Its roots may be in clothes, but fashion illustration is a style in itself, and it is currently enjoying a renaissance, says Graeme Aymer

It is a wonderful thought that in these times of rationality, there is still a time and place for the imagination and possibility of illustration. Rather than photoreality, megapixels and polygons, illustration makes a virtue of line and shade, detail and concealment. This is especially true of fashion illustration.

The world of fashion thrives at the cutting edge, inspiring illustrators to produce particularly fresh, innovative graphics. Not only must this work be particularly eye-catching, it must also connect with the viewer, encouraging desire and aspiration. Fashion illustration is not necessarily about the hard sell of clothes, or their literal depiction. Rather, it is about setting a tone or mood, which is often achieved by careful control of what elements within a composition are shown in detail, with others appearing merely as a sketch. Fashion illustration is often a contrast of detail and the lack of detail. 

Above and top Daisy Fletcher's distinctive hand-drawn lines hark back to a golden era of illustration

It has not always been the case, though. In the early 20th century, fashion illustration was far different from its present-day version. Fashion itself was for the wealthy, and, as there was little photography, illustration was the only way to show the designs in question. Clothes tended towards the stiff, formal and tailor-made, as did the accompanying illustrations.

Several developments made a difference. One was the First World War. Women were called upon to do the manual jobs of the men away fighting. As such, it became more acceptable, almost necessary, for womenswear in particular to be looser and more practical and comfortable. There was also a rise of mass-produced clothes coupled with a post-war boom, so ordinary working people found it easier to buy ready-made clothes. Of course, they needed mediation to help them decide what to buy.

Sarah Arnett’s Green Landscape is inspired by her love of gardening and nature

Also, there was a change in fashion style itself. Coco Chanel, for example, led the march toward the famous ‘little black dress’, again a million miles away from the stiff, corseted days before the 1920s.

The art world was developing at feverish pace, too. The early 20th century saw art movements spread like wildfire. Picasso and the Cubists was one example. Then there were more graphically led movements such as the Futurists and Constructivists, with their Year-Zero mentalities attempting to rewrite the rulebook, and succeeding in many cases. Fashion became fixated by the East. In terms of the clothes, it meant harem trousers and turbans becoming popular as womenswear, for example; for illustrators, there was the adoption of Chinese and Japanese calligraphy-based art, with its sweeping lines, flat perspective and limited colour palette.

There was also photography. Cameras became smaller and more portable throughout the first half of the last century, and their use grew in the fashion press. Photography then, as it does now, put a squeeze on illustrators. They could not compete like for like. So, illustration evolved away from literal representation. Instead, it went for mood and suggestion.

By the middle of the 20th century, illustrators such as Carl ‘Eric’ Erickson, Marcel Vertès and the ubiquitous René Gruau were deftly manipulating our gazes and imaginations. Their work and that of others chose its areas of detail very carefully. Detail was reserved for a print of a fabric, an item of millinery, or an article of jewellery for example. Other areas seemed almost sketched. There was also just enough to make sure you, the viewer, understood the admiration that would be bestowed on you by choosing the product in question.

Erin Petson’s Mademoiselle Shush was created to be shown alongside a retrospective of René Gruau’s work at Somerset House

Also, there was glamour – lashings of it. Depictions of women were always elegant, mysterious and carefree. Men were confident, masculine and charming. Furthermore, images did not have to feature models; for example, in one image to sell Dior perfume, René famously drew a swan wearing a pearl necklace and a bow.