Did you know about George Barbier and his vintage fashion illustrations?
George Barbier, born Georges Augustin Barbier (1882 – 1932), was one of the 20th century’s greatest fashion illustrators. He was an innovator of the union between art and fashion.
Barbier was born in the coastal city of Nantes in France. Growing up, Barbier was enchanted by Nantes’ art museums, which featured works by Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres and Antoine Watteau, and the 17th and 18th-century neo-classical architecture that permeated the city. They would inform his artistic aesthetic later in life, as would his move to Paris as a young man. In the French capital, Barbier was fascinated by the classical antiquity art in the Louvre museum. He was especially drawn to Egyptian sculptures and Greek vases, the precision and restraint of which would find their way into his illustrations. Barbier was also inspired by the Ballets Russe. Founded in Paris in 1909, Ballets Russe is widely regarded as the most influential ballet company of the 20th century for its trailblazing approach to artistic performance. Their costumes and posters charmed Barbier with their bold colors and provocative designs.
Poster by Jean Cocteau for the 1911 Ballet Russe season showing Nijinsky in costume for "Le Spectre de la Rose", Paris
By 1908 Barbier had started studying art under French painter and sculptor Jean-Paul Laurens in his atelier at l'École des beaux-arts. Laurens was one of the last major figures of the French Academies of Art. These academies valued traditional approaches to art, upholding Classicism and Romanticism as the ultimate forms of artistic expression. By the 20th century, these academies had fallen out of favor as more abstract and emotionally expressive art movements, such as Impressionism, Expressionism, and Art Nouveau emerged in protest against their constrained approach. While Barbier’s later illustrations clearly demonstrate expressionist influences such as Art Nouveau and urbanized, modern influences such as Art Deco, Laurens’ appreciation and sentimentality for the past is also present in Barbier’s work.
Barbier launched his first exhibition at Salon des humoristes in 1911 at the age of 29. His work was incredibly well-received and he became an instant hit. Within a few months, Barbier was commissioned to illustration prose and poetry books, and design theatre, ballet, revue (a multi-act entertainment usually consisting of sketches, music, and dance), and film costumes. One of his most notable achievements in film costumes is his designs for silent film heartthrob Rudolph Valentino. He became a member of Société des artistes décorateurs, for whom he designed wallpaper, glass, and jewellery. He also led a small group of artists from Ecole des Beaux-Arts, which included Charles Martin, Pierre Brissaud, and Pierre Brissaud. Vogue nicknamed them “The Knights of the Bracelets” as a homage to their extravagant fashion and mannerisms.
But what Barbier is best known for is his fashion illustrations.
Fashion illustrations were not new. They date back to the 1500s when new exploration of the world exposed different cultures to each other. How diverse cultures dressed was particularly fascinating. Books demonstrating the different fashion of other cultures, which were designed to lessen people’s anxieties towards change, became very popular. Soon fashion journals were in shops and marketplaces all around Europe. While male fashion was of interest, it became clear very quickly that women were the main consumers of these periodicals, so they mostly published female fashion trends. By the 19th century, France had become the heart of trend-driven fashion in Europe and there was a huge demand for fashion illustrations from talented French artists.
Drawing had become a respected profession by the 20th century – no longer was it a prestigious position reserved for classically trained masters – and so there was an influx of illustrators. Fashion was becoming increasingly industrialized and shopping had become a popular pastime, so artists had to find a way to distinguish their distinctive styles to catch the attention of consumers. Artists were aware that fashion illustrations were designed to be seen at close range, making it an intimate experience, so they had to use their art as a way to appeal to consumers; they made garments desirable by telling their stories using art.
George Barbier was no different.
Barbier flourished at the height of fashion illustration’s “Golden Age” in the 1920s and early 1930s. Artists hired by fashion magazines such as Harper Bazaar, Vogue, and Gazette du bon ton (for whom Barbier worked) embraced Art Deco style in their designs. Art Deco embodied the modernism of the Machine Age and the optimism of The Jazz Age. The fashion of this era was sleek, cool, geometric, and elegantly contemporary. Many designs featured sparkles, sequins, and stripes, inspired by the Futurist and Cubism art movements, and incorporated fountains, sunbursts, and car grilles to evoke modernism and positivity. Sportswear design for women also became extraordinarily popular, reflecting women’s changing social roles.
Dresses changed dramatically. The highly feminine, constricting, corseted styles of the Victorian and Edwardian eras were abandoned in favor of shorter, straighter dresses with little shape, allowing women to embrace the free spirit of the Roaring Twenties. These designs embraced the trendy masculine look, which encouraged flattened hips and breasts. Women who wore these styles were known as Flappers, named for the bird-like flapping movements they made when they danced the much-loved Charleston. The style was popularised by Clara Bow in the iconic Flapper film IT in 1927. Her little black dress bewitched women, and soon black became a must-have color; this was a far cry from previous generations, who only wore black when mourning.
Clara Bow starring in "It" in her iconic little black dress
Barbier’s expressive but chic designs were in high demand and his work became so famous that his style was instantly recognizable; in the 1924 novel The Green Hat, a character is described as a Barbier illustration, allowing readers to vividly picture her casual elegance. He published work in numerous magazines, wrote the introduction for the Erté's much-admired exhibition, and designed costumes and sets for Parisian cabaret hall Folies Bergère. He and his contemporaries set the standard for modern fashion design by representing garment shape and texture and creating a contemporary and positive atmosphere through their use of bold colors.
Barbier died in 1932, at the height of his career. By the late 1930s, photography would replace fashion illustrations so it is interesting to consider where Barbier’s trailblazing style would have taken him had he lived longer. His work remains popular to this day because it embodies spirit of the Roaring Twenties. In Personnages de comédie, which Barbier illustrated, Albert Flament fortifies Barbier as one of the greatest fashion illustrators: "one of the most precious and significant artists of our era…. When our times are lost … in the dust … some of his water-colors and drawings will be all that is necessary to resurrect the taste and the spirit of the years in which we have lived".
Posters, as one of the earliest forms of visual advertising, date back to as early as ancient Greek times. They still serve as an important form of communication with the general public and they also became the most common form of wall art. Here you can have a closer look at the history of the posters and take a look at fine examples of them.