The Denver Art Museum’s textile art and fashion department highlights a rarely exhibited medium in “Drawn to Glamour: Fashion Illustrations by Jim Howard” through August 5. If the name rings a bell, Howard drew magazine and newspaper advertisements for most of the major U.S. department stores prior to fashion photography’s takeover. His prolific, four-decade career began in his native Texas at Goodfriends in Austin, where he funded his fine art studies at the state university, and Neiman Marcus in Dallas. He soon relocated to New York for accounts like Saks Fifth Avenue, Bonwit Teller and I. Magnin, as well as Bullock’s in Los Angeles.
“Most people are surprised to see these works in a museum and don’t even know they exist,” says Florence Müller, the museum’s Avenir Foundation curator who exhibits about a quarter of the 400 works Howard donated to her department’s permanent collection. (He retired in Denver.) “They’re confused and think he’s a fashion designer, but designers’ sketches are the beginning of the story, while fashion illustrations are the end.”
Howard is nearly as surprised as his viewers, who gathered around the dapper octogenarian with praises, memories and questions during a recent visit to the gallery. Though a former colleague at Franklin Simon & Co. department store gifted dozens of his illustrations to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, he laments most of his oeuvre ended up in the dumpster, a common occurrence in his field.
“A lot of my work for Saks is missing, because they owned the rights,” says Howard, who churned out eight drawings a day from his home studio in Rockland County, N.Y. “It just flowed out of me. I was like a machine.”
Prior to taking up the freelancer’s life, he worked at in-house art departments with buyers’ frequent interruptions. Müller compares the multimedia exhibit’s photograph of Howard and his team at Neiman Marcus to “Mad Men.” It’s also reminiscent of the intense work environment at Walt Disney Animation Studios, the only art he was exposed to as a youngster. Howard quickly rose through the ranks because of his talent, especially in drawing difficult textures such as fur and men’s wear fabrics. One must see the works in person to witness their textural quality, which leaves photography feeling flat and less effective.
“You can almost feel the fabrics in his drawings. I think he’s able to capture them so well because of his sewing background,” says Müller, who complements the evolution of his career, which kicks off with Dior’s New Look, with small groups of ensembles like midcentury wool dresses in Day-Glo hues by Geoffrey Beene and Chloé. “I also think his drawing of Diana Vreeland in the show is the best portrait of her ever.”
There are portraits of other fashion divas, lifestyle vignettes for ready-to-wear and office attire — the spot-on hairdos are a stitch — and original illustrations paired with their cut-and-paste layouts and final print ads to demonstrate his pre-Photoshop process. A one-man band, Howard would receive boxes of clothes, hire models, style them with props, draw them with charcoal pencil (or photograph them to draw later), and lay out the ad. Dramatic uplighting and Italian magazines’ aesthetics became his signatures.
“They were so ahead. I preferred their realistic voluptuousness, like a fuller lip and more eye makeup,” he says, standing over his favorite ad of a Missoni gown for Bonwit Teller. “It’s a pure portrait of the model, probably a dental assistant in Rockland, who was wonderful looking. Women liked that I used real women as models rather than famous people because they could see themselves in the clothes.”