The cover story of ProDesign 105 is all about Eve. Hamish Thompson takes a look back at the fashion illustration of Kate Coolahan. Words: Hamish Thompson. Images: Kate Coolahan, courtesy Te Papa Picture Library (online version of story features additional images).
The fashion illustration of Kate Coolahan feels uncannily familiar, though few of us would remember her name. These are the pick of the bunch of fashion plate drawings that lit up Australasian newspapers and magazines in the middle of the 20th century – when the dreams that are dresses were sold with illustrations rather than photography.
Coolahan emigrated to New Zealand in 1952, where she turned an already bright Sydney career as an “advertising and publicity designer” into a long-running stint as New Zealand’s leading fashion illustrator – before making a name for herself as an artist-printmaker.
Her hallmark was a masterful combination of efficiency and sensuality. She could draw from life (a colleague modelling the just-delivered new clothing range) and before dawn would have drafted evocative images that leapt off the page. Her goal was to make the clothing irresistible and get wealthy women to lift the phone and order a fitting.
Her combination of artistry and commercial chutzpah speaks for itself in the images. She was an admirer of the pen and wash work of Erica Perl, who illustrated for US store Lord and Taylor. Coolahan looked for Perl’s key ingredient, to mix into her own developing style. It was backgrounds, she realised. Perl set all her women in the street – street lights, pavements, women walking dogs, the Lord and Taylor shop in the distance.
While New Zealand clients resisted major pictorial elements – telling Coolahan to keep the space for copy – she worked to find ways to bring mood into her images, even within the strict confines of the local market. New Zealand women wouldn’t enter a shop to look at a dress unless they’d been shown the last detail. Coolahan recalls her boss was rung once by a customer saying they were going to sue the store because the illustration showed eight buttons down the front of the garment, and when she got there, there were only six.
Kate didn’t mind the pragmatism at the heart of commercial illustration, although she could have done without the snobbery prevalent in the New Zealand art world, which looked down on those who earned a living from advertising.
But she had never minded swimming against the tide. Born in Sydney in 1929, she opted for a five-year illustration course at East Sydney Technical College, when her father told her the family couldn’t support her through tertiary education. There she found herself mixing with many returned servicemen, who introduced their sheltered female counterparts to the off-limits world of the wharves, bars and brothels. Her working life began against a backdrop of the war’s lasting legacy of psychological and physical damage and shifting attitudes to women – when she married fellow student Max (an injured war returnee 20 years her senior) in 1950, she took the role of main breadwinner while he continued with his photography studies and convalescence.
Coolahan’s first post was with the high-end Sydney store Farmers and Co. There she produced illustrations, posters, packaging and wrapping paper, and developed campaigns
for newspapers and magazines promoting the latest fashion from France and Italy.
After seeing her work in Vogue, a Wellington advertising man from J Inglis Wright offered her a job. He was keen to employ her luxury market know-how. The more relaxed lifestyle in New Zealand appealed, especially given her husband’s continued health problems, so she took the position. “Feminism”, she says, “allowed me to come to New Zealand.”
After a couple of years Coolahan shifted to rival firm Carlton Carruthers du Château and King, who offered more money and a nurse for her husband. One of their main clients was Lane Walker Rudkin, which she served as advertising and publicity designer. Later in the decade she moved to James Smith Ltd, where she worked on newspaper advertising campaigns.
In the 1960s, Coolahan made the considered choice to move away from fashion illustration (which was being overrun by photography) to education and skills development for the industry. She had a long involvement with Wellington Polytechnic – from teaching night classes in anatomy and drawing in 1962 to helping Massey and Victoria Universities develop MA curricula in printmaking and design. She combined teaching roles with freelance graphic design, and exhibited as a fine artist nationally and internationally.
Kate Coolahan is still living in Wellington, although she wrapped up even her private teaching in 2005. She has relished her working life, making her own richly decorated way through a shining commercial and academic career. Of fashion she says “It’s an integral part of human life. What we wear defines the situation into which we’re coming. If you are a girl, you are inspected as soon as you go out the door.”