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February 13, 2024

Sean Toomey

Fashion marketing and photography have changed so much since their modern inception around the beginning of the 20th century. More and more, the clothes and the styles being sold have been trending towards the candid; Ready to wear brands are now focusing on how you might wear their clothes in everyday life, the things your clothes might be there for, the memories you have in them. This tendency towards worldbuilding has allowed consumers to create a far deeper connection with their clothes – specifically in the ready-to-wear sphere – than the traditional photoshoot might allow. But this preference – the aura of lived experience in the clothes – did not arrive in today’s scene all by itself. Rather, this new trend of worldbuilding, carrying on a more street level variation of Bruce Weber’s WASPy exuberance with Ralph Lauren and Aldo Fallai’s black and white shoots with Armani, has its roots in the lost art of fashion illustration.

Fashion illustration has been around as long as people wore clothes and had enough sense to judge other people for not looking as cool as them in their clothes. The modern sense of it blossomed at the start of the twentieth century and exploded in the jazz age as magazines like Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar explored new styles for well-to-do women and menswear magazines like Monsieur, Das Herrenjournal, Apparel Arts, and eventually, Esquire reported on tailoring trends. Many of these illustrations were less advertisements for certain companies (the ready to wear industry being significantly smaller than it is today and generally confined to America) but more explorations on what trend setters in trendy circles were wearing, commissioning, and moving on from as the rest of the crowds caught up with them. Not only was the art often a reflection of the broader aesthetic of the time, but it served as insight into the function and lifestyle the clothes would beget. When you saw an avant garde drawing of a bias cut dress on the front page of Vogue, you saw the less the dress but what you could become in it; the world being built around the dress, the parties you attend, the people you knew intimately with it.The human and subjective element that illustration lends itself sparks the imagination in a way photography just can’t always do.

The defining feature of menswear illustration of the period also follows the trend of social clothing as opposed to strict product advertisement. The emergence of more free time and week ending endeavors providing whole new scenarios for fashion writers and illustrators to explore. Take a cursory look at an Esquire copy from the mid 30s or a Monsieur cover from the 1920s and you see clothes in action. Clothes for horseback riding, business, town wear, country wear, weekend country wear for when one must account for travel from town to country and back to town, spectator sports, horse shows, campus and college life, tennis wear, black tie occasion, white tie occasion, summer and tropical black tie, ski wear, apres ski wear, beach wear, Palm Beach wear, Riviera wear, sailing, yachting, hot dog eating, travel wear, golf wear, morning dress, cocktail attire, wedding attire, clothes for young men, old men, tall men, “short stouts”, and certainly many more. Forgetting the baffling inclusivity of events, the illustrations at the time showed menswear in motion in the world the wearers were expected to wear it in. Instead of merely showing popular clothes in a vacuum we are shown the world in which these clothes belong, educating those with developing taste and issuing challenges to those already well versed to experiment and innovate within these confines. 

One might see these illustrations, showing the clothes in settings that they were expected to exist in and only in that setting, as prescriptivist, but we no longer live in a world where such distinctions matter. Aside from the last vestiges of Black tie and White tie going strong from the fumes of both reverence and contempt, the strict dress codes and properties of the past no longer apply to the social realities of today’s day and age. Instead, take inspiration not only from the beautiful and fascinating depictions of clothes in their natural habitats but also from the categories in which they were once expected to be worn in. Make a fun game out of classifying your wardrobe beyond work clothes and pajamas. Have outfits for trips home to the country and suburbs during holiday break. Have outfits for travel. Get a tweed suit. Get a fur collar overcoat for city outings to East Side Pockets and imagine strolling through the streets of Paris in the 1920s. Think of your clothes as an extension of both you and the world you wish to create for yourself. Not as worldbuilding for a brand or strict propriety, but for the world you create for yourself and in case you ever happen to need an outfit for your notorious weekend bend where you break the bank of the Monte Carlo Casino.

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