Fashion plates are often criticized as fashion history documentation 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 (of course, the same argument can be made about today’s fashions as depicted in the fashion press).
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.
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.
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.
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 supplied:
Fashion plates simply illustrated what was possible and were meant as a source of inspiration, not necessary something to be followed line-for-line. But more importantly, fashion plates showed the progression of styles through the late 19th Century and just by glancing at them, one can readily see differences and especially in the silhouette as it evolved from the 1870s through the 1890s. Here are some some examples from the 1870s and 1880s:
As we move into the 1890s, still more shifts in the what was considered to be the ideal silhouette can be seen:
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 small sample 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.