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Fashion Plates introduction

From the late 18th century and throughout the 19th, fashion plates showed ladies and their dressmakers what fashionable society was wearing in London and Paris.  Styles had begun to change rapidly, and fashion plates were increasingly relied upon to suggest the latest and most appropriate outfits for different times of the day and for specific occasions.

A spate of periodicals emerged in the 18th century, including a number aimed at women, and from 1759 the Lady's Magazine (1759-1763) became the first to record contemporary fashions with its ‘habits’ of the year.  Another, longer-lived Lady's Magazine (1770-1832) followed with more frequent and regular plates from 1770 to show what society was wearing.  Early plates were issued uncoloured, though may have been tinted by dressmakers to inspire their clients, but by 1790 those in the Lady’s Magazine were 'embellished’ with hand-colouring, and the practice of including regular coloured plates had begun.

Several ladies’ magazines aimed at fashionable society appeared towards the end of the 18th century and in increasing numbers in the 19th, anticipating new styles as well as recording what had been worn.  Until the 1820s engravings were made on copper printing plates, the softness of which limited the number of prints that could be taken.  But their replacement by harder steel-faced plates, the introduction of new mechanised printing methods in the middle of the century and the removal of the tax on papers in 1854 all led to larger editions and a dramatic increase in sales, as well as a substantial decrease in price.

The market for women’s periodicals was changing, new ones emerging with more practical content to appeal to the burgeoning middle-classes, alongside the magazines of fashion and leisure for wealthier readers.  Over a hundred new titles appeared in Europe from the 1840s-1860s alone, bringing the latest styles to a much wider public.  Some magazines lasted only a few issues, some for decades; some were wholly devoted to fashion though most included it among a range of educational and entertaining topics.  The early magazines - and plates - were small, but they generally increased in size during the second quarter of the century.  Plates were usually accompanied by descriptions of the outfits shown to enable them to be copied accurately, and by lengthy discussions of the latest modes in London and Paris.

British women looked to Paris for the lead in fashion, and from the late 18th century French plates were often copied for British magazines.  But from the 1830s, French engravings were themselves sent over for inclusion in high-class English periodicals.  It was common practice for less accomplished engravers to then copy them for cheaper magazines, so the same dress was often seen recurring in subsequent months as it worked its way down the social scale and further away from Paris.  By the 1860s and 70s nearly every English magazine imported its plates from France, and the collection contains numerous French prints that were reissued in England.

Artists often made their original drawing at a dressmaker’s establishment, some of whom were credited on the plate.   It was then copied by an engraver and printed before being laboriously coloured by hand, probably by an assembly-line of workers who each applied one colour, and bound into the magazine.  Few of the draughtsmen and engravers responsible are identified until the 1840s, when a new generation of French artists, introducing less stilted compositions with varied backgrounds and less stylised clothes, began to regularly sign their work.  The last decades of the century saw technological innovations and changes: with the growth in circulation, lithography started to be used from the 1860s, where the artist could draw directly onto the stone from which the print was made, and from the late 1880s mechanical colour-printing began to take the place of colouring by hand.  The standard of the engraved fashion plate declined, and from the 1890s the new medium of fashion photography had begun to take its place.

The National Portrait Gallery's collection of fashion plates consists of 562 engravings, mostly hand-coloured and primarily showing women's dress.  It spans the century from the first crude black and white engraving published in The Lady’s Magazine in 1770 to naturalistic, painterly compositions dating from 1869, when the period of hand-colouring was nearing its end.  In reality the outfits depicted in fashion plates were often adapted and toned down, just as designers’ creations are today, and British fashions often varied slightly from French ones as well as being some months behind.  But, together with the written descriptions that first accompanied them (many of which are transcribed here), they provide an important insight into late 18th and 19th century dress, and are a valuable aid to the dating of portraits and understanding the range of dress depicted in them.

The collection can now be explored here by decade, by magazine or browsed by dress terms.  This has been made possible by generous funding from The Ashley Family Foundation and the Idlewild Trust.

Catalogued and curated by Erika Ingham

Selective bibliography

Valerie Cumming, C.W. Cunnington and P.E. Cunnington, The Dictionary of Fashion History, 2010

C. Willett Cunnington, English Women’s Clothing in the Nineteenth Century, 1937; republished 1990

Vyvyan Holland, Hand Coloured Fashion Plates 1770-1899, 1955

Alice Mackrell, An Illustrated History of Fashion, 1997

Mary Brooks Picken , The Fashion Dictionary, 1957; republished as A Dictionary of Costume and Fashion: Historic and Modern, 1999

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