I have always been interested in historical fashion, but I have never been able to find any informative graphics or illustrations for the variety of silhouettes and fashions found in the 19th century. Most infographics that can be found are lacking in examples of real historical fashion as opposed to modern interpretations of older trends, and they are also lacking in diversity. For this project, I wanted to make icons representing the most popular silhouettes for each decade from 1890-2000, while also representing a variety of ideal body types from each decade and variety in ethnicity as well. To construct the models for these historical fashions, I took inspiration from real-life figures such as Josephine Baker from the 1920’s, Anna May Wong from the 1930’s, Rita Hayworth from the 1940’s, and so on. For the dresses, I found evening dresses from such online resources as The Museum at FIT, Les Arts Decoratif, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Pinterest also provided other resources, such as makeup ads from the pertinent eras and guidelines for Victorian dress. It was an exciting project, even though it took hours and hours of work!
Creating the Look
After creating the initial sketches, I refined my idea and drew examples of what I wanted to do for each specific dress. I needed to create a look for each decade, and I spent hours researching until I found a few candidates for the dress I wanted to represent the era. After that, I was ready to begin creating the model I wanted to use as a template for the outfits. I needed three different body types: curvy, thin, and muscular, and three different ethnicities: African-American, Caucasian, and Asian. To start with, I created a curvy body type so I could decide on the eventual pose that would be replicated.
Getting into Illustrator
The first draft I created was inspired by Josephine Baker, since I had so many references of her on hand. After some review, I decided that I needed to fix the feet, but that the rest was what I was looking for. I was using the linework to emphasize her legs and head, but I didn’t consider how that would look once the icons were shrunk.
The initial tests for the body types went very well. I had changed the shape of the feet, created different shoulder and waist shapes for every body type, and changed the size of the feet as well. Once all of the body types were created, I began experimenting with skin types for all of the ethnicities and working on my first draft for the in-class review.
The Draft and the Feedback
Disaster struck. The outlines I had so carefully used were shot down when reviewed, and for good reason. The shapes of the figures were harder to interpret, and the smaller the figures were, the harder they were to make out. I had to improve my value contrast, change the backgrounds so they weren’t interpreted as containers, and remove any and all linework. I also needed to change the shape of the heads so they didn’t look cramped, and improve the overall look. My work was cut out for me.
The Final Product
To improve the body shapes, I removed any and all outlines, fixed the shape of the legs, changed the shape of the heads and the slant of the eyes, changed the skin colors, and added shadows. Adding the shadows made a huge difference, as did removing the outlines. The next step was to take all of the dress designs, fit them to the new body types, and add the hairstyles, makeup, gloves, accessories, and shoes. I also added shadows to the dresses to define the shapes better.
The final draft is on a charcoal-gray background, so that the colors of the dresses and the forms of the models are highlighted against it. The models all have period-accurate jewelry, accessories, and makeup, and the dresses are all based on actual historical fashion of the era. The silhouettes of the dresses are the foremost focus of this piece, which fulfills my goal to have an accurate historical fashion icon set that reflects actual silhouettes of the respective time periods. The icons can be displayed in small sizes without significant loss, since the dresses are meant to be the main focus. But without the models, the dresses would not be able to represent the eras as accurately. The simple, reproducible style allows the main focus to be on the fashion, and they create a fun, two-dimensional paper-doll effect. Although this project came with significant challenges, I am very happy with the way they turned out!