Documenting Fashion goes to NYC Part 3
Elizabeth Hawes’ early career as a copyist was defined by sketching. Between 1925-1928 she would attend Paris fashion shows, acting in disguise as a genuine client, but in fact discreetly memorizing and then sketching the ensembles shown. It was through the power of her pen that she used the sketching medium to convey moods and communicate ideas from high fashion in Paris, and then disseminate these to networks of mass-production fashion counterfeiters. Hawes’ story gives a sense of how international fashion networks operated through this humble artistic medium, and was one that I reflected on when visiting archives on our recent study trip to New York.
During our time in the city we visited three manuscript and library archives: The Fashion Institute of Technology, Parsons New School of Design and Condé Nast. Visiting these collections bought about the opportunity to see the different types and styles of fashion sketches circulating within New York during the early twentieth century. Seeing the volume of drawings gave me a sense of how this medium held a certain power in parallel to photography, within interconnected fashion design, copying and publicity networks.
On our visit to the Parsons New School archive we viewed sketches by designers Claire McCardell and Mildred Orrick. The bulk of McCardell’s works from the early 1930’s to the late 50’s were produced for clothing manufacturer Townley Frocks, it was her working sketches from this period that particularly fascinated me. The minimal front-facing designs were made up by few lines, on geometric limbless figures, positioned to the left of the page; bar a few quick notes scribbled in the corners, masses of blank space was left on the many sheets. McCardell’s simple colorless designs were completely contrasted with the more commercial sketches we viewed at FIT.
Assisted by April Calahan, whose academic interest is in this area of dress history, we saw examples of other designers’ sketches, including Edward Molyneux’s colorful, detailed fashion plates with risqué titles for Lucile (The Lady Duff Gordon collection, 1915-1925), plus sketches from the Bergdorf Goodman custom salon collection, showing gowns and millinery from Dior and Balenciaga (1930-1969). Both sets of sketches, intended for client and documentary purposes, were emblematic of contemporary fashion moods that populated the fashion press, evident on our visit to Condé Nast’s archive, in which we viewed sketches artists were commissioned to produce for Vogue magazine. Proving the importance of this modest, yet romantic artistic medium for contemporary fashion networks and the creation of elevated lifestyle brands.
Though the medium imbued designers, department stores and the magazines with prestige, sketching was also a quick and discreet way to copy and disseminate designs. This was evident in the Cardinal Fashion Studios’ sketches at FIT, the subscription service, founded in 1948, which disseminated sketched copies of fashions shown at couture shows. Reminiscent of contemporary Pop Art, the drawings were coloured with brightly concentrated acidic gouache washes. The quantities of reproduced sketches were a reflection of popular networks of copying and mass production in New York. I was fascinated with how this contemporary artistic theme crossed into the business of fashion sketching. Seeing how these networks of fashion sketching operated in New York was a fascinating experience that I hope will influence my study of dress history at the Courtauld.