Drawing on Style – fashion illustration from heaven

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Jane Bixby Weller (1926- ) Balenciaga Hat

Drawing on Style is a gorgeous celebration of fashion illustration and specialist gallery Gray MCA’s contribution to the London Fashion Week schedule. It sets work from some of the masters of twentieth century fashion illustration – Christian Berard (1902-1949), Rene Bouche (1905-1963), Rene Gruau (1909-2004) – alongside beautiful pieces by today’s artists, Bill Donovan, Jack Potter and Conrad Roset and work from Nick Knight’s SHOWstudio.

Most striking of all is the way these drawings all add a context to the clothing they depict. Whether it is creating an atmosphere of languor, glamour or serenity; or whether it is communicating energy and verve through the brevity of a brushstroke, they transport the viewer into another existence.

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Carl ‘Eric’ Erickson (1891-1958) Paris 1948

The image above is a perfect example of the power of fashion illustration. We see a female wearing a plain green jacket with a long checked skirt and some very sensible looking shoes. The outfit itself is unremarkable, even dowdy. It is unlikely that this lady would attract our attention in the street. As an illustration though, it draws the eye as she hitches up her skirt into a waterfall ruffle, revealing a well-shaped leg. She is calm and satisfied with her look, relaxed with the air of a person who does not know they are being watched, and so we have the sense of spying on an unguarded moment.

If illustration can do this for a nondescript skirt and jacket, what can it do for truly fabulous clothing?

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Rene Bouche (1905-1963) Red Suit, Conde Nast January 1950

Rene Bouche and Rene Gruau will be forever associated with the titans of post-war haute couture, Givenchy, Balenciaga, Schiaparelli, Lanvin and, for Gruau, Christian Dior and the New Look.  These pictures ignite as much desire today as they did for a post-war world, exhausted with austerity and rationing.

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Christian Berard (1902-1949) Model in Evening Dress

It is also very exciting to see a work by Christian ‘Bebe’ Berard. In her memoir, ‘DV’, Diana Vreeland noted his enormous design talent: ‘Where he put his hand was like the golden touch’ whether that was scenery and costumes for the theatre or fashion illustration for Coco Chanel, Elsa Schiaparelli, Jean Patou and Nina Ricci.  His work also appeared regularly in Vogue and Harpers Bazaar.  Most touching is Vreeland’s amazement that her maid had identified him in a New York street having never set eyes on him before: ‘But, madame, he is just as you described him – a little man, a dancer, with pointed shoes, and his face turned toward heaven.’ And isn’t that exactly what each of these gifted illustrators do for the fashion lover – turn our faces heavenwards, just for a moment?

If you’re in London before 20 September don’t miss this wonderful show: 10am-6.30pm at Gallery 8, 8 Duke Street, St James, London.  A daily talk on the history of fashion illustration takes place from 1.30-2.30pm and you can see the whole collection at www.graymca.co.uk

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