Drawn to Fashion: a new look at fashion illustration


December 21st, 2011

Omaha, NE – One of Omaha’s most esteemed fashion illustrators has written a book about her experiences, and will exhibit her work at the Durham Museum in January.

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In the 1960s and 70s, Mary Mitchell was one of Omaha’s most prestigious fashion illustrators.

“Various retailers would call me. The first one was Tops, Tops of Omaha, and I did all of their fashion illustration work, then it was Goldstein Chapman, Nadelson’s…”

And the list goes on. Mitchell worked with shops and department stores to create illustrated newspaper ads of clothes, shoes and accessories. Stores would send her the outfits, and she would draw – mostly in black and white – with pencil on textured paper or using India ink. Each store had their own signature look, she said, and she’d have to create pieces that were unique.

“When you looked at a Tops ad, you didn’t want to look at a Goldstein Chapman ad right next to it,” Mitchell said. “You had to make them look different, whether it was a different border, the way you presented the figures, and it took a lot of maneuvering.”

Fashion illustration was the industry standard in the early decades of the 20th century. But in the 1930s and 40s, Vogue magazine began to switch from its illustrated covers to photographs. Other magazines soon followed suit, and newspapers followed too, although Mitchell continued to work into the 1980s. She said an important art form, one that had been around for hundreds of years, was lost in that switch.

“I feel that a photograph doesn’t show the details … and the nuance of an article or a drawing or a dress,” she said. “And when you see a photograph in the newspaper, it’s sort of grays down, it’s not detailed, whereas an artist can point out the very good details, for instance lace or sequence.”

Mitchell has saved over one thousand of her original black and white designs that were published in the Omaha World-Herald and various magazines. And she’s been working for the past two years to create new pieces in color. She said the art of fashion illustration is making somewhat of a comeback, and she disagrees with anyone who calls it a dying art.

Fashion illustrations by Mary Mitchell

“I’m of the opinion that the expression dying art is an oxymoron,” Mitchell said. “Isn’t it one of the great joys of art that as long as someone is producing it, it cannot die?”

Mitchell’s collection, including her new works, will be on display at the Durham Museum beginning January 27th. The work will also be presented in her book Drawn to Fashion, which will be published in mid-January. The proceeds from the book, which features a foreword by famed designer Oscar de la Renta, will go toward a scholarship for art students at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

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