has used actual vintage clothing as well as recreated pieces. For some reason, twenties "frocks" have not survived in abundance in vintage stores. Bead-incrusted evening looks— you can find some— but everyday clothing? The best way to own something would seem to be sew it.


  1. Love this ... thank you, Michelle. I love the periods of illustration, and I think of photos of my grandmother in her youth in the 20s. She was a tallish, big boned woman with an ample front ... the difference between the illustrations and the reality were readily apparent!
    How interesting that these patterns are available for download ... a boon for costumers. Great post.

  2. I love fashion illustrations and am lucky enough to have a small collection.