Department of Textiles, Fashion Merchandising and Design

The URI Historic Textile and Costume Collection

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Fashion Plates

A Brief History of Fashion Plates
During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the fashion plate was one of the most important resources for “matters of style” (Taylor 1982: 5–6). Although this steel-engraved or lithographed print was originally distributed alone or included as a supplement in periodicals, it has come to be viewed as a form of decorative art on its own. Today, it also serves as a valuable primary source for the study of historic costume.

Two 1778 Parisian printsellers, Jacques Esnauts and Michel Rapilly, are credited with the creation of colored prints depicting contemporary fashion for men and women. Their plates appeared in the publication La Galerie des Modes, along with portraits of French court members and detailed images of theatrical costumes. In 1787, La Galerie des Modes ceased production, and in 1794 Nicolaus Wilhelm von Heidelhoff, a Paris-trained engraver, began production of the Gallery of Fashion in London. His exquisitely hand-tinted fashion plates were often metallic-embellished. By the turn of the century, numerous French, English, and German periodicals also included fashion plates.

In America, women eagerly sought information on the latest Paris fashions from monthly publications such as Godey’s Lady’s Book and La Belle Assemblée. From the inception of Louis B. Godey’s magazine in Philadelphia in 1830, until the late 1860s, Godey’s Lady’s Book was considered an institution and a leading authority on fashion. Initially focused on sentimental short stories from English publications, it occasionally added reproduced French and English fashion plates.

Sarah Josepha Hale, an untrained, penniless widow with five children, was hired as editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book in 1837. A devout feminist and activist, Mrs. Hale’s many accomplishments included helping to organize Vassar, the first women’s college, and spurring the movement to proclaim Thanksgiving as a national holiday. Her influence upon Godey’s Lady’s Book was seen almost immediately, as she strove to shape it into a work of American “miscellany which although devoted to general literature” was “more expressly designed to mark the progress of female improvement” (Payne et al 1992: 456–7). In her column, Editor’s Table, she spear-headed women’s causes and spoke out against social injustice.

Mrs. Hale hired local artists to redraw fashions from European publications, although the designs were actually simplified Philadelphia or New York variations, as few American women could afford French gowns until the late 1860s. Godey’s hand-colored plates included vague descriptions of fabrics, and the painted colors sometimes differed from those described in the text.

Interest in Godey’s Lady’s Book began to wane after the Civil War, when industrialization brought an increase in urbanization and disposable income. Fashionable women began to seek the more sophisticated look presented in other periodicals, such as Graham’s and Peterson’s. In 1877, Godey sold his publication, and, despite new owners and relocation to New York, the magazine failed to regain its former popularity.

We have a detailed description of the subject matter and scope of a number of periodicals of this era.  In addition, the URI Historic Textile and Costume Collection owns a number of these magazines 

By JoAnn Steere

Blum, Stella, ed. Fashions and Costumes from Godey’s Lady’s Book. New York: Dover Publications, 1985.
Payne, Blanche et al. The History of Costume, 2nd ed. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1992.
Taylor, Lisa. Fashion Plates in the Collection of the Cooper-HewittMuseum. New York: Smithsonian Institution, 1982.

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