Women on a daily basis face the ordeal of being compared and objectified to one another. Throughout significant social developments and historical events, fashion illustration has been documenting society’s attitude towards body ideals, where illustrators have a tendency of exaggerating desirable features through his/her artistic depiction.
It may never have really occurred to us that on a daily basis, we visually encounter bodies from various viewpoints within their movement. We focus on their shape, size and what they are wearing. We sometimes might be even mesmerised about how well an outfit complements their stunning features, and wonder ourselves if we can ever achieve such a standard of beauty. Visual beauty lies in the eye of the beholder. And for fashion illustrators, a key component to consider while drawing figures is how to visualise the body and its attitude. The figure drawn by the illustrator must try to express a certain attitude that carries the garment well. While artists have been painting models for centuries, they are in a rather still position. In comparison, posing for fashion has created a new language of gestures, which has created a unique aesthetic appeal.
According to Berlin-based illustrator and artist Tina Berning: “Drawing is learning to look properly. The drawer typically starts off with focusing on the body as whole, then singles out a point of interest. If there is an interesting feature on display, rather than recoding it onto the paper faithfully, they exaggerate it in the drawing. Capturing and highlighting a person’s characteristic gives each drawing some type of identity, creating something more personal rather than a ridged drawing.
According to Tony Glenville, the author of New Icons of Fashion Illustration, “A love of women is a key characteristic of many fashion illustrators. There is nothing prurient in their gaze, simply a need to express admiration through the medium of illustration.” One of the illustrators who Glenville has accredited in his book and who translates this admiration though his drawings is Jason Brooks. By commonly highlighting features such as the big almond (smoky) eyes, the voluminous (red) lips, Brooks has been able to capture his own depiction of the contemporary female archetype in his illustrations. These particular features along with thinness represent youth and sexual ambiguity. Therefore, possessing this particular look is a very desirable standard of beauty to have amongst the majority of society. We might be idolising this particular body type and its features ostensibly far too much, even to such an extreme that an unrealistic authentic appearance of what the female body should look like has developed.
Some fashion illustrations from different eras have features far more exaggerated than others, which have developed over time. One of the significant changes easy to identify is that fashion template figures have become much thinner and elongated over the past few decades. Two fashion illustration titles – the 1980s title by Kojiro Kumagai, Fashion Illustration 2:Expressing Texturesas well as Sue Jenkyn Jones, Fashion Design – have obvious differences when compared. The 21st century images were half the body size of those in the 1980s. It is a pretty radical factor to realise how the standard of thinness amongst society has developed within just a significant 20-year timeframe. Today’s models weigh 23% less than the average person. In the 1980s, this percentage was just 8%. Therefore, the standard of thinness has increased by 15%. Can we dare to imagine how much more extreme our ideals could potentially develop into in yet another 20 years’ time?
This particular development between the 1980s and now is attributable to a cultural paradigm shift in the 1990s. The athletically inspired “Glamazon” models – such as Cindy Crawford and Elle Macpherson – reigned supreme in the 1980s. During the 1990s, there was a whole new breed of women, such as the likes of Kate Moss, who were idolised. Waifish models (no, not actual models who look like fish) were promoting an entirely different look. The term “Waif” originates from describing someone as a street urchin: in other words, someone who looks really gritty, poor and thin. In the 1960s, Twiggy and her pale and interesting look made her the precursor of this waifish model look. This sickly, poverty chic, ‘grunge’ look of the 1980s was a rebellious response and reaction to the “boobilishous” Sports Illustrated cover girl-looking, body types from the 1980s. Fashion Illustration 2by Kojiro shows wide shoulders were an exaggerated feature in many drawings, appropriated to suite the idealism of the athletic body type of this particular era. This also obviously reflected fashion, where shoulder padded jackets had become such a huge statement garment.
One can argue that this so-called glamour queen appearance – i.e. having a slender body with large breasts – was more idealistic rather than realistic. Models who felt pressured to have such an idealised hourglass archetype would undergo breast implant surgery. Nevertheless, is this “skin-and-bones” look that has been idolised since the 1990s really a more realistic interpretation of how the female body should look like?
The works of Spanish artist, Rei Nadal, show her elongated figures have giraffe-like long legs. Fashion illustrators in this current era seem to always exaggerate the female legs, length-wise. This exaggeration of height implies superiority, reflecting how within society some women have a tendency to constantly compete with one another. Because of this constant competitiveness, some women feel like they have the need to go through such extremes to feel more desirable and keep up with society’s impossible standard of beauty.
Several years ago, there was an MTV show hosted by Jessica Simpson called The Price of Beauty. It was a reality/documentary show that revealed how various cultures/races formed their idea of beauty. It also showed how far some people were willing to go to obtain a high standard of beauty in order to increase their desirability. One episode revealed how a Japanese woman wanted to have cosmetic eye surgery to reshape her eyes to look Western. When Jessica Simpson asked why she wanted to go through the procedure, she said, “Amongst Japanese culture, the bigger the eyes, the more beautiful you are. And I wanted to have bigger eyes like you do,” referring to Simpson. This person may be shocked to learn that most people might see that there was absolutely nothing wrong with her.
Despite each culture around the world having its own perception of what is considered desirable, one cannot help but notice that Western beauty ideals seem to be put on top of a pedestal. Western idolisation (or perhaps one can argue domination), predictably glorified through various mediums, has perhaps influenced other people within other cultures to disregard their own ideals. Before the likes of Naomi Campbell and the ever so sassy Tyra Banks, fashion was originally a white Western phenomenon. Reflecting society’s attitude towards racism, fashion illustrations of women have been dominantly drawn with white skin tone and typical white features. Thanks to significant events that have led to acceptance and social development, illustrations of black models have begun to appear in fashion books.
Taking into account Glenville’s quote, if illustrations are meant to display a love for women, should consideration be given to the premise that all women can be loved regardless of their features? Why is there such an obsession with fantasy that reality is no longer appreciated? Are illustrators really undermining women and making them think that is the way they should look? Or are they just documenting society’s attitude towards body ideals. Indeed, if society had different ideals, what would illustrations look like and what features would be exaggerated? These drawings with exaggerated features may be nothing more than the depicted re-interpretation of the artist. It is their own visualisation of a figure wearing garments, which they draw in an aesthetically pleasing way in order to engage with the viewer. Ultimately, idealistically drawn features should never make people forget to appreciate real features, which are often outside commercialised expectations.
Tina Bering Illustration. Image 1 [online image] http://thelemonspank.files.wordpress.com/2010/09/artwork_images_424236030_432222_michelangelodibattistatina-berning.jpg [Accessed March 2014]