Sunday, 16 April 2017

Fashion drawing in the 1930s

When she is not hunting out 'interesting' items for me in the Oxfam bookshop in town, or going to local auctions, my friend F is an artist. Recently we successfully bid for a mixed lot between us, as it contained some vintage patterns for me and a box of issues of The Artist magazine from the 1930s for her.

Glancing through the magazines I came across a series of articles on fashion drawing. These ran from September 1935 to February 1936, and took a firmly 'commercial' approach. (All the following illustrations are from the magazine articles, unless otherwise stated.) The author, who was general manager of a commercial studio, began by lamenting the fact that most students wanted to become poster artists or illustrators, and regarded commercial fashion work as distinctly second-best. As a result, in his opinion, they had no idea of what was required, and filled their portfolios with examples such as this:

How not to do it

Better, but still not right

I hadn't really thought about this, but of course there must have been a huge amount of fashion drawing work at the time, because photography was so little used. Looking through the 1930s magazines I own, photography seems to have been reserved for illustrating knitting patterns.

Stitchcraft, August 1937

This article on knitted clothes in Paris uses illustrations.

Stitchcraft, September 1936

Photography was expensive, but this wasn't the only reason it was rarely used. Mr Hymers (the author of the series) wrote that, "the fashion idealization of the human figure is impossible without intensive and costly retouching". Given that he recommended that figures should be drawn as nine heads tall (the reality is seven and a half heads tall), you can see why photographs would be of limited use.

Colour printing was also rare and expensive, and colour commissions were kept for the best artists. Therefore Mr Hymers advised students not to include colour work in their portfolios.

Colour spread in Good Needlework, December 1935

Even magazine covers were often only a single colour. For example the artwork on this cover is reused in the magazine, but in black and white.

Mabs Weekly, June 1934

What was needed for fashion drawing was a knowledge of, "clothes, dressmaking, sales psychology and . . . 'fashion trend'". Obviously for something like this 1935 article on remodelling last year's evening frocks, it was important that the reader could clearly see how and where the alterations were made.

Good Needlework, February 1935

Similarly, an advertisement for the magazine's dress patterns would need clear illustrations.

Woman's Weekly, February 1938

For clothing advertisements, Mr Hymers recommended talking to the buyers if possible, as they would know what a garment's selling points were, and what to emphasize.

Stitchcraft, September 1936

Later articles covered the different types of illustration. For commercial work line, line and wash, and full wash were the most common, although occasionally something like conté pencil might be used.

The three stages of a wash illustration

Dry brush drawing

Full wash drawing

Conté and wash drawing

Dry brush on rough board

The articles also included some information on grouping figures and block making.

Good grouping

Bad grouping; sadly there's no explanation of what is wrong with this

It was necessary to consider the practicalities of block making when deciding poses. For example, an extended arm on a nine inch high figure could add a further nine square inches to the block; and the block maker would charge accordingly.

Perhaps most important of all was the need to consider the target audience; the type of woman who would buy the clothes being illustrated. Mr Hymers warned:
"The average woman reader of the Midlands or North, particularly such as buys from mail order catalogues, is repelled by a sketch showing a woman with cigarette, ear-rings, plucked eyebrows or other features which might prove exceedingly attractive to a different type".

He then made things even worse (to this modern, northern reader at least) by adding, "Whereas the smart woman . . .". Ouch.

The final article ended with advice on applying for a position in fashion drawing.
"Dress as neatly and smartly as you can, but do not try to impress by extremes, as this casts doubts on your knowledge of what smart women should wear."
To me this suggests that the author expected women to be applying for these jobs.

All of which reminded me of the fashion illustrations in the Putting on the Glitz exhibition at the Lady Lever Art Gallery.

A selection of hat illustrations from the exhibition

These were all the work of Winifred Aileen Brown, who learned fashion drawing through a correspondence course, and worked as a freelance illustrator from 1925 until she married in 1935.

Winifred Aileen Brown

Winifred did work for local department stores in Liverpool and Chester, but all the illustrations in the exhibition were for George Henry Lee & Co (now part of John Lewis). She would be called to the store to sketch live models wearing the latest fashions, and her drawings would then be used in adverts in the local papers.

George Henry Lee advert

As she made a lot of clothes for herself and her friends, Winifred clearly fulfilled Mr Hymers’ requirement for knowledge of clothes and dressmaking. Given that the ladies in her hat illustrations are wearing earrings and clearly have plucked eyebrows however, Lee’s target audience was obviously not the 'average woman reader' of the North!

Earrings! Make-up! Furs!


  1. I love this post! The illustrations alone are truly wonderful but I love all the advice from Mr Hymers.

    I worked as a fashion illustrator for a New York based knit fabric company for a while and loved doing all my illustrations. I was pretty much left to my own devices, just given examples of the fabrics and a theme title they were based around, then i could just go to town with my work. I used a similar technique described by Mr Hymers, using a paint wash and then pens or pencils to define everything.

    I also nearly ended up working for Debenhams doing fashion illustration but their wages were ridiculously low, so I turned it down. It's a dying art now unfortunately. Photography, Photoshop and airbrushing are what it's all about nowadays. xx

  2. Oh, and I forgot to ask, is that your Mabs magazine? I have a Mabs pattern and would love to find more. The one I have is so straightforward but the final garment looks really complicated. If all their patterns were like that then I'd be a big fan! xx

  3. Thank you Cate! I didn't realise that there was still any call for fashion illustration at all; I assumed that it would be long gone by now.

    Yes it is my Mabs magazine. Unfortunately it doesn't have the pattern with it.

    By the way, the jumper in the photograph is knitted with a crocheted yoke - I must admit I chose that particular example because I thought you might be interested!