In the 1930s, some magazines that sold patterns, like Butterick’s Delineator, tried to modernize by running more photographs and fewer drawings of their products. Sometimes the collision between the unrealistic “fashion figure” of the early thirties — impossibly long, impossibly hipless — and the way the clothes would look on a real woman was pretty jarring.
The evening gown models in the photograph do not have the narrow waists or exceptionally long thighs of those in the drawing, although they do have the sense not to stand “flat on” to the camera. (Fashion tip: a slenderizing vertical belt buckle, like the rhinestone one on the left, draws our eyes to the center of the body rather than its width. Even so, her waist still looks thick.) Pattern companies were well aware that a woman’s hips are usually larger than her bust or shoulders; they just didn’t draw them that way.
This juxtaposition of a fashion drawing and a pretty, live model shows how impossible the ideal was:
In this particular layout, the photographic model is wearing the same hat as the drawn one — as if to suggest that the coat illustration was true to life.
The dress and coat below appeared in the same article, and showed another feathered hat in a photograph and in two drawings beside it. The Lilly Daché hat fares better than the live model.
“A belted and buttoned coat of black tweed flecked with rose, with scarf collar and cuffs of Hudson seal and the famous butcher boy dress of Howlett and Hackmeyer ashes-of-roses velveteen — worn with black fabric beret, kid bag, kid and suede oxfords, and beige suede gloves. Coat and dress are designed for Junior Miss sizes 12 to 20, 30 to 38 [inches bust.]”
The model in this brown tweed plaid dress is wearing low-heeled shoes, which make it even more necessary for her to turn her hips to one side and conceal their width with her hands and purse. Those gigantic cuffs are a distraction, but the large collars of the 1930s are very useful in balancing a woman’s hips with a mass of lighter color to draw our eyes up toward the face and to widen the shoulders.
Of course, by 1934 shoulder pads were also in use to ensure that women’s shoulders looked wider than their hips, and shoulder pads got progressively bigger throughout the 1930s.
The Rule of Thumb
In case you haven’t studied both fashion illustration and life drawing (drawing from a live, nude model) — artists, as distinct from fashion illustrators, start with the fact that a normal human being is usually about seven or seven and a half “heads” high. That is, if you hold out your arm with a pencil or brush in it and use your thumb to measure off the height of the model’s head, that “head” becomes the unit of measurement for the rest of the body. To make the three dimensional body look graceful when reduced to two dimensions, artists usually elongate the legs a little, so ‘realistic’ figure drawings are based on an eight head figure:
On a standing model, the distance from the top of the head to the bottom of the torso is about four heads, and so is the distance from there to the heel. The legs equal half the body. I love this memorable illustration from Jack Hamm’s book, Drawing the Head and Figure:
Most of the added length is in the leg. You can see how the eight head figure (AC) on the left compares with a more truthful — but chunky looking — seven-and-a half head figure (BD) on the right.
But fashion illustrations usually start at “nine heads” and “editorial” fashion illustrations are often eleven heads tall. There is no way an average woman, (5′ 4″ to 5′ 8″) with the measurements a pattern company gives as normally proportioned (say, 36-28-38) can ever look like the drawing on the front of the pattern envelope. That is why models kept getting taller and thinner; only a very tall, thin person can come close to matching the illustrated ideal.
You can see that the lower part of the body in these fashion illustrations is much more than half of the whole. Just for fun, I played with this illustration and the photo of two women in evening gowns from the top of this post. [Correction on 2/25/15: the adjusted figure below is based on the suit on the left, above, #5914, not the evening gown.]
In the illustration above, I took the extra length out of the legs. [I eye-balled it, so it still looks like a fashion illustration. Old habits….] On the right is the photograph of the model. Her skirt is the same length in both images — I just added some legs under it so she looks taller (I also adjusted the flare, but not the length, of the skirt.) If you cover the legs with your thumb, you can see that this is the same picture.
Of the two drawing books mentioned above, Jack Hamm’s (available in paperback) is more useful to the fashion illustrator or costume designer. Originally published in 1963, the faces look dated, but there is a simplified guide to the 12 most common fashion models’ poses that can be a help when you’re doing dozens of costume sketches. He also covers feet (in high heels and men’s shoes) and the way fabrics behave. Walt Reed’s book is aimed at life drawing students (no clothing is discussed), but his lessons on head positions & features — and his emphasis on male and female models and models of various ages — is another handy reference when you don’t have a model to work from. [Costume designers rarely have a model, and we do have to draw more men than women.]