Cristóbal Balenciaga images from the 1950s and 1960s showing sketches and final garments.
Beautiful fashion sketches are often shown as part of the romanticised process of designing a garment, but while it can be difficult to illustrate an idea on paper, it can be harder still to turn that sketch into an actual garment. One of the skills that a fashion designer must develop is the ability to translate a design from a sketch or technical drawing into a real garment while retaining the feeling of the original idea and preserving the proportions of the design.
For a start, designers often make this difficult by designing things that only look good on paper. The way that fashion sketches are drawn is often a distortion of the human figure to help to make the design more flattering and not only is the body often drawn longer and leaner in illustrations, but the silhouette of the garment is also often exaggerated to emphasise the shape of the design. Fabrics may be drawn in a way that defies gravity, shoulders may extend wider than normal or waists may be narrowed down to nothing.
To a point, this method is fine since it is a way for designers to stylise their ideas and to distill their silhouettes down to the key ingredients. However, once it comes time to turn the sketch into reality it becomes important to analyse what it is about the design that is actually interesting to ensure that these aspects can be reproduced through the pattern/drape stages, refined in the toile fittings and then accurately shown in the final design.
In the following images, you can see some sketches by Cristóbal Balenciaga that have been paired with the final garments. On the whole, you can see that the final garments that have been produced are very faithful to the original sketches. This is partly because the designs have been carefully sketched in such a way that the atelier can break each design down and then carry the key proportions and design details across to the pattern. Even in these careful sketches you can still see how there are some elements that can’t be carried through from the sketch to the garment; a waist that is drawn too narrow or a ruffle that stands out further than the lace fabric can handle.
Occasionally, you will see a behind the scenes video in a couture atelier, where the pattern maker of a particular design will be analysing the proportions of a garment. Sometimes you may also see pattern makers drawing light lines over the sketch to highlight the key horizontal and vertical lines of the garment such as the length of a sleeve, or the position of the waistline.
By breaking your own designs down in this way, you can more objectively consider whether the proportions are working on the body. You can also use this method to consider where certain parts of a garment are in relation to the body. So a garment may, for instance, have a nipped in waistline that actually falls below the natural waistline on the body.
You can also use vertical lines to objectively think about how far you need the fabric to sit away from the body in order to create the overall silhouette that you need. This also gives you a chance to consider if you have been realistic about how the fabric will drape when sewn up in the design, or if you are expecting the fabric to defy gravity. This analysis will have an impact on the internal structure and fabric choice of your design. For example, you can’t draw a ruffle that sticks out like crisp tulle but then make a garment in drapey chiffon and expect the ruffle to match your sketch.
This analysis also applies if you are making clothes for yourself. If you are choosing a commercial pattern based on a dramatic illustration then you can consider if the key proportions and elements of the design will be flattering on your own body before you even cut a toile.
Whether you are sewing for yourself, or designing professionally, analysing a design sketch in this way will also be helpful to you during the fitting stages. Since you have already analysed how you need the garment to sit on the body in order to create the correct proportions for your design, you then just need to tweak the fit to ensure that what you liked most about the sketch is still present in the final toile, and is then carried through to the final garment.
- Sketch for a Chantilly lace coat and cocktail dress and the final garment, Balenciaga 1965.
- Sketch for a Chantilly lace coat and cocktail dress and the final garment, Balenciaga 1964 (dress with scooped back detail).
- Sketch and final garment from the Spring-Summer 1964 Balenciaga collection (strapless dress).
- Sketch for a baby doll dress and the final garment, Balenciaga 1958.