The fantasy and elegance of fashion illustrations can often capture a magic that eludes photographs – as recently as the 1970s they appeared in Vogue and Harpers & Queen. To coincide with London Fashion Week, specialist art firm Gray MCA is holding an exhibition of original fashion illustrations from the 1940s to the 1970s, which runs September 11-16.
“For too long, fashion illustrators and their illustrations have been seen as a secondary art form,” says Connie Gray, co-founder of Gray MCA. Yet these illustrators created their own recognisable style to distinguish them from their peers, and honed specialised skills to deliver their images. “They needed to understand not only the life form but also the process of designing, cutting and finishing a garment and the ability to translate what they saw into a work of art that would sell a thousand frocks.”
The exhibition will include more than 40 original works by some of the leading illustrators of the time from Britain, Europe and America – including René Bouché (illustration from US Vogue, £4,500, second picture), René Gruau (Jean Barthet, £6,000, third picture) and Carl “Eric” Erickson (Black Magic Chocolates, £5,000, fourth picture), who each worked for publications including British and US Vogue, Harpers & Queen and The Sunday Times, as well as creating advertising for L’Oréal and famous names in haute couture such as Nina Ricci.
In addition to illustrations, there is a selection of original drawings by designers including Barbara Hulanicki of Biba and Zandra Rhodes (wedding dress II, dating from 1972, £750, first picture). But it is the sketches by Christian Dior that stand out – especially those that show how he began to craft his postwar “New Look”.
Times have changed and at fashion-week shows live online streaming is becoming more commonplace where once, during the 1940s and 1950s, fashion illustrators were forbidden from recording the models until they had left the event. They would rush to the nearest café to produce the sketches from memory, making these remarkable interpretations of the runway even more precious.