Monday, 28 January 2013

Inspirational primary resources - Part 1 Fashion Plates

Fashion plates are a great resource for the Victorian costumer.  In a time before the wide spread use of ready-to-wear clothing, these illustrations would taken to the seamstress or tailor or used as inspiration for ladies sewing their own clothing at home.

Le Moniteur de la mode - 1855

The history of the fashion plate can be traced back to the 16th century, but it is in the 18th and 19th century that they saw a real surge in popularity. 

Journal des Femmes 1842

These fashion plates are useful in the planning of Victorian costume in numerous ways.  Firstly it is instructive to see how Victorians put colours together.

Le Moniteur de la mode 1855

A common mistake I've heard with costumes is the belief that everything should match, closely followed by the view that Victorians would only use dowdy colours.  The illustration above from Moniteur de la mode, with the outfit of eggshell blue matched with a yellow bonnet (trimmed with black velvet, lace, white feathers and ties) and a red cashmere shawl, is a good illustration of how in many cases this just wasn't so.

 Le Moniteur de la mode 1855

If you find these fashion plates within the magazine in which it was published you can often get a wealth of information on the fabrics used and what the dress was intended for.

 The new monthly belle assemblee 1851

The full length figures in the plate above (1851) are described as wearing two public promenade dresses and a young lady's promenade dress.  Here is the description for the lady in the pink bonnet :

"Robe of one of the new winter silks, a crimson ground with stripes and wreaths of flowers and foliage in black, a high close corsage, and sleeves a three-quarter length.  Green velvet mantle, lined with sating to correspond; it is a half-length, the skirt cleft at the sides, rounded behind, and easy but without fullness.  Triple pagoda sleeve; it sits quite up to the throat, and is closed nearly to the waist.  The entire is trimmed with embroidery in galons and braiding to correspond.  Rose-coloured satin capote, a drawn shape; the interior trimmed with tulle and brides, both of the same colour."

Because fashion plates often depict the height of fashion they can be useful in pinpointing trends in clothing.  For example the above costumes from Le Moniteur de la Mode shows the changes in dress from 1853 with the more gentle shape of the corded or horsehair crinoline petticoat, to the height of the hooped crinoline with its full skirts of 1859 and the more elliptical crinoline of 1863, a trend which would eventually lead to the bustles of the 1870s.

 Le Moniteur de la mode 1859

A note of caution however.  Don't think that to be historically accurate that you have to copy a fashion plate exactly.  Fashion plates were similar to fashion illustrations now, in that they were sometimes on the exaggerated end of fashion and often used as inspiration rather than canon.  Much like a high street chain might look at a designer fashion display and make a more practical and affordable option, ladies would look at these plates and do the same.  Indeed Godey's Magazine in it's redrawing of European fashion plates often simplified the designs to make them easier to make, practical and more affordable.  Also these clothes were often aimed at young ladies of fashion.  Just as today a wealthy 18 year old would dress differently to a 50 year old of modest means.  One might go for the latest look in the newest fabric, the other might prefer an earlier style or have to make do with less expensive materials.

Godey's Lady's Book 1863

So to recap, fashion plates are a great resource for seeing the palette of the times, you can often get information on the fabric and appropriate use of a garment. However often the image displayed is the height of fashion, expensive, difficult to make and more often than not it is not the everyday wear of you average Victorian family.  They are though a great source of inspiration. 

Some online resources for fashion plates:


Part two of inspirational primary resources will focus on my favourite - period photographs.

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