A fine line up - Colin McDowell curates Drawing Fashion

Fashion drawings come out of the closet at the Design Museum, London
Georg Lepape, Feuillets d'art (1916)
Georg Lepape, Feuillets d'art (1916)



Design Museum, London, United Kingdom


From: 3 November 2010
Until: 6 March 2011

Drawing Fashion

Opening hours:
Daily: 10am - 5.45pm
Last admission at 5.15pm




As photographers begin to chafe at what Ellen von Unwerth has called the stifling of creativity by the timidity of advertisers, it seems that this is a good moment to be bringing fashion drawing out of the closet it was unfairly put in by magazine editors in the past - also in response to the demands of advertisers. Unwerth's comments are worth revisiting but much more exciting for me at this point is the fact that Drawing Fashion, the Design Museum exhibition that I am curating, is opening on November 3, the first major comprehensive exhibition to be staged in London devoted solely to the art of fashion drawing over the last hundred years.

I have always responded to drawing as strongly as to finished paintings as they show us the working of the artist's mind so clearly, and I have always loved fashion drawing for the same reason - plus the fact that the good ones show us the way the designer's mind also works. True fashion drawing has a very special role in fashion creativity - something rather forgotten today by many of the slick illustrators who have a certain skill but nothing at all to say with it. A good drawing illuminates the clothes not only for the public but frequently for the fashion designer himself.

The works on show at the Design Museum have been carefully selected to show fashion drawings not as mindless exercises in empty technique but as works of art in their own right. They all come from the private archive of agent and collector, Joelle Chariau, which is probably the biggest and best collection of fashion illustrations in private hands in the world. Together, Joelle and I made our selection on two criteria - artistic quality had to be of the very highest calibre and that means not just the perfection of technique but also the ability to draw clothes from an understanding of how they are made and how they move when worn - just like all artists must.

Fashionable dress has been important to artists for centuries, as the drawings of Holbein, Rembrandt and Ingres make clear. From the eighteenth century until very recently the dissemination of fashion was the job of the illustrators whose fashion plates and work in magazines swept out from Paris twice a year to be eagerly perused by ladies of style everywhere. Their lively depictions of the latest styles and the fashionable mis en scène stimulated the imaginations of women who knew from looking at them not just what the new mode was but the fashionable way to wear it.

But it is arguable that the art of drawing fashion reached its real heights early in the last century, starting with the work of artists such as Lepape, Benito and Erte, who began working before World War I, bringing wit and style to magazines with their assured draughtsmanship that reflected the Ballets russes, Art Deco and all the modern art movements of that amazingly creative time. Later, in the thirties, talents like Eric and Gruau emerged, ready to capture the elegance of the time and especially the glamour of Dior's 1947 New Look in drawings confidently swirling across the pages of Vogue and Harpers Bazaar, perfectly recreating the movement and style of the most romantic and beautiful clothes of the century. 

When times changed in the seventies and fashion turned from Paris to New York as the coolest fashion city on the globe, fashion artist Antonio, the youngest and coolest of them all, was ready and waiting to capture the new mood. Often surrounded by his gang, including Halston, Lagerfeld, Warhol, Jerry Hall and Paloma Picasso, who partied around him all night, he showed fashion in an entirely new way - no more elegant salons but, instead, the reality of street life: girls on bikes, hair flowing, disco dancing and having fun in drawings so full of energy and movement that looking at them today brings the period vibrantly alive before our eyes.

And so the story comes up to date with the two greatest talents working today. Mats Gustafson's soft layers of ink and watercolour on paper have an ethereal quality that perfectly captures the subtlety and beauty of designers such as Yohji Yamamoto and Alexander McQueen whose work he illustrates with such delicacy; and François Berthoud, the master of the many different techniques he uses to create his often amazingly sexy campaigns for the likes of La Perla, Armani and Chanel, bringing the wheel full circle with his modern take on the wit and assurance of the artists of a hundred years ago who drew their world with the same passion and sense of fun as he does.  

Drawing Fashion has been an eye-opening experience for me and, I am sure, will be for you. 


Colin McDowell is a fashion historian and author of many books on the subject, including Fashion Today


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