No one’s willing to pay for reality. Why should they? We all get it every day for free. Reality is not an industry. Fashion is. Every time I read an argument for why fashion should more accurately reflect reality, my gut reaction is What? Why? No! But of course I would say that, I’m a fashion illustrator.
Above on the right is an iconic photograph of fashion model Alek Wek by Herb Ritts. Wek is already an unusual example of a human being, with exaggerated features and proportions. She represents a type of beauty which is so extreme, she seems like an otherworldly, fantastic creature. Despite this already outrageous figure reference, when I interpret the same image in illustration, I exaggerate her look even further. Even a bizarre form of beauty isn’t quite extreme enough for me. This is why I’m an illustrator and not a photographer – I resist being limited to the way things are. My drawings are a fantasy, processed through the distorted lens of my own imagination.
Sometimes, I attend life drawing classes for practice, but I find I can’t ever seem to represent the model as she actually is, even if I try. My lines always remodel the model into whatever I want her to be. I guess I’m most interested in trying to interpret the current fashionable ideal – because that is what fashion illustration is. If fashion illustration reflected the way people actually looked, it would just be… illustration.
The most challenging brief for any fashion image creator is to produce something that is both “realistic” and “aspirational” because these two concepts cancel each other out. This is why I find media artifacts like the so-called “real beauty” campaign more unsettling than reassuring. They confuse the viewer, calling a subtler, more insidious version of idealization ‘reality’. A realistic ideal is an oxymoron. I much prefer to see a dramatic divide between ideal and reality, because the corrosive effects of a beauty ideal seem to occur when impressionable minds conflate fantasy and reality. I desire a beauty ideal that is so extreme, it is clear that it is a form of entertainment, a dream world, as distinct from the real world as an action movie or a video game.
Like any form of glamour, fashion doesn’t owe reality anything. If you want to see reality, you can find it elsewhere, everywhere, free of charge.