The Wonderful World of Georgian & Victorian Fashion Plates
Before Cecil Beaton, Norman Parkinson, Vogue or Vanity Fair, there were fashion plates. A beautifully handcrafted and stylised portrait of 18th and 19th century fashions, fashion plates were devoured by the wealthiest women in society, wanting to be at the very forefront of English and American fashions. To be at the centre of fashion was very VERY important as a genteel woman, and fashion plates were one of the few ways you can keep up with the latest trends.
If you love and are obsessed with antique jewellery, or you were just glued to Netflix’s Bridgerton, then you will certainly have time for Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian fashion plates. Not only are they super interesting in the history of fashion illustration, but they are also paved the way for fashion photography.
Distinct, beautiful, and a firm part of fashion history, fashion plates are fascinating. So, put down this month’s Harper’s Bazaar and we can find out together about the wonderful world of Georgian & Victorian fashion plates.
What is a fashion plate?
In simple terms, fashion plates were the 18th and 19th century answer to fashion photography, design and illustration. Designed to be disseminated amongst French, English and American fashion journals, these “plates” were almost stylised miniature portrait paintings, not only showing the latest fashion and dress trends, but also creating an idealised vision of whom the woman wanted to be. Completely designed for the wealthier woman in mind, these plates completely transformed the 18th and 19th century fashion industry.
Winter Fashions From November 1834 to April 1835, Mr Benjamin Read, c.1834-1835, Source - The Victoria and Albert Museum
If you travelled back 200 years ago, it won’t be surprising that you couldn’t shop in exactly the same way that you do today. Forget department stores, ready to wear clothing and London Fashion Week, if you wanted a new piece of clothing, you would have to get it handmade.
New pieces of clothing were only the advent of the rich and aristocracy, and it was usually only in the case of social events like regency balls or promenades. Fabric would be chosen at the dressmakers or bought before, and the appointment with the dressmaker would result in a style of clothing that had been in fashion for the last 20 years or so (with some minute tweaks here and there). The arrival of Georgian fashion plates completely changed the communication of fashion. Not only did fashion plates show the latest trends, as well as make “trends” a thing in itself, but it made it far easier for a woman’s sartorial wants and desires to be communicated. Rather than spending hours and hours at a dressmaker, you could just show them an 1813 fashion plate from La Belle Assemblee, and instantly the dressmaker would do exactly what you want.
Christmas and New Years Party Fashion Plate, c. December 1875, The Young Ladies Journal, Source - The Victoria and Albert Museum
At first, 17th century fashion plates were hand-illustrated drawings that were displayed at high end dressmakers and tailors, but they soon were printed into the quickly developing genre women’s fashion journals. Dressmakers and journals worked closely with artists, dictating to them the styles of the time. So if a particular dressmaker wanted something in fashion, they could just make it so! Then, they were hand drawn and hand painted to the finest detail, making them a small work of art in themselves. Many journals were also created and marketed at being the perfect “pocket size” so they can be carried throughout the ladies’ day and accompany her to scheduled dress appointments. At the time, this was revolutionary in fashion, and started to alter and impact the relationship between consumer and designer, where the customer was shaping and influencing trends, rather than the maker themselves.
Promenade Dress, c.1824, Joseph Robins, Source - The Victoria and Albert Museum
Today, many fashion plates survive in prestigious museum collections around the world, each as beautiful as the next. The most collectable pieces are the older 17th and 18th century fashion plates, especially if they are signed by reputable artists!
The little History of Fashion Plates
Whilst fashion plates really came into their own in the 18th and 19th century, many art and clothing historians actually argue that fashion plates, as a concept, date back to the 15th and 16th centuries. But, as far as fashion has existed, there has always been some form of curiosity, and as a consequence, illustration resulting from it. Patriotic royal portraits were used in a similar way to fashion plates, in that it communicated amongst the upper classes what style of dress was currently in mode. Between 1500 and 1610, more than 200 collections of engravings and woodcuts were crafted and published, displaying the different styles of clothing and their corresponding visual rank.
Late 18th Century Volume of French Costume Engravings, c.1770-1800, Nicholas Bonnart, Source - The Victoria and Albert Museum
That being said, true fashion plates really came into existence in the late 17th century, especially in 17th century France. French fashion plates were hand-drawn and hand-painted by famous artists of the time like Jacques Callot and Ambraham Bosse, and from 1670s onwards were printed within the earliest iterations of the fashion magazine. In the 18th century, this only flourished further, as a new advent of educated female readership started to dominate the established upper social circles. Women not only had an interest in how they dressed, but what else surrounded the world of dress, from ball gossip to how to host the perfect tea party!
Fashion Plate of a Woman's Dress, c.1799, Source - The Victoria and Albert Museum
Fashion Plate, c.1800-1810, The Lady's Magazine, Source - The Victoria and Albert Museum
By the mid 19th century, across both England, France and America, there were estimated to be over 100 different magazine titles, which accumulated with it a myriad of colourful and bright fashion plates. These included:
- Godey’s The Lady’s Book of and Magazine of Belle, Letters and Fashion
- La Belle Assemblee
- Harper’s Bazaar
- The Young Ladies Journal
- Journal Des Demoiselles
- The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine
French Fashions, December 1831. 'Morning Dress. Dinner Dress. Opera Dress' published by Whittaker & Co, published in La Belle Assemblée or Bell’s Court and Fashionable Magazine, hand-coloured etching, line and stipple engraving, published December 1831, NPG D47660, Source - © National Portrait Gallery, London
It wasn’t just the upper class women that were literate, but the emergence of the educated middle class allowed for a wider fashion conscious populace. By the end of the 19th century, the industrial revolution meant that fashion plates were no longer hand painted. From 1880s fashion plates and beyond, these were all printed with coloured printing, allowing even more plates and even more fashion. Plus, during the 18th and 19th century, fashion plates were imported en masse from France, (as France was considered to be the arbiter for all fashion trends.) However, this wasn’t always the case. During the French Revolution, it is likely that many fashion plates were destroyed by the upper classes or the revolutionaries, as no one wanted to be associated with the bourgeoisie and also face the guillotine.
Fashion Plate, June c.1835, Source - The Victoria and Albert Museum
Le Coquet, No.22, from Journal des Modes Spécial pour Couturiéres, c.July 1st 1869, Laure Noel, Source - The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Nevertheless, this clearly didn’t stop French fashion plate production altogether. In fact, the French were such a threat in the fashion world, that in 19th century America, American journals would lie and say that the fashion plates were actually made in New York and Philadelphia, but they were also changed to suit American republican virtues and more subdued sense of style.
But what was great at the time was that Victorian fashion plates catered to the range of price points. Fashion plates were actually so treasured that many treated them as an art form. Surviving paintings and illustrations show portrait living room scenes with antique fashion plates on the walls.
NPG D47505, Source - © National Portrait Gallery, London
Due to the advancement in printing, Edwardian fashion plates were incredibly vivid, saturated with colour and also possessing an almost three-dimensional quality! In the timeline of fashion history, you can clearly see such difference between early 1800s fashion plates to the early 20th century. However, in the early 20th century, fashion plates were eventually replaced by fashion photography, and almost ceased from production all together by the 1930s. Not to mention, the industrial revolution, the first world war, and the beginnings of haute couture, completely changed the fashion industry. So, it’s not surprising that fashion plates quickly became out of practice. That being said, the art of dressmaking didn’t falter, with department stores opening “au mercer” departments where people could still have clothes designed and hand-made just for them.
Considering that these fashion journals documented everything that ladies young and old should have in their wardrobe, it won’t be surprising that jewellery was often included in these. Below are some beautiful prints from L’Arte De Bijouterie in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Dated to 1879, these prints reveal what was at the height of Victorian jewellery fashions in the late Victorian period. We can just imagine how many hands have held this print and how much jewellery was made as a result.
Jewelry Designs in Gold, Diamonds and Other Precious Stones, Plate 7 from L'Art de la Bijouterie, c.1879, Jean Françoise Barousse, Source - The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Jewelry Designs in Gold and Rose Gold, Plate 5 from 'L'Art de la Bijouterie', c.1879, Jean Françoise Barousse, Source - The Metropolitan Museum
Fashion plates are one of those special relics of history that you just can’t get today. Not only do they provide an insight into the history of fashion illustration, dressmaking and magazines, but they completely changed the way Europe ordered and bought clothing.
Two Women Wearing Coats, c.1863-64, Monnin, Source - The Metropolitan Museum of Art