Diary of a Fashion Student: Is Fashion Illustration Training My Brain to See Skinny?

I’m a month into my fashion design degree and I want to start off by saying that I’m really enjoying it so far! I am learning more than I even knew existed, my classmates are great and my teachers are generally fantastic. One unexpected thing I feel like I’m learning, however, is how the conflict between fashion and body diversity starts early in the design process, way back in illustration. I certainly don’t know everything (or even most things) about fashion illustration– but I’d like to give my perspective from the beginning as I straddle the line between insider and outsider.

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In my fashion illustration class, we’re learning how to create the classic fashion figure. My fashion illustration teacher is a really nice woman. When she offers critiques, she honestly is trying to help us makes portfolios that will be more appealing to future employers. But I can’t help but feel disconcerted when she described my drawing as “chunky.” I looked at her quizzically. “It’s fashion!” was her succinct explanation. She came around the next week and described the arm of my drawing as “emaciated.” If we’re going to be honest, I still can’t really tell the difference. (She also tells me to make my shapes ‘more feminine’– that’s a whole ‘nother issue).

One important thing that we’re learning about in all our classes is training our eyes; training them to see what is falling straight, training them to see good proportions and training them to see what the ‘right’ fashion form is. It’s the last one that’s the most difficult and I think poses a problem for (non-model) women who want clothes that will suit and flatter them. There is  method to the way fashion figures are done. Their legs are always disproportionately long; they are always skinny, with certain bust/hip/waist proportions and waist height.

Not all designers work alike: some prefer to sketch, others prefer to drape and I’m sure some do things I haven’t even thought of get. For this scenario, let’s imagine you like to sketch our designs first. You are the designer. You’ve drawn a vision of loveliness that you are just hoping will be executed even better than you have sketched it. The woman wearing it is a long-haired goddess who would be 8-feet tall and a size 0 if she actually existed. Now imagine that you made this gown for a 5″4′ size 18. Wouldn’t you find your vision compromised?

The Lingerie Lesbian - Life DrawingI’m also taking a required life drawing class at the same time. It’s an interesting juxtaposition: both life drawing and fashion are supposed to be teaching us to render anatomy, but in different ways. Life drawing is the class least connected to fashion in my curriculum and is not taught by a fashion teacher. I’ve taken life drawing before and I find it to be an extremely enjoyable class, and one that can be very helpful for anyone looking to get a better understanding of the human body. To me, the comparison causes a great deal of cognitive dissonance.

In both fashion and life drawing, creating a convincing figure is key and both inform the other: when I am in life drawing, sometimes it is helpful to simplify the figure down to its pose to make sure I’m getting the weight distribution right, while in fashion drawing, a knowledge of real bodies definitely helps with proportion and musculature.  That’s really where the similarity stops, however. When you spend some time with a nude model in a life drawing class getting into different poses, you see just how fat and muscles move and fold. All of the models that I’ve had so far have been quite thin, definitely no larger than I am and yet the curves of their bodies and folds of their skin are key to the way I draw them. Yes, my fashion figures do have some curves, but we simplify by making everything more angular, thinner. The rules about size and shape of body parts in my life drawing parts are guidelines, drawn from life– the rules in my fashion drawing class are strict, divorced from the variation of actual bodies. What I am supposed to do is look at my life drawing and think, “normal,” while in my fashion drawing class I should think, “Too fat and too short.” Maybe it’s just me, but I’m starting to find these two standards confusing.

What this says to me is that if the designers of the future are trained with a one-size-fits all philosophy when it comes to what a fashion figure is, then it’s no wonder that stylish clothes seem nigh impossible to find in larger sizes. If the rules that dictate what a fashion figure is dictate that it is extremely skinny, is it any wonder that fashion and fatness seem impossible to imagine in the same context.

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For any marginalized group, there is a problem of imagination that helps reinforce the status quo. That’s one reason that the overwhelming whiteness of the models of fashion week is a problem– if people of color are left out of fashion’s collective imagination, they will continue to be the ‘other’ and the outsiders. Sometimes we have to train our brains to be inclusive.

That’s why it concerns me that fashion only imagines one body. There is room for visions that don’t fit into the traditional ‘model’ mode– but how can that vision come to pass if we aren’t even being taught to sketch it. Honestly, it’s no wonder that designers want a particular body type on the runway if that is the body type they imagine their designs on! There are a lot of industry reasons why designers use the types of models they do, but I think that I also understand how a designer would truly believe.that their designs ought to be shown on a woman 5′ 11″ with 34″ hips.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI really don’t know if I will end up designing for plus sizes, although if I pursue designing full bust bras it certainly seems like a possibility. But even if it’s not me, someone will need to be. 50% of the women in America are a size 14+ and they want clothes. Doesn’t it seem odd that the fashion illustrations that line the walls of one of the top design schools in the country are ALL the same shape? If I (and the wannabe fashion designers like me) are being taught to see and produce to one specific ideal and one physical shape, it doesn’t surprise me that this is the first year there has been a plus size line at NYFW. Although there are plenty of physical challenges that stand in the way of designing for any body shape, I don’t think failure of the imagination should be one of them.

18 Comments
  1. I currently study in a college that does not offer a complete fashion degree, it took me a whole year to notice. Although we don’t have anything in illustration, it seems like all the students think “skinny”. I’ve been told once that “What I do is not fashion, is revolution, so what am I doing in school?” or that I should “stop with that thing of fat people wearin clothes made for skinny ones” (I was talking about bespoke corsets and how they can be made for any body). I don’t focus at all on plus size clothing, but I am one of the few girls here who think past the skinny images, who thinks that every body is beautiful and have a different notion of what’s feminine. I reckon that some forms of representation might be easier for further understanding, and the focus on a sketch must be the product, but this can’t mean all of the girls drawn must follow these rules your teacher is telling you. I agree that lack of imagination can’t be an obstcle for fashion students!

    • I’m so glad you’re sharing your perspective with your classmates though! Sometimes it just takes one person to change people’s minds.

  2. Thanks for such an interesting insight into the fashion viewpoint – certainly food for thought.

    I work in an industry where we frequently work with (and occasionally cast) lingerie models, and I can’t help feeling sad when I see 6 foot tall, 8 stone women modelling our clothes. They are beautiful, don’t get me wrong – but I just can’t identify with them. I can’t imagine how the clothes will look on my short legs and rounded belly! I know I’m not alone, so I would like to see a more diverse range of body shapes in magazines.

    …end of rant!

    -Nicole

  3. I love that you write about this! I like your way of questioning even the things that you love.
    You’re right: someone will need to design for plus sizes; and while you say you’re not surprised that this is only the first year a plus sized line was presented at fashion week, I must admit that I am. I am surprised it took designers so long to listen to women (and other!) who complain about not being able to wear what they want. I am surprised it took designers so long to recognize that they are designing not for women, but for their idea of women.
    This might sound a bit bitter now, but I do have good hopes things will get better, even if only because of the economics of supply and demand.

    • Not surprised, but still disappointed! I do think that ideas and ideas of women drive design– but there is room for ideas in all shapes and sizes.

  4. Whenever I’ve drawn women from actual photos for my illustrations, tutors later criticised them for being too ‘chunky’ and ‘thick’ – my way round this is I no longer think of the fashion figure croquis as actually human – just as a mannequin for the purposes of illustration. The legs and the neck are just too disproportionately long. When I design I tend to ignore the figure and just draw the garments straight onto paper now!

    • Yeah, I try to separate the croquis from real people, but it’s still weird! Drawing flats on paper makes more sense to me a lot of the time also.

  5. FANTASTIC post, Caro. I think it’s really important to examine this issue the way you are, and I love that you’re already looking at the implications for your future career. Also, I totally dig your illustrations :)

  6. *thunderous applause* I have seen quite a few fashion sketches, and I never put it together how designers were starting the entire process with a version of a woman completely unrepresentative of most clothing shoppers. As a student, it must be especially challenging to balance your personal feelings about diversity with an industry standard which could impact your future earnings. Is there a newspaper for your school? I think this would make an excellent article the entire student body (and teachers!) should read.

  7. Hmm… it’s an interesting topic. On the one hand, having a standard method of fashion illustration does help students and designers learn how to show off their designs in a way that the establishment understands but, on the other hand, if these illustrations look like human beings then the designer surely has some responsibility to make them look like their target market? I think Karolina’s method of sketching the garment without a body inside it sounds like the best compromise, but I’m guessing not all fashion design/illustration tutors would be cool with that.

    Just the same way shop window mannequins should show the clothes at their best while also appealing to the store’s target customer (something that garments clipped on unrealistically tall/thin mannequins will never do), fashion designers’ illustrations have to shoulder some of this responsibility too. If it looks like a woman, surely anyone who views it will assume that the woman who wears those clothes will have to look like that? No matter how improbably proportioned the sketch may be, it’s still subconsciously aspirational in some way.

    I like your point about designers simply assuming that their designs will simply ‘scale up’ to bigger sizes and not realising that they will need to specifically design for them in the first place. Fashion design tutors are doing their students a disservice by making them sketch all their designs in the same way.

    • I agree that this is a complex topic because I also think that an illustration ‘system’ makes sense. I also think that there is a difference between whether the image is created at the conception of the design or not– for mannequins, for example, the clothes and the concept come first, so I’m not as worried about the mannequin affecting the garment’s fit. What frightens me, I guess, is the idea that we (designers) are training our brains to an ideal clothes-wearing-figure which is so incredibly prescribed that it squeezes out other body shapes. I think it’s pretty clear that the mainstream fashion industry has a real problem imagining fashion outside of that context, which is why I question its utility. Things like sample sizes and model sizes are part of an industry standard that has real financial implications– I guess that drawing seems like part of the design conception process that isn’t limited by budget. But, really, it’s hard to do anything different.

  8. I’ve been following you for a while now (ever since your Autostraddle article) and I think this may be my favorite post so far. It’s been so cool seeing your life progress through the lens of a lingerie blog. I think you’re going to be a dynamic force in the future and it’s inspiring to see you tackle these kinds of questions and make these connections right away.

    Which is a rambly way of saying: you’re a total inspiration (I’m actually starting my first sewing and drafting classes soon because of you) and I think you’re going to take over the world. Good luck and thank you for sharing!

    • Thank you so much! Your comment just makes me smile so much and I’m grateful for all your support. I hope your sewing and drafting class goes well!

  9. This stuck a chord with me, as i’m currently studying Game Art and Design, and life drawing is one of my papers.

    It’s given me a whole new understanding and appreciation of the human body, and greatly improved my skills. Yet some of my classmates work still focuses on the big boobed, impossibly small waisted female characters that permeate video games and popular culture.

    If I was to try and address this i’d just get told that they’re meant to be ‘stylized’ or that’s ‘just how you draw women’, or that I was making a big deal out of nothing.

    It’s sad to see that impossible proportions are the norm, and that more realistically proportioned women are seen as ‘weird looking’ or ‘unattractive’. Thinking about this and how it applies to everything (even things we love) is a great start, and I love this post.

    • Such a great comment! I’m so glad you see what I’m talking about. EVen though I don’t think that stylized is wrong exactly, I think that it is exactly that moment when ‘realistic’ = ‘ugly’ that weird, uncomfortable things happen. I’m so glad there are other people who are trying to pick their way through this tricky situation and view it with a critical eye. Thank you so much for sharing your perspective.

  10. This is a really interesting topic, and one that I haven’t considered much despite being a second-year fashion student! I come from an art background, and I remember how strange it was having to re-learn proportions for the fashion illustration units – while I was used to the more “standard” eight heads method I’d learnt in art school, all of a sudden I was being told to draw to a ten heads method, with proportions that seemed completely wrong! My lecturers have emphasized that this is not realistic, and that real bodies rarely (if ever) have the proportions that we’re drawing. But as you’ve said, how will the finished fashion product ever resemble the illustration if we’re creating it on a form that bears so little resemblance to the human body? This is especially noticeable when we have to do our technical garment drawings, which are created on a much more realistic body template – many of us find that what looked gorgeous on a fashion croquis looks unflattering or unappealing on a “real” body.

    Thankfully, our lecturers have also emphasized the importance of finding our own drawing style, and we haven’t been criticized for drawing bodies that deviate from the fashion ideal, but it is an important issue to be aware of. I have noticed, however, that while the fashion croquis used to look somewhat alien to me, they now look “normal” – which makes me worry that my brain is being trained to see skinny!

    (On a side note – I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how much our lecturers focus on the need to create clothing for bodies that fall outside the “fashion ideal”, and how we’ve been strongly encouraged to look into plus-size as an important design area. It may not seem like much, but I’m glad that I’m being taught by lecturers who realize that people of all body types should be included in fashion!)

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