Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Fashion Illustration: "...it just keeps coming back, like a familiar melody."

"I’ve watched the popularity of fashion illustration wax and wane. But I’m happy to say – and this book bears me out – that it never goes away; it just keeps coming back, like a familiar melody." ~ Carmen Dell’Orefice, from the introduction to David Downton's 2010 book, "Masters of Fashion Illustration"


For quite some time now, I've been wanting to devote a week on Today's Inspiration to fashion illustration of the mid-20th century.


Not because I have all sorts wisdom to share on the subject (I don't) or because I have followed the work of fashion illustrators closely (I haven't) -- but because occasionally I've come across pieces like the ones above and below and thought, "Wow, these are just too cool not to share on the blog!"


For those of us who have focused our attention mostly on other types of illustration, its easy to overlook the importance of fashion illustration and how it influenced the stylistic development of some of our favourite mid-20th century artists...





These artists in turn influenced the entire illustration industry, inspiring countless other artists to incorporate the elements of fashion illustration in their own work.


Some have even gone beyond the industry, profoundly influencing the larger world of fine art and popular culture.


While I think I have a pretty good grasp on the motivations of the 'typical' illustrator, the nature of fashion illustration and those who specialize in it remains largely a mystery to me. I don't think I'm alone in my opinion that fashion illustrators live in a world somewhat apart from the rest of the industry.

So what exactly are the elements of fashion illustration? I feel I lack the expertise to speak with any authority on the subject. Instead I'll offer some observations made largely out of ignorance and hope that TI's learned readers will share some genuine insight as we go along.

Some fashion illustrators seem to be primarily poster designers...


... others seem to be almost like fine artists who specialize in figure drawing...


... still others seem to be not unlike technical illustrators or designers of infographics...


... while yet others could very well be portrait painters.


Under the umbrella of "fashion illustration" these specialists have found not only common ground but great acclaim as well.

You'll notice I started and concluded this post with art by a contemporary illustrator, David Downton. That's because David and I have corresponded for a couple of years now and I wanted to highlight his excellent book, "Masters of Fashion Illustration", in which he acknowledges artists like J.C. Leyendecker, Bob Peak, Coby Whitmore and others one might not normally think of as fashion illustrators. Its thanks to David and his book that I began to consider fashion illustration in a different light.

I hope you'll share you thoughts on the subject!


  1. Leif-

    Great post! I love fashion illustration. It all started with Jack Potter introducing me to the work of Carl Erickson. Potter owned original art by Eric and I was fortunate to be able to see that stuff.

    Beautiful drawing after beautiful drawing. His line, selectivity and simplicity was excellent. Interesting too to see his work in print (primarily Vogue where he worked for years). Sometimes you can see where a line was "off" or a section (such as a hand) erased. A directness to the drawing that you don't see often.

    Where did you find the Potter piece that you posted today? I've never seen it before.

    Glad to see fashion illustration still around today with artists like David Downton. Hopefully art buyers will see this blog and get inspired to hire more like it.

    Did you know that the Boston Museum of Fine Arts has some original Potter fashion drawings? If you do search you can see them here:


    I look forward to the conversation, and posts, this week.

  2. Anonymous7:02 PM

    So happy to have found you. I'm a fashion writer and have always been fond of fashion illustration, actually illustration in general. But I don't know anything about it. I look forward ot learning. Thank you!
    Moya Stone

  3. Daniel; Thanks for your comment. Maybe you can shed some light on this for me... What is it that motivates the fashion illustrator? I tried to touch on it in my post today - but I'm still sort of mystified by fashion illustration.

    Hopefully I don't come off sounding negative (its not my intention to put down fashion illustration) but it seems to me that when someone chooses to devote themselves to fashion illustration they have come to terms with certain limitations or restrictions. When I look at most (not all) other types of illustration, it seems that the artist has the opportunity to explore far more variety of subject matter, scenery - even concept. Fashion illustration focuses a narrow beam on the clothed figure (and various accessories related to that figure).

    Personally, as a creative artist, I would find that frustrating. Obviously, some fantastic artists did not and do not. Why?

  4. Moya; thanks for your comment. I hope you find both inspiration and educational value in this week's series of posts. :^)

    Have a look at this 2009 series of posts about Carl Erickson for additional thoughts and information on the subject:






  5. Leif-

    I understand why you'd have questions about fashion illustration because it does seem like a limited market. But before I try my best to answer that, keep in mind that choosing to move in any direction (as an artist) is different for each individual.

    Also, the business has changed over the years and I'm sure that fashion illustration in the 40's is much different than today. There were more opportunities back then and most fashion artists worked from models.

    Today that's not the case (unfortunately). At least not that I know of.

    I've always thought of fashion art as a way to showcase a product in a stylish way. Be it a piece of clothing, perfume, or whatever the item may be. Many artists not only worked for magazines but also for stores (such as Lord & Taylor) and fashion designers (Dior).

    Aside from style how different is that from other forms of illustration? There are artists today who have done ad campaigns selling a product. Or drawings that are later used on various items such wine labels, t-shirts, etc. They sell items and not always with a story or "concept".

  6. The reason why artists chose fashion over other areas of illustration varies artists to artist. In some ways it's no different than a comic book artist working in that field for their entire career.

    But keep in mind that some of the biggest names in fashion art did more than you might think.

    Carl Erickson worked for Vogue Magazine for 30+ years. In the 40's you can see his art in almost every issue (numerous pages). Who wouldn't want that gig? I'm sure through that other artists, such as Jack Potter, were inspired to do the same. In Jack's case he did do fashion art but was able to branch out into editorial work as well. Part of that was his ability as an artist but also the market at that time. Fashion art was changing as photos started to take over.

    Going back to Eric for a moment you might be surprised to know that he did an editorial job for Esquire magazine, a series of reportage drawings for CBS, and portraits of high society. Sure they all are drawn in his signature style but they're not his typical fashion work.

    Other big names in the field such as Rene Bouche did fine art oil paintings (portraits). Rene Gruau not only did fashion ads but also did posters as well.

  7. This comment has been removed by the author.

  8. Leif, I was offered a fashion illustration job at the Broadway stores in L.A., by my fashion instructor at (then called) Art Center School. I came close to taking it, since it was a solid offer and a starting point. But, I had the same reservations as you have expressed. However, I really enjoyed fashion drawing and had a "knack" for it, but I felt it might be too repetitious. Perhaps, had I been a fashion illustrator in N.Y., I could have more easily branched out into other avenues of illustration. I remember being told many times throughout my schooling, "Be careful not to keep doing the same type of work over and over again, or you will be "pigeon holed." But, there was a sense of excitement and challenge to draw directly from the model, and achieve a direct, simplified elegant drawing in a short time. When I worked in Chicago, I did freelance fashion illustrations for Sears & Roebuck Co., and also a little fashion illustration in S.F.

    Incidentally, I think Daniel gave a valid comments, and I might add Marburry Brown to that group of mid century fashion illustrators. Brown also did other on-location magazine assignments for Esquire. His work had great flair and simplicity, and I also liked the way he handled the foreground and background props, etc.. mere suggestions.

    Tom Watson

  9. Oops! Spelling correction.. Marbury Brown.

    Tom Watson

  10. Hi Leif. A delight to find your blog today. I shall be making many return visits.
    I was intrigued by your comment on the limitations of fashion illustration.
    Perhaps it was a subconscious decision from you to post such wonderfully creative and conceptual examples?
    They only seem to challenge your own thoughts that this style is restrictive. Personally I can't see how fashion illustrators are any more exclusive than those who devote their careers to say children's books or comics. Or certainly the restrictions imposed were defiantly confronted. Think also of some of the classic pin up artists who were working in a far more niche style yet always managed an interesting use of props to alleviate their images from being completely repetitive.

    I was always very jealous at fashion students at uni. They could draw better than us illustrators.



  11. Tom-

    I've never heard of Marbury Brown before. Sounds like an interesting artists. A quick google search says that he went to the Jepsen school and may have been there at the same time Potter was.

    Do you know where I might be able to find samples of his work?

  12. Somehow the very term "Fashion Illustration" sounds a bit puzzling to me: Because the German term "Modezeichner" (verbatim "fashiondrawer") would translate into "styler".

    There must be a differentiation: between someone creating fashion (the styler), and someone illustrating - both of them bound to and excelling on the drawing board. Both of them depicting their ideas, even if narrowed down to a single repetitious theme.

    But, for instance, wasn't Degas repetitious with his repeatedly rendered and fashioned ballet dancers?

    Perhaps, instead of "repetitious", the term "obsessive" might fit better, because IMO "repetitiousness" hardly implies variety - who knows, perhaps obsessiveness implies some more?

    Just my own observations "made largely out of ignorance", as Leif puts it.

  13. Leif--

    I know this is becoming a tired refrain when I post here, but once again you've posted a revelation for me. Herebefore, I had actually dismissed fashion illustration as just trivial fluff and lifeless. I especially felt (and still feel) that way for contemporary fashion illustration.

    But coming across the work of Rene Gruau and now your posts here on the blog, totally opened my eyes. Just fantastic work and now I feel shamed that I've given this stuff such short shrift undeservedly in the past.

    Once again,
    Thanks, Leif!


  14. Daniel,

    I could never find much info on Marbury Hill Brown, and still haven't found much more than you have, even after spending some time googling him. As I remember, he did mainly men's fashions, suits, overcoats, etc., at least that's all that I evere saw, back in the 60s' and maybe into the 70s'. They were loose charcoal drawings printed on beige or light brown stock, with no color washes added. I specially recall a men's fafshion series he did for Esquire that blew my socks off. After that, I only saw a few more examples at random. He suddenly appeared, and then kinda disappeared, as I recall. However, he may have been doing retail ads, brochures, gallery painting, etc., that I was unaware of. He wrote and illustrated a "how to book" called "BODYWORKS, a visual guide to drawing the figure", that can be found on the Internet. A few people on the Internet have stated they were fashion students in his class, but information on him is almost nothing.

    I once had some nice samples of his work from Esquire Magazine, but they were lost in a move, along with nice examples of other illustrators. I did run across a little sketch he did for the US Coast Guard of a docked sail boat, but found no fashion drawings. I will email the boat sketch to Leif, and maybe he can email it to you, if you can provide your email adress to him.

    Tom Watson

  15. Anonymous10:43 PM

    Hi MY name is Dick Hammond and I did fashion illustrations for Neiman Marcus in Dalles store in the mid 60s. Maubury Brown the mens artist had already left the store and had moved to New York City, doing adds for various accts. GQ magazine, Esquire etc. The staff artists at the time were Jackie Evans, Irma Lee Scruggs, Laurily Lee Oakey and Dick Hammond, A lady name Verge did hard lines. More later

  16. Anonymous9:03 AM

    I was a model at Neiman Marcus in the 1960's. I worked with Jackie Evans, Irma Lee Scruggs and Vergie. I remember Laurile Oakley. Not sure about Dick Hammond. If I saw a photo of him maybe it would jog my memory. The art director was Art Feckedy (spelling?) and he went to to be editor of Ladies Home Journal and then returned to be Advertising Director. I also worked with artist named Dorothy. The other models were John, Linda and Susan who later opened a modeling school and then a Fashion School in the Trade Mart.I think she just wanted to put Neiman Marcus model on her resume. I'd love to hear from anyone who was there in those days. Sue Gafford Piner. I'm on Facebook.

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  18. I had Marbury Brown as an instructor at Ringling School of Art in 1979-80. Somewhere in my files, I have some samples of his work. Great draftsman. He also did some paintings for the Air Force art program.

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