People Are Pissed About Cavalli's Stick-Thin Beyonce, But Fashion Illustration Is About Fantasy Not Reality

Illustration is where one gets to suspend the rules of reality and play in a world of shapes, imagination and fantasy. I work and play in that world almost every day, and gosh-darnit, it’s fun.
Publish date:
June 13, 2013
Beyonce, fashion illustration, roberto cavalli

It’s pretty much a given if you combine, Beyonce, Photoshop and fashion, an outrage is soon to follow. But the latest? A brouhaha over a Roberto Cavalli illustration of Queen B? The whole thing has me moaning, “C’mon guys, really?”

Let’s catch you up in case you missed it: The house of Cavalli released an image this week of a gown it designed for Beyonce’s “The Mrs. Carter Tour.” The image used a photograph from B’s “Dangerously In Love” album cover, perched it atop an illustrated body with sky-high legs, and dressed in a printed Cavalli gown, swirling about the page as if caught in a mystical wind.

I saw the image and thought: “Wow. Dope way to do an illustration.”

Seems many others saw it and said, “Beyonce Photoshopped whyyyyyysoskinny NOT OKAY!!!”

I mean, I get it. We’re operating in a time of Photoshop fatigue; where we’re no longer surprised to hear that stars have been liquified and clone-stamped into the perfect magazine cover; where we applaud our faves for openly celebrating their cellulite and dark circles and not-perfect boobs and throw tomatoes at Ralph Lauren for taking an already-slim model and whittling her into a matchstick. As a real person, it’s really offensive to see other real persons photographed and then digitally altered into a “perfect” person. Let the thighs be, dammit.

But illustration? That’s a whole different story.

Illustration is where one gets to suspend the rules of reality and play in a world of shapes, imagination and fantasy. I work and play in that world almost every day, and gosh-darnit, it’s fun.

The power of illustration lies in the sheer imagination of it all -- the ability to create characters, set a mood and establish an atmosphere, even if said atmosphere is only the size of a page. And that imagination shows up in marvelous ways: in Ruben Toledo’s mischievous hourglass fashionistas; in Izak Zenou’s slinky and stylish girls-next-door; in Bob Mackie’s glamourous show-stopping divas; in Katie Rodgers’ ethereal watercolor ballerinas; and in Laura Lane’s dark, stalking figures.

And the beauty of illustration is that everyone knows it’s not real! Of course people don’t look anything like a Peter Som sketch, no more than they look like a Family Guy animation or a South Park character. It's all caricature. The same way cartoon characters are drawn to look either silly or adorable, or the way caricature artists draw people to enhance their most prominent features, fashion figures are drawn to create glamour.

And no, there's nothing wrong with drawing people the way they look, but honestly? We could use photography to do that. As illustrator Danielle Meder put it on her blog Final Fashion, “My drawings are a fantasy, processed through the distorted lens of my own imagination.”

My own work as an illustrator has focused on creating that feeling of glamour and happiness with black women. (Because as I’ve learned in my time studying this whole fashion thing, the representation of women of color always leaves something to be desired.)

And in my work, I make very deliberate choices about my characters: Always smiling, always moving (as if they’re dancing), and just as stylish as any of the “standard white girl” that many designers and illustrators employ in their work. Amidst all the ugly stories of racism in the industry, and the generally shitty card black women are dealt with elsewhere in the media, I’ve created this little world of “Fabulous Brown Girls” and it makes me incredibly happy.

And even though the conventions of fashion illustration calls for elongated, alien-like figures, that doesn’t preclude some of us from celebrating the curves we find on our own bodies. I mean, hello! I’m plus too, remember? I get a kick out of some of my self-portraits, imagining myself as an hourglass bad-ass stomping around with huge hair. Consider that me drawing myself in my own little fantasy.

In Cavalli’s case, I understand exactly why the art for the Beyonce tour was rendered the way it was. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was used in a presentation to Bey’s people when they were shopping around for costume designers, and the House of Cavalli used it to sell their vision for Bey: a fantastical, amazonian goddess swathed in beautifully-printed sheer silk fabric.

Unlike fashion photography, which is usually used to sell clothes, fashion illustration is used to sell ideas and visions.

One of the best examples of this is Bob Mackie's illustrations. OBVIOUSLY the people he dresses don't and will not look like highly-stylized figures in his drawings. But the way they are drawn sends a clear message about the garments and mood of the show he's working on, which is the entire point. It's not saying "Real woman isn't good enough." It's saying, "This is the glamorous/fantastical creature that we're going to transform this woman into."

All told, I understand the immediate reaction to the Photoshopped illustration of Bey. But I ask that people understand that there is a line between trying to pass off something as reality, and trying to simply sell a fantasy. The illustration of Bey falls squarely into the latter, and is just the latest in a long, rich history of fashion illustration that gives people a chance to lose themselves in their imagination.