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Fashion illustration vs. superheroines, pinups and fantasy art

Harriet Olivia has the following to say about fashion illustration

One of the most oft-cited idiotic excuses designers use to defend their choice of wafer-thin models on the catwalks, is some variation on the “curves – breasts and thighs and rounded bits - ruin the line of the clothes”/“the design was perfect on paper, it gets distorted by breasts” etc.

What they’re talking about is how the ideal of the design, on paper, works differently when translated into fabric and placed on a real body. Inevitably, when one designs in a 2D paper format, the final result will be different. You’re going from a painting to an object. Yet, rather than accept that the finished piece (a dress, skirt, trouser, what have you), is the real design, and the original illustration is merely a piece of artistic whimsy, designers all too often cling to the illustration as the perfect realisation of the design, with the clothing itself a poor facsimile of what could have been.

In a sane world, we would shake our heads and say, “But isn’t the point of designing clothes to design, well, clothes? So if you can’t design a dress on paper that works well when made, you’re not very good at your job. And if you only want to design dresses on paper, go off and be a painter, or a full-time illustrator.”

But this is fashion. So instead, as we’ve seen, we blame the models for distorting the design/ruining the line/stretching the fabric. That’s not exactly what I want to examine here: we’ve discussed designers’ wacky views of women’s bodies on the catwalk fairly often; let’s now move the discussion over to how they imagine women’s bodies.

Ever noticed that the women in fashion illustrations have something in common, both with each other, and with catwalk models? Let’s take a look:

Examples of fashion illustration.

Ceci n’est pas des femmes

Now, fashion illustrators are not typically the designers themselves, but it is easy to show that the blame does not lie with the illustrators since they are doing what they are asked to do.  This is illustrated well by the following comment left by Milla at the site from which the previous excerpt is taken from –

I am a plus size woman and I am studying fashion design and aspire to have my own plus size line or work with a plus size label.

I am presently taking fashion illustration and design in school.


I tried because that is how I drew then before I took the class and every time we draw the croquis ( the figures) non thin we get ducked points and grades.... I have so far this semester gotten away with drawing one black illustration ( she looks like Tina Turner :-) ) But she also penalizes us for that.

She said this out loud in class:

“You are drawing them like size 18s. Size 18 IS NOT FASHION”. I AM a Size 18 and I almost cried my eyes out because it was so discriminatory and offensive.

I tried complaining to other teachers and to the chairperson of the department but they supported the illustration teacher.

Now I am forced to draw skinny figures or I fail. And I need the class because I am applying to Central St. Martins in London so I can become a big time plus size designer....


The good news is that awareness of the role played by homosexual fashion designers is spreading since one indirectly referenced it and another explicitly laid the blame on this group in the comments on the article.  There were two opposing commentators, Caz and Downtown Venus.  Caz described this notion as simplistic, a bit homophobic and alleged that homosexual men are not more misogynistic than heterosexual men.   

However, misogyny is not an issue.  Women come in diverse shapes.  A skinny woman is not less of a woman compared to an overweight woman, and if the industry loves the very thin ones, then it does not follow that the dominant individuals somehow dislike women in general.  Since women are their major customers, why would they dislike women as a group?  The dominant designers just favor a narrow subset of women’s physiques.  Their choices reflect their personal aesthetic preferences, which lean toward the looks of boys in their early adolescence.

Here are some examples of illustrations that strongly contrast with the typical fashion illustration, and they are taken from the realms of video games, pin up art, fantasy art and comic book superheroines –

Lara Croft, Alberto Vargas, Carlos Cartagena, Lorenzo Sperlonga, Red Sonja, Starfire, She-Hulk.

Legend: Shown from top to bottom: Lara Croft (Tomb Raider video game), pinup by Alberto Vargas, pinup by Carlos Cartagena, fantasy art by Lorenzo Sperlonga, Red Sonja, Starfire (Teen Titans), and She-Hulk (note feminine curves in spite of the muscularity required of the character).

The reader can guess what the typical fashion illustration would look like if heterosexual men dominated the fashion industry.  A reader emailed me the following –

Anyhow, one thing that occurred to me as possible examples of what men find attractive in women are possibly superheroines - their figures (if not always their faces) are hyper-feminine (to the point of fantasy, but that illustrates the point really); faces of some you might categorize as “masculine” (I suppose drawn that way because they look “tougher”, but even the ones with stern looks tend to have more femininely-drawn faces when in “streetcloths” rather than battle scenes). Some of them are heavily muscled, but not a majority - even of the ones known for skill in melee combat. Virtually all are very busty/busomy, have slender waists, wide hips, and rounded fundiments. The only exceptions being ones depicted as being young (thus girlish figures rather than womanly).

See also “Most Common Super Power” trope at tvtropes:

Compare Starfire of the Teen Titans comics with Starfire of the ugly TV show version - Starfire of the comic is hawt, Starfire of the cartoon show is nawt, plus is a moron).

Girlfriends of male superheroes display this even better (since they don’t have “masculine” strength and don’t need to look stern/determined in combat - which isn’t to say that a real woman can’t look stern/determined, but the shortcut way for an artist to draw someone looking that way, when they don’t have an actress of the caliber of Vivien Leigh playing Scarlett in a scene of determination, is to make their face look somewhat manly) - typically being very feminine.

These characters - especially the ones created decades ago - were created by heterosexual males for an audience of “red-blooded men”. Few if any real women have figures to match them, but the point is that’s a fantasy-extreme depiction of the figure hetro men find most attractive/sexy. Hardly any of them look the least bit like supermodels. Supermodels are much more likely to look like adolescent boys from a crack den than have a figure like Linda Carter's (TV's Wonder Woman - what a figure).

See also “Jessica Rabbit”.

Pertaining to overweight physiques, Downtown Venus blames “individual lack of aesthetic sensibility to larger body shapes,” but this is characteristic of the great majority of the Western population, i.e., even if the fashion industry were dominated by heterosexual men or heterosexual women, most fashion illustrations would not depict overweight women.  What should be noted is that high-fashion models are not just very thin, they also tend to be masculine, and the industry has a penchant for using girls in their mid-teens to market to adult women.  The combination of these features makes female models come close to resembling boys in their early adolescence.

Girls bearing an uncanny resemblance to adolescent boys are few in number just as very feminine women are uncommon, and big fashion designers are in a much better position to find models with the looks they like compared to my ability to come up with feminine beauty since I don’t have much of a choice other than heavily relying on nude models, and the best looking women don’t pose nude.  Still, there are striking contrasts shown within this site, but they don’t even compare to the contrast in the realm of fantasy, as illustrated by fashion illustrations vs. superheroines, pinups and fantasy art.



I have always found that interesting how in cartoons and comic books, women tend to have heavily feminine features. Like in spider-man comics, no matter the artist, Mary Jane always had the same kind of features - large breats, extremely small waist, rounded hips and butt. That was were I always got my view of how women should look, not from fashion.

The point is the women themseleves are also find skinny dreamlike fashion cloths are beautiful and many of average and over weight shape women keep trying to lose their weight to get themselves look like the illustrator models on the fashion designer's paper.
if what the fashion models have designed are not good in the eyes of women(customer), then the skinny's train won't be poppular that much like this? I think the gay fashion designers are delicate enough to know women mind, what are the styles women prefer? and that's the reason why the skinny fashion models are the ideal of many women around the world. I accept that's not all women find skinny to be pretty but I think the group that find skinny to be pretty are much more than the group that like chubby or average shape. this due to the body that lesser curvaceous and fat are look like a child. most of the women do not want men to think of them as vulgar pornstars.

I like art and I do not find anything wrong with the skinny fashion models and I think they encourage the mystery, dreamlike and charming cloths they wearing on the catwalk. I know that they are too skinny but they look beautiful and charmy like a women in arthur rackham fairy's tale illustration. and I think many of women are delicate than the men so they wanted to have their shape like women that come out from fairy tales.

Let me emphasise a very important, but difficult, concept to you, which the majority of heterosexual do not seem to have trouble with. Skinniness in a girl does _not_ equate to "boyishness", assuming the girl is otherwise physiologically normal. The few examples of slender yet feminine girls which you have given are merely BMI-upcategorised variations of the many girls you dismiss as androgynous, even though most of these girls are clearly discernible as feminine on their own merits.

In the many sections where you make direct masculine-feminine comparisons between images, the comparisons are often systematically confounded by such simple factors as posture, camera angle, lighting, makeup and picture cropping. You then proceed to assess these individuals using often speculative and/or overly stringent biometric criteria that are themslves highly subject to some important confounding factors, such as racial diversity, height, weight and physical activity (determining muscle distribution). Even given this data skew, it still takes some stretch of imagination in most cases to correlate the physical appearance of said fashion models to adolescent males.

The weight-dependent markers of femininity which you repeatedly focus on to prove your point (breast, buttock size, pelvic breadth, among others) are still clearly evident in the majority of healthy ectomorphic girls. These markers _cannot_ be treated as independent and linear indicators of virilisation/androgyny, because that is not consistent with what we know of human physiology. Furthermore, there are hundreds of non-weight dependent markers of gender congruity as part of the gender discernment process which you have overlooked.

If part of your argument is that there is something intrinsically feminine about being heavier, I would like to refer you to various resources and studies which suggest otherwise. Sex hormones play a role in macroanatomic fat distribution, but their effects on absolute weight and BMI are nominal. This contrasts with the widely-held misconception that it is physiological for women to be bordering on overweight. The latter is much more likely attributable to the traditionally more sedentary lifestyle of women and peripubertal girls, rather than a manifestation of hormonal anabolism per se.

The majority of healthy ectomorphic females represent a different visual archetype of femininity than the heavier women we have seen in more recent centuries as a result of improved nutrition and an increasingly sedentary lifestyle. I suspect that the standards of masculinity and femininity with which you are judging these girls are inherently skewed. Certainly, your personal selection of "attractive" women would seem to suggest that at least one part of this equation is atypical. They are, by any measure, remarkably homogenous in body archetype, craniofacial proportion and race. I would not be surprised if your own standards of masculinity were concurrently feminised.

I think I'll listen to Karl because he seems somewhat intelligent. Erik seems intelligent as well just not as intelligent as Karl and Karl isn't biased like Erik.

Someone said that she will listen to Karl because he sounds more intelligent and non-biased. The basis for listening to a person should be the substance in his arguments, not his perceived intelligence or biases.

Most of Karl’s points address arguments that bear no resemblance to mine. He points out that a high level of thinness in girls/women does not equate to boyishness. Of course it doesn’t. Who hasn’t seen plenty of overweight/obese boys, clearly male in spite of being fatter than many/most girls? The important issue is skeletal shape, on which I focus much more on than body fat, and this Karl ignores – he accuses me of ignoring a large number of non-weight-dependent markers of gender congruity, but skeletal shape is a non-weight ‘marker.’ Then I consider the combination of skeletal features and body fat levels/distribution, which is the key.

Karl also brings in the issue of gender/sex recognition (gender discernment), but this is of little relevance here. Most women I am describing as masculinized are recognizable as female and are feminine compared to men, but not feminine among women in general.

Karl writes as if I am treating indicators of femininity as independent, but why then would I be talking about the global effects of sex hormones?

Karl wonders whether part of my argument is that there is something intrinsically feminine about being heavier, but ever since this site was set up, I have posted an article citing evidence that obese women tend to have above average testosterone levels (see ‘eating disorders’ link at the navigation bar on top of this page). Additionally, the women that I have been labeling as attractive are within a subset of the medically healthy range of body fat levels and mostly closer to the lower end of this range.

Karl mentions that my selection of attractive women is ‘remarkably homogenous in body archetype, craniofacial proportion and race.’ But given that this site is targeting people of European ancestry, the diversity should be judged within the context of European phenotypes, and plenty of European diversity is represented within this site.

Karl would not be surprised if my standards of masculinity are feminized. Information on ‘my standards’ of masculinity can be found here.

Karl has a valid point that many of my photographic comparisons are confounded by posture and other correlates of photography, but we have lots of pictures to work with, and the conclusions are clear. Certainly, no stretch of the imagination is required to note that the faces of these female fashion models bear an uncanny resemblance to those of adolescent boys.

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