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Fashion is in style at Denver Art Museum

Illustrations from artist’s long career will be displayed until early August


Jim Howard became emotional as he looked at the beautifully framed and exhibited fashion illustrations, created during his 40-year career. “Drawn to Glamour: Fashion Illustrations by Jim Howard” is at the Denver Art Museum through Aug. 5.

Howard announced that he would donate the more than 100 works on paper to the Denver Art Museum. The exhibit also has a group of fashions from the 1970s and 1980s — from the DAM collection and private lenders — displayed in a case. Howard also spoke of his delight in being right next to the current Degas exhibit. The French artist has been an inspiration.

Curator of Textile Art and Fashion Florence Muller, who is happy about the addition to the fashion collection, said the “drawings were really telling you a story, although they were advertisements for a department store … Jim could create illustrations about clothes.” Howard didn’t feel he was consciously telling stories, he said (“I was peddling clothes”), as he described a day at Nieman Marcus in Dallas, then so important for high-fashion merchandise.

He didn’t see a garment until it was in production, and his job was to create a drawing for newspapers or magazines that would bring customers to purchase or order it. “There were eight models there and I’d sign up for one in the morning” and start drawing. “It’s probably the last time that happened in department store advertising.” Eventually, he took photos with a camera and drew from those, adding that he took “tons of life drawing classes in college” and the skill came easily — “I could draw both men and women … I started at the head and drew to the bottom — in that order,” he said. “I never dreamed I’d find them on the walls of a museum.” He is a Lakewood resident since 2002, after a post-retirement stay in New Mexico.

Asked what was his first drawing, ever, he remembered his childhood. “I once did a self-published book in my early years. It was a drawing for school. (`In West Texas, Disney was big,’ he said wryly). It was a guy in a bathroom, with a kitty under the sink meowing for toothpaste to brush his teeth …” He also created a paper doll book with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, all in their underwear.

When asked: “What kept you going all those years?” he responded happily: “I consider myself the luckiest man on this planet. To do what I loved every day — getting paid for it.” He first worked in a grocery store, he reminisced, where he drew pictures of cans, bread, bananas … before he started formal training in art. In the 1970s, he also designed and made his own clothes, he added.

“At Nieman’s we were all so interested in a beautiful suit, we almost pulled it apart—concerned with construction.”

After a stint with Nieman Marcus, he moved to New York and worked for various department stores, including Saks Fifth Avenue, B. Altman, Bonwit Teller and Los Angeles-based Bullocks. His drawings ran in The New York Times, other papers and magazines.

“Fashion illustration as a craft has gradually disappeared in recent decades,” Muller said, “but from 1950 to 1989, it was the most significant way for brands to tell their story, showcase new trends and bring fashion to life ... It’s a medium of fashion history that has not yet been extensively explored by museums, and we hope this exhibition will allow our visitors to discover how drawing can be equally as, and sometimes more, expressive than fashion photography. We also hope visitors will gain an appreciation for Howard’s legacy and fashion illustration as a whole.”

Jane Burke, senior curatorial assistant of textile art and fashion, helped to organize the show, with drawings from the 1950s to the 1980s. Included is a corner of portraits of fashion greats such as Coco Chanel and Yves St. Laurent, and there are many examples of Howard’s drawings of men’s fashions included in the collection — perhaps a bit less common, but testifying to Howard’s skills in drawing the human figure.

In more recent years, he has produced a series of books of high-style paper dolls, organized by decade. He has designed all the clothes, hats and other accessories, although he is not trained as a designer. In a foreword, he talks about learning clothing construction from watching his mother sew when he was a child — and then in later years, designing and sewing clothes for himself. “Fabrics have always been a love of mine,” he says and he also cites an interest in historic clothing, “which inspired a few garments in this book.” These books are available for sale at $12 in the museum’s gift shop.


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