Fashion Plates…

Fashion plates are often the subject of derision by hobbyists and wold-be costume recreationists because their representations of period fashions that bear no relation to what those particular period fashions ACTUALLY looked like. At best, they’re fantastical distortions of reality, representing an ideal that could never be attained.

Cover Petersons 1887

However, nothing could be further from the truth. The reality was that fashion plates, both colored and black and white, played a practical role in the transmission of fashion information during the 19th and early 20th Centuries; fashion photography would not come into its own until the 1910s. While  the study of fashion plates as an art form in itself has become popular today, this was not what they were intended to be. Rather, it was a blueprint for individuals to be able to replicate a given design.

Cover Godeys 1885 Cover Harpers Bazar 1885

However, at the same time, fashion plates did present ideal views of their subject garments with their unnatural poses and the models were perfect physical representations. But never the less, fashion plates were first and foremost meant to be a practical means of transmitting fashion information. Ultimately, the fashion plate was a practical tool and used as such.

Cover Delineator 1890

More specifically, the fashion plate was deliberately constructed to impart information to the viewer and specifically to enable the viewer to be able to make a garment based on the plate- in short, “how to do it” blueprints and as such they were often used as supplements to accompanying sewing patterns and were typically printed in magazines. Magazines such as The Delineator, Godey’s Lady’s Book, Harper’s Bazar, and Peterson’s Magazine were only a few of the many magazines that were available to the home sewer and professional dressmaker.

Petersons June 1870

Fashion Plate from Peterson’s Magazine, June 1872.

Above is a fairly typical fashion plate- it looks like a simple illustration of a group of dresses. Well, yes and no- the poses are somewhat stilted with the emphasis on showing as much of the dress as possible. Notice how the decorative treatments are given the best angle possible and especially on the train. This was deliberately done in order for the viewer to see the entire design in order to replicate it.

But it was not only fashion plates, patterns and more detailed information were also supplies such as these:

evening polonaiseL

Evening Polonaise Pattern from Peterson’s Magazine, May 1872.

Petersons Nov 1880

In terms of what fashion plates showed, one can see a difference between the ones above that were made in the 1870s versus the 1890s in that with the decline of the bustle, the emphasis is now on the front. Here are some some further examples from the 1870s and 1880s:

Godey's Lady's Book, November 1872

Godey’s Lady’s Book, November 1872

Englishwomens Domestic Magazine June 1876

The Englishwomen’s Domestic Magazine, June 1876

Plate 2

The Englishwomen’s Domestic Magazine, July 1877

Le Mode Illustree 1878

La Mode Illustree, 1878

Fashion Plate, 1881 from the Revue de La Mode.

Revue de La Mode, 1881.

Revue de Mode1

Revue de La Mode, 1885

9a31e8c7dc5de5e478bb981478521847

C. 1886

Petersons April 1889

Peterson’s Magazine, April 1889

1892

Journal Des Demoiselles, January 1892

Delineator 1898 Sept

The Delineator, September 1898

Delineator 1898 Dec

The Delineator, December 1898

Delineator 1898 Dec_2

The Delineator, December 1898

What is interesting about this progression of plates is that by the 1890s, it’s all about the front of the dress. While there are frontal views in earlier plates and rear views in later plates, it is still obvious that the emphasis had shifted which is consistent with the movement away from the bustle. The 1880s provide some interesting ground in that the views seem to almost split 50-50, at least based on a very unscientific examination of fashion plates from various sources, both online and in books.

The above is only a minute sampling of the fashion illustration that was characteristic of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries but it does show that even then, the dissemination of fashion information was being done on a large-scale industrial basis, pushed along by technical advances in the printing trades. Moreover, with the rise of mass-circulation fashion magazines such as Godey’s, Petersons, and Harper’s Bazar, fashion’s reach extended to almost the entire world and most notably in America.

The “pretty” and “fantastical” fashion plate served a very specific and practical role that today is easily overlooked. In the end, fashion plates were an art form in terms of their ability to impart information rather than existing as representations of fashion.

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