19th century American and British Victorian fashion plates have become collectible again. As with most things antique, this collectible trend has come and gone over the years. But those early original hand painted plates from the period are highly sought after.
Originally a description of illustrations depicting the latest clothing styles, the term “fashion plate” has come to mean a person who is always dressed in vogue.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, British, French and American periodicals such as The Lady’s Magazine, La Belle Assemblee and Godey’s Lady’s Magazine catered to women with features on homemaking, decorating, art, literature and tips for self-improvement. By the late eighteenth century, the magazines began including printed illustrations or plates of up-to-date fashions.
What is a Fashion Plate?
For the new collector or reader learning about antique art terms, a plate is simply a print or original drawing on a full page. They are most often found within the pages old books. While this article is about fashion plates in particular, botanical prints, historical places and architectural drawings are also widely collected plates. Fashion plates offered the 19th century reader a glimpse at the new styles, much like the slick fashion magazines of today.
The First Fashion Plates
In 1770, the British publication The Lady’s Magazine published engraved fashion plates; by the 1790s their engravings were hand tinted. In 1778, French print dealers Jacques Esnauts and Michel Rapilly created hand-colored prints of current fashions for La Galerie des Modes. Similar publications quickly appeared throughout Europe. By the mid-1880s, over one hundred European fashion periodicals were available.
Since mass-produced clothing was not yet available, early fashion illustrations were invaluable sources of the latest trends for dressmakers and tailors who custom crafted wardrobes for individual customers. The illustrations helped accelerate the trend to change styles seasonally.
The Widespread Appeal of Fashion Illustrations
Author Vyvyan Holland noted an important distinction between fashion plates and costume plates in his 1955 book Hand-Coloured Fashion Plates 1770-1899. Costume plates depict historical clothing worn at various times by different cultures; fashion plates promote new styles to prospective audiences.
As they gained in popularity, fashion plates evolved from simple representations of women in stylish attire to elaborate group scenes with backdrops of luxurious interiors and fanciful landscapes. The plates often referenced the leisure pursuits of the wealthy, such as reading, promenading in public parks and socializing at balls.
The poses are highly stylized to emphasize the construction of the clothes. Fabric and trimmings are rendered with precision. The accompanying text is equally thorough, describing such details as the color, silhouette and drape of a garment as well as the hairstyle and accessories shown. An entry in the May 1813 Ackermann’s Repository is a typical example, referencing a “celestial blue satin slip with short full sleeve, trimmed round the bottom with a full border of lace, gathered on a knotted beading” with hair styled “in irregular curls” and shoes “of blue satin or kid, trimmed with silver.”
Although most fashion plates showcased women’s fashions, publications such as the British journal Fashion and the French magazine Costume Parisien provided illustrations of the latest styles for gentlemen. A number of magazines also included fashion plates for children.
Well-known fashion plate illustrators include the Colin sisters (Heloise, Anais and Laure), Jules David, Adolf Sandoz and Georges Barbier.
An Enduring Catalog of Fashion Trends
Fashion plates were published into the first decades of the 20th Century, tracing the history of fashion from the Empire era in the early 1800s to the Victorian era from mid-century to 1900 to the Art Deco period of the 1920s. In tandem with the evolution of fashion, drawing styles progressed from the somewhat stiff early poses to more fluid modern representations of the body.
Technology changed as well. Hand-tinted engravings were replaced when color lithographs became dominant in the 1880s. Early 20th Century illustrations were executed in a stencil technique known as pochoir, a process that produced vibrant colors. Fashion photography gradually eclipsed fashion plates by the 1930s.
Although fashion plates represented the ideal, they still offer a window into the clothing, furnishings and social milieu of their time period. They are a valuable resource for historians, costumiers, artists and fashion designers. The antique plates have become popular collectibles.
Fashion Plate Sources for Collectors
There were and are many sources that included fashion plates for the 19th century fashionista as well as today’s collector and those interested in fashion history. Some periodicals included Belle assemblée, Le Follet, Journal des dames,The Englishwoman’s Domestic and the well known Godey’s Lady’s Book to name just a few. These publications always included several fashion plates in color or in black and white and the publications themselves are very collectible.
Godey’s Lady’s Book is easily found online through eBay or Abe Books. When these were published in the 19th century, several editions were brought together and bound in complete or half year volume. Expect to pay anywhere from $20 to $150 depending on rarity and condition.
Antique Fashion Plate Values
A look at eBay’s completed items will give the collector a rough idea of the current values of antique fashion plates. Very rare fashion plates seldom show up on eBay but are bought and sold privately or at live auctions.
Recently, a group of 12 original fashion plates from an 1863 edition of Englishwoman’s Domestic magazine sold for as little as $15 for the lot, so there are always deals to be found. These are not considered very rare. A collector will also find original French fashion plates of the period by engravers Monnin or Anais Toudouze for approximately $20. Many hand colored plates can be found for this price.
When buying “antique” fashion plates online, ensure it’s original to the period and not a modern reprint. Often you’ll read terms like “antique style” Expect those to be reprints. Most sellers are honest, but do due diligence and ask questions.
Sources on the topic
- Blackman, Cally, 100 Years of Fashion Illustration, Laurence King Publishing Ltd., 2007
- Blum, Stella, ed., Eighteenth-Century French Fashion Plates, Dover Publications, 1982
- Haug, Joanne, “Antique Fashion Prints,” Victoriana.com (www.victoriana.com/library/fplates.html)
- Holland, Vyvyan, Hand-Coloured Fashion Plates 1770-1899, Batsford, London, 1955
- Laver, James, Costume & Fashion: A Concise History, Thames and Hudson, 1985
- Moore, Doris Langley, Fashion through Fashion Plates: 1771-1970, Clarkson N. Potter, Inc., 1971
- Olian, JoAnne, Eighty Godey’s Full-Color Fashion Plates 1838-1880, Dover Publications, 1998
- Raizman, David, History of Modern Design: Graphics and Products Since the Industrial Revolution, Laurence King Publishing Ltd., 2003
- Steele, Valerie, Paris Fashion: A Cultural History, Oxford University Press, Inc., 1988