Having once been thought a lost art following the rise of photography, fashion illustration is thriving once again, with a little help from an unlikely friend: technology.
Fashion illustration was at its pinnacle in the early 1900s. Everything from pencil and ink drawings to paintings and screen prints graced the front covers of some of the world’s most renowned fashion magazines. It was a time when drawings were the dominant form of visual communication and the only way to convey current styles and ideas to the public.
Illustration perfectly captured the spirit of the time and illustrators were given artistic freedom and regular opportunities for work. But towards the middle of the twentieth century, fashion illustration took a turn, declining in popularity in favour of photography.
When Vogue’s first illustration-less cover was published in 1932, fashion illustration went from being one of the sole means of fashion communication to playing a minor role. Photography began to monopolise the market and as it took over, fashion illustration not only became less aesthetically popular, but also less convenient.
Digital material was faster and more efficient compared to hand-drawn work, and author of several fashion illustration books, Laird Borrelli, says people soon realised photography was more useful in the publishing and advertising industry.
“The first photographic cover of Vogue was a watershed in the history of fashion illustration and a watershed mark of its decline,” Borrelli told Business of Fashion.
With the advances in photography replacing hand-drawn illustrations, it seemed the art of fashion would fall victim to the digital age. But in a twist of fate, the evolution and progress of technology also became instrumental to the direction and survival of fashion illustration.
As much as technology was responsible for illustration’s downfall, it eventually allowed fashion illustration to reinvent itself and survive in a new age of rapidly changing technology. Illustrators today are effortlessly using computers to their advantage.
With the click of a button, digital manipulations using software programs like Adobe Photoshop or Illustrator make image adjustments and illustrative cleanups almost pain-free. In fact, it is no longer unusual to see traditional methods of illustration combined with modern techniques.
Take Kelly Smith for instance. An Australian illustrator, Smith takes a traditional approach with intricate, finely detailed pencil illustrations, and peppers it with pops of digital colour.
Similarly, Sarah Hankinson a fashion illustrator from Melbourne, likes to create pieces of work that are an harmonious combination of traditional and mixed-media techniques.
“I draw the artwork first in a grey lead then like to incorporate perhaps a watercolour or ink into the illustration,” she told Fashionarium.
“I then scan the work and play around with the levels [and] layers in Photoshop.”
“Fashion illustration always makes best use of the best available technology.”
The Genteel notes that the way content is created and delivered has been entirely changed by the access to new technologies.
Ana Stankovic-Fitzgerald, a fashion drawing and fashion illustration lecturer at the London College of Fashion told The Genteel, “Fashion illustration always makes best use of the best available technology.” And it will continue to do so as the technology trends of today are eventually replaced with another technological advance as yet unforeseen.
As fashion illustrator David Downton told Vogue’s Fashion’s Night Out, “Fashion illustration never went anywhere; it just sat in a different place.”
Illustrator Danielle Meder echoes Downton. “The golden age of fashion illustration, when there was high demand for fashion illustration at all levels and the greatest illustrators were stars who could sell magazines with their cover art… [is] long gone,” she told I Love Fashion Retail.
“But fashion illustration itself has never gone away.” It just reinvented itself – and now, illustration is seen everywhere, from prints on products, in advertisements and even on websites.
The Internet has played a vital role in fashion illustration and undoubtedly helped accelerate its return. These days, many illustrators use websites to showcase their work and use social media platforms like Instagram to promote their work.
Illustrator Sarah Darby who is based in Melbourne, thinks blogging has been a fantastic opportunity for the fashion community and says fashion illustration’s recent success has been helped rather than hindered by these platforms.
“Speaking [as] a consumer of art, I feel that I have discovered so many artists that I would never have been exposed to [without social media].
“It’s so great that people can now have their own platforms and present their own style and voice,” she said.
Like Darby, Sydney based illustrator Alexandra Nea Graham says, “ The Internet and various social media platforms have allowed all sorts of creatives the ability to connect and share their work with a worldwide audience that pre-Internet was just not possible.
…all that stands between you and international recognition is a carefully curated Instagram account…
“Suddenly all that stands between you and international recognition is a carefully curated Instagram account with an audience built up by the clever use of trending hashtags!” Graham said.
It is certain that the new generation of illustrators have blogging and social media to thank for their success. In the past, as photography wasn’t widely used, illustrators found frequent employment capturing runway looks for magazines and created illustrations for magazine covers.
Illustrators today have demonstrated their resilience in the industry, creating beautiful imagery once again for magazine editorials and fashion shows.
In an age of photographic saturation, fashion illustrations now offer something fresh and unique.
Katie Rodgers, illustrator and founder of blog Paper Fashion, told Fashionista, “The industry is so heavily saturated with photographs, everything is so digital nowadays.
“I think hand-done work is very appealing to people, because it gives them a little break,” she said.
Darby holds a similar view saying, “I think illustration is a beautiful antithesis to fast fashion created by the high street, it brings it back to the vision that the designer, or the wearer, had.
“I feel you can connect so much more with the journey that the designer has been on to create a piece.”
These beautiful images may not find themselves back on the front covers of magazines, but the magic of fashion illustration is one with staying power. As Danielle Meder puts it, “Great quality imagery is really powerful, regardless of whether it’s illustrations or photography.”