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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:
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 toofatforfashion.blogspot.com 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.
The teacher DOES NOT ALLOW US TO DRAW LARGER WOMEN.
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 –
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.