Fine lines between art, craft

The ability of fashion illustrations to communicate design is being rediscovered in the age of the post, Amanda Mills writes.

Within the Hocken’s collections are examples of fashion and dress illustration, on artworks, in ephemera, and among the archives and publications.

In the 1950s and 60s, fashion photography was introduced and the focus shifted to the newest trends. Fashion illustration was the key medium for the fashion press at the beginning of the 20th century. Inspirational and evocative all at once, it blurred the line between design, art, and fashion. Fashion photography became the dominant medium by the mid-20th Century.

Fashion photography met the needs of a brand’s marketing department, and photographic editorials appealed to consumers as photographers could take an image and have it quickly available to the public. With the arrival of social media — and the smartphone — images from fashion shows were appearing instantly. In a paradoxical way, the emergence of social media and smartphones has revived fashion and dress illustrations. The images are drawn in a variety of artistic styles. Illustrations are a great alternative to endless scrolling of photos.

Fashion and dress illustrations were an art form before fashion photography. Artists like Georges Barbier Erte Rene Gruau Barbara Hulanicki and Barbara Hulanicki, who focused on dress and clothing instead of portraiture, often depicted people in their best garments.

Fashion design can also double as fashion illustration, with designers’ sketches showing not only the design idea, but detail, colour and garment movement and draping.

Some use only the outline of a garment to convey a sense of style. Design illustrations like this are held at Hocken Collections, in the records of Avice Bowbyes (1901-1992), former head of the University of Otago’s clothing department in the faculty of home science between 1929-1961.

During her second sabbatical to the L’Ecole de la Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisenne (a couture “school” in Paris) in the mid-1950s, she acquired a press pass to view French designers’ new collections. Bowbyes’ papers include invitations from these shows, as well as photographs and line drawings of different garments from both the Jacques Fath and Schiaparelli collections.

Line drawings are more dramatic than photographs. The Fath drawings, in particular, are simple, showing only the silhouette of the dress with minimal lines. They also appear complete. The drawings are not detailed but they can help the viewer imagine what finished clothing would look like.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, advertising was a key use for fashion and clothing illustrations.

Print advertisements are illustrated by retailers. Larger stores employed full-time copywriters and commercial artists, while smaller stores relied on external art departments and advertising agencies. Companies such as Sargood, Son & Ewen (local manufacturers of clothing and footwear between 1861-1873) used illustration to advertise fashion and dress on a number of their brochures, cards and company invitations to fashion shows. The records of Sargood, Son & Ewen held in Hocken’s archives provide evidence of these advertisements and invitations showcasing textiles, apparel, shoes and accessories.

The brochures from 1915 and 16 feature full-colour, detailed illustrations showing women wearing fashionable, decorative gowns. The brochure for the 1916 Spring Show is particularly striking. The illustrated garment has been meticulously detailed. It includes the floral pattern on cape and trim, the contrast pattern on dress, the plumage of the hat and heels on shoes, and even the floral pattern on the cape.

Two peacocks are in the foreground, with their colorful plumage blending into the gown.

Hocken Collections offers a variety of illustrations and fashions.


 – Hocken Collections is open Tuesday-Saturday, 10am-5pm. Public stack tours are available on Thursday mornings at 11am. Inquiries (03)479-8868 or

Amanda Mills, Hocken liaison librarian, is curator of music and audiovisual collections.

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