Vintage Fashion illustrations now available on line

Many of us who like to make vintage outfits will admit that we are often seduced by “envelope art” – the lovely pictures on the front of a pattern envelope that encourage us to make up something to wear, presented on a lady with an unfeasibly tiny waist, hips and long legs.

Vintage dressmaking pattern illustration
Envelope art

However although these pictures are stylised they do give us some really important information that will help us make a choice. Unlike pure fashion illustration they normally show the construction details so that we can take this into account.

The same is obviously true with the pictures that manufacturers use to create their patterns from. While they need to be attractive to sell the outfit (a technical drawing just doesn’t do it) they do need to be true to the design and show a back view too (in many cases). The pattern cutter would take this drawing, and then, usually using the company’s own blocks, (often in a middle of the road size like a UK 12) he or she will create a pattern for the outfit. This would be made up a sample, often worn by a in-house model, and then (if suitable) the pattern would be graded (up and down in terms of size) and a range made from one or more fabric choice.

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Recently the New York Public Library has been given a nice set of over 1000 fashion drawings, by Walter Teitelbaum who ran the trailblazing Manhattan designers Creators Studios. Established in 1957 they produced and sold illustrations of up-to-the-minute women’s wear, that were then copied by different companies. These drawings would be bought by both up market and cheaper range companies. The difference was usually in the fabric choice, but also sometimes in the detail.

In the days before the internet (where fashion shows can be downloaded almost instantly) where did clothes manufacturers get their working drawings and designs from?

Those that paid Creators Studios a subscription could buy up to 48 new designs a week, although many bought five or so. The designers got their ideas from magazines, from displays in shops and from attending fashion shows, where sketching was often banned. They therefore had to memorise the key details and shapes and redraw the outfits from memory afterwards.

In those days (and my father was printing textiles at the same period) one of the obvious tricks of the trade was to take a well known designer’s work and tweek it a little, so it was just different enough, transferring in this case the details from a coat on to a dress, say. Teitelbaum mentioned that the designers would all get lunch together and share ideas, encouraging the rapid evolution of trends from the top designers to clothes that ordinary women would buy.

The sketches were then handed to a professional artist who would put the designs on to a female figure, using colour and making the rough sketch rather beautiful.

Fashion illustration through the ages is such an interesting topic. It is nice to see that these images are now available for anyone to look at, to interpret or copy, free of charge.


23 Responses

  1. Kim Hood

    Fabulous pictures. I wonder what percentage of us are seduced by the art into making garments we really shouldn’t have? I would guess it would be quite high.

  2. Anne

    Thank you for sharing the link to this excellent resource. Like Jay, I love the top of the dress introducing your blog post. You mention your father was a textile printer – how fascinating. Do you know of a UK resource that would print my tartan on silk? A fine cotton would do in the meantime, to test out and see what’s possible. I know that bhl has stopped.

      • Anne

        Thank you. I’ll contact Beckford Silks – their minimum order is now 3 metres. I’d like to see how it comes out before ordering more, so 3 metres is good.
        When we had our tartan specially woven (from a vintage colour scheme as our tartan was no longer in production) our minimum order this time was 30 metres – so we have a lot of medium weight! 15 years ago we had to order only 11 metres of the heavy weight and my husband’s kilt came out of that. We’re using the same mill.

          • Anne

            I’ve mentioned the tartan previously. Unfortunately, Beckford Silks got back today to say they aren’t suitable as they see themselves as a scarf manufacturer. Disappointing as their website looked really promising. They suggested Glasgow Art School so we’ll pursue that next.

          • fabrickated

            Oh that is disappointing Anne. I visited the factory years ago and they definitely did print fabric to order at that time. What about Lacuna?

          • Anne

            Turns out David had used the wrong web address for Lacuna and we had discounted. I realised and have visited their helpful website and I’ve now ordered some swatches (silks and cottons). David is going to calibrate his monitor again (apparently needs done regularly) and follow Lacuna’s excellent instructions on how to prepare the image for uploading.

  3. zuperserena

    I’ve been reading your whole blog, I love it. I have just bought a second hand Elna Supermatic, but need to replace a part before I can start sewing. ( The machine looks like a beautiful fifties’ car) I’m an absolute beginner, and your blog is wonderful inspiration.
    There is a 1963 movie with Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, where Joanne is an illustrator with photographic memory. It’s called “A New Kind of Love” and it’s my favorite romantic comedy. I think your vintage loving readers might enjoy it.

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