à la Mode, Fashion Plates: 1795 to 1920 From the Boston Public Library's Rare Books Department

Introduction  You are about to discover rare and precious fashion plates from the Boston Public Library’s collection. In their delicate and beguiling pages, you’ll find 125 years of high fashion. This exhibition begins in 1795 with dresses inspired by classical Greece and Rome. It ends in 1920 with fashions based on modern art principles of cubism and abstraction.Introduction

Fashion plates of idealized women wearing aristocratic styles began appearing in France and England in the mid-18th century. Soon afterward, enterprising artists and engravers found success in publishing fashion plates in a new subscription format called the fashion journal. The upheavals of the French Revolution and Napoleonic wars made London an independent center of fashion, with its own distinct style until 1820. The delicacy, accuracy, and elegance of the plates in the British journals Gallery of Fashion and Repository of Arts were modeled on the classical styles of ancient statuary and expressed the highest levels of art and taste of their times.

As the century progressed, the middle class expanded throughout Europe and the United States, and the demand for fashion information grew as well. New printing technology and cheaper paper encouraged the proliferation of fashion magazines. Competition within the industry led to a decline in the quality of the fashion images—cheap copies and poor tinting sufficed.

By the mid-19th century, the art of the fashion plate lost its connection with the high art of the time. Unlike the Impressionist artists, for example, who portrayed relaxed yet stylish women at home and outdoors, fashion plates depicted stiff and static women garbed in tight gowns trimmed with fantastical tucks, ruffles, bows, swags, and ribbons. The toilettes from the 1860s through the 1880s, illustrated in Le Bon Ton and La Mode Illustrée and in Magasin des Demoiselles, are good examples of this trend.

In the first two decades of the 20th century, avant-garde movements in modern art transformed the female figure. Fashion and fashion art adopted the principles of abstraction so fundamental to modern art, using flat, geometric patterns with clear edges and vividly-colored shapes. The clothed female body, influenced by the speed of the new machine age, became a streamlined composition of ovals, cubes, and cylinders. Raoul Dufy’s fashion plates illustrate these visual inter-relationships.

The era of fashion plates came to an end in the 1930s with the rise of fashion photography. At the turn of the 21st century, fashion magazines, television, and the worldwide web convey fashion information to a larger audience than ever before.

Kathleen McDermott, fashion history instructor at Massachusetts College of Art and Design, researched and wrote the text, chose and photographed the images for the accompanying website. The show was held in 2001 in the McKim building's Chavannes Gallery outside Bates Hall.

Acknowledgements Thanks to the Boston Public Library Rare Books and Manuscripts Department: Keeper Roberta Zonghi, Curators Susan Glover Godlewski and William Faucone, Book Conservator Stuart Walker, and Reference Librarian Eugene Zepp. Thanks also to Director of Public Services Katherine Dibble for acting as liaison for this project, Technology Implementation and Training Officer Cynthia Phillips for her energy and creativity in putting up the exhibition website, Library Volunteer Michelle Jenney for effective encouragement and support, and President Bernard Margolis who suggested the idea for this exhibition and its website. Costume historian Nancy Rexford gave freely of her time and expertise in selecting items for display.

Secondary Sources and Further Reading Madeleine Ginsburg, An Introduction to Fashion Illustration (London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 1980); Anne Hollander, Sex and Suits (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994) and Seeing Through Clothes (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993) and Feeding the Eye (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1999); From Paris to Providence: Fashion, Art, and the Tirocchi Dressmakers’ Shop, 1915-1947, ed. Susan Hay (Providence: RISD, 2000); Ackermann’s Costume Plates, Women’s Fashions in England, 1818-1828, ed. Stella Blum (New York: Dover, 1978); William Packer, Fashion Drawing in Vogue (London: Thames and Hudson, 1983); Tortora and Eubank, Survey of Historic Costume, 3rd Ed. (New York: Fairchild, 1998).

Fashion and Classicism 1795-1815

Ancient Greece and Rome provided the inspiration for progressive 18th century political and social thought. Both the American and French revolutions looked to classical republican models for their origins, while Napoleon imitated the glories of the Roman Empire. Interior design, furniture, architecture, and clothing all participated in this revival of classical taste.

Below is a 1795 plate taken from an English translation of a French handbook depicting the costumes worn by the governmental branches of the new French Republic. The dress of the Council of Ancients, in tribute to "the glory of Ancient Rome and learned Athens," consisted of a white toga-like drapery over a loose-fitting gown.

French women’s fashion also looked explicitly to ancient Greek and Roman statuary for its inspiration. By the 1790s, the fashion silhouette had shrunk to a tubular shape, with the waistline just below the bust. Women’s shapes were neither closely confined by corsets nor exaggerated by padding. Fabrics were often pale in hue and softly flowing in texture. Brilliantly colored accessories, including bright red scarves and mantles, an abundance of gold jewelry, and vivid green embroidered trim, completed the picture.

These new fashions crossed the English Channel with aristocratic émigrés. Fashion plate artists also fled from Paris, and the political upheavals that began with the Revolution and continued during the Napoleonic Wars made London the center of fashion plate production until the 1830s.

Gallery of Fashion, founded in London in 1794, is the earliest and most beautiful of these early émigré fashion journals. In the Preface, Niklaus von Heideloff, a miniaturist who fled Paris during the Revolution, promised his subscribers that the dresses featured were accurate copies of "those worn by ladies of rank and fashion," and that his journal was "a collection of the most fashionable and elegant Dresses in Vogue . . . the first and only one published in this country; it surpasses anything of the kind formerly published at Paris."

The two images below, selected from Gallery of Fashion, show the prevailing classical style. The purest and most radical example is that on the left, from 1796, introduced "by a foreign lady of distinction" (most likely French). Heideloff called the gown a "New Dress, in the Roman Style" and carefully noted the gold jewelry, richly embroidered trim, and satin sandals that completed the Roman ensemble. The three women of 1798 showed the same classical influences in their "Roman" robes, gold chains, "headdress à l'antique," and richly embroidered borders.

Fashion plates from The Mirror of the Graces, an 1811 guide for women’s deportment and beauty published in London, illustrated (below) the strong contemporary interest in classical dress. Its text extolled classical virtues, noting that the "secret of dressing lies in simplicity," and recommending the "ease and gracefulness of our Grecian Mode."

Fashion Plates 1818-1846

1818: Transition. Women’s dress began departing from the classical ideal towards a "Romantic" mode. The waistline was still high, although sleeves puffed out a bit. Skirts became less tubular and more wedge-shaped, with a flare at the hem. The hemline was emphasized with lavish trimmings: flowers, ribbons, frills, and other decorations. Vertical curls characterized the hairstyle.

1832: Exuberance. The "Romantic" mode was in full flower. The waistline moved downward. Sleeves puffed out enormously into huge bouffants. Extremely wide, cape-like collars called "pelerines" extended the shoulders even further. Hair was braided and dressed high on the head. One of the most popular coiffures was called à la Chinoise, drawn from engravings of authentic Chinese styles. Bonnets were large-brimmed with high, round crowns.

Le Follet, Petit Courrier des Salons, Paris, reprinted in Lady’s Magazine and Museum, London.

1843: Deflation. The upper body began to deflate. Sleeves shrank down and became tight from shoulder to wrist. Waists moved to their natural level and were emphasized with tight corseting. Petticoats supported full skirts. Hairstyles collapsed and simplified: hair was parted in the middle, pulled across the temples, and hung in sausage curls or with a loop of hair encircling the ears. Bonnets closed in on the head.

Le Follet, Petit Courrier des Salons, Paris, reprinted in The Court, Lady’s Magazine and Museum, 1843, London.

1846: Blinkered. At mid-century, women’s dress grew increasingly restrictive. Tight bodices emphasized tiny waists and sloping shoulders. Sleeves were tight from shoulder to elbow. Skirts grew wider and wider, supported by increasing layers of petticoats. The hair was dressed close to the head, and bonnets extended forward, completely covering ears and profile.

Petit Courrier des Dames, Paris, 1846.

Fashion Plates 1862-1896

Le Bon Ton 1862, New York.

1862: In a Cage. During the 1860s, skirts reached their largest circumference, supported by cage crinolines, or hoops, made of whalebone or steel. Sleeves and bodices were tight at the shoulder, although sleeves loosened at the elbow into bell shapes or kimono sleeves. The invention of chemical dyes created a new universe of fashion colors: Queen Victoria of England was the first to wear the new shade called "mauve." Hair continued to be dressed tight and close to the head.

From: La Mode Illustrée, 1875 and 1877 (Paris).

1875 and 1877: The Bustle. The hoop skirt collapsed and fullness was concentrated at the back of the skirt. The increasing accumulation of drapery required the support of a bustle, another cage-like undersupport. The skirts were worn fairly tightly, hampering the gait. The extremely close-fitting "cuirass" bodice followed the shape of the corset smoothly over the hips. Elaborate hairstyles, worn high on the head, required an abundance of false plaits. Hats sat high and tipped forward. The invention and proliferation of the sewing machine made it easier to add ever more decorative frills, trims, and ribbons.

La Mode, 1896, Paris.

1896: Freedom Begins. As more and more women began to work outside the home, they sought practical clothing that allowed for greater movement. The first American working girls, immortalized by illustrator Charles Dana Gibson in the 1890s, wore ready-made shirtwaist blouses and plain skirts. Their skirts flared smoothly out from the waist and often ended slightly above the ankle. The sensible blouse was modeled on men’s shirts. Corsets created an hourglass figure. Wide bouffant sleeves, full "pompadour" hairstyles and huge hats balanced the simplicity of the basic costume.

Changes in 19th-Century Male Fashion

In the early years of the 19th century, ultra-fashionable men known as "dandies" spared no expense in care and attention to their dress. They also shared a fashion silhouette with contemporary women, and adopted similar fabrics and fashion details.

The male and female plates from Costume Parisien of 1825 below illustrate this point. The man’s cutaway tailcoat, with its squared-off high waistline, related to women’s styles shown in the other volume from the same year. Men’s sleeves, like those for ladies, were cut full and puffy at the shoulders, and shoulders sloped downward from the neck. The delicacy of the man’s pinstriped trousers, bright buttons, lavishly curled hair, shoes with little bows, and snowy high cravat matched the overall effect of the female toilette. Men and women shared the same faces and poses.

The 1823 dandy featured below in Costume Parisien presented a slightly different example of this peacock mode for men. His elegant evening attire consisted of elaborately curled hair, skin-tight pantaloons over hose, two layers of waistcoat, including one in vivid red, and a velvet cloak trimmed with fur and silver chain.

Dandyism never widely popular, was a doomed phenomenon. By the 1840s a dramatic change had occurred in men's fashion, as men in France, England and the United States[put on the black suit as their uniform. Fashion historians have come to call this change "the great masculine renunciation." Black, which began as the color for ecclesiastical garments, extended to clerks and financial men, and then spread throughout male society to become the favored color for all urban gentlemen, respectable professionals, shop clerks, and even artists and writers. Men wore dark shades day and night. The large 1886 Parisian fashion plate from Les Modes Françaises—Journal des Tailleurs shows how sober and serious male costume had become. Tailors offered fabrics in black or dark tweeds for suits and overcoats and the lines of the clothing were simple and stark. Pants could be checked or striped but fabric tones were subdued. Hats with unadorned lines completed a picture of business-like sobriety and no-nonsense severity.

According to fashion historian Anne Hollander, the clean lines and ease of wearing of the male suit made it an example of "modern" fashion art. She contrasts the advanced nature of menswear with the fantasy and backwardness of women’s clothing of the time, still mired in the constrictions of ruffles, swags, corseting, bustles, and lace. To compare, see Parisian women’s garments below from Magasin des Demoiselles of 1880.

Global Fashion Influences

The Boston Public Library’s Department of Rare Books and its Department of Fine Arts contain many books illustrating local and traditional costume from European, African, and Asian countries. The three books featured here suggest how global fashion influences came to affect Western dress.

Designs of Chinese Buildings, Furniture, Dresses, Machines, and Utensils, published in London in 1757, is a wonderful example of cultural crossover. Such books bred a passion in France for Chinese style, and "chinoiserie" can be seen in French porcelains and furniture finishes up until the French Revolution. These stylistic elements worked their way into European women’s fashions, as well. The Chinese women (note that their eyes are quite Europeanized) are wearing loosely draped, high-waisted garments similar to what will become the classical silhouette and their hair is dressed in a style that inspired the 1830s version called "à la Chinoise."

Two Oriental Albums from 1856 and 1862 reflect the mid-19th century fascination with the Middle East. The Turkish and Armenian women pictured here, drawn by male artists, strike confident attitudes and do not gaze primly down- or sidewards like females in European fashion plates. Harem pants outline the legs of one and the other is smoking a cigarette. These images seem deliberately designed to shock genteel European and American female readers. Yet these same images profoundly influenced Western female style. "Turkish trousers" served as the model for the "bloomer costume," worn by mid-century American suffragists and dress reformers. Although the bloomer costume failed to change mainstream female fashion, it lived on as athletic costume for women through the end of the 19th century. And the cigarette became an essential fashion accessory for middle-class women in the 1930s.

Fashion and Modernism, 1900-1920

Fashion—and fashion illustration—changed dramatically in the first two decades of the 20th century. Fashion plates lost their static and conservative quality and, in the hands of modern artists, became avant-garde presentations of groundbreaking new styles.

Fashion artists employed the techniques of modern art—suggested by Cubists and Futurists—to deconstruct the body into cubes, cylinders, and ovals. Streamlined edges gave the form a feeling of speed. Large areas of flat, bright color, borrowed from Post-Impressionist artists, placed the human figure in an abstract context.

Paul Poiret’s revolutionary fashion designs best exemplified the changes of this period. He borrowed from the forms of modern art and from the shapes of men’s clothing to produce women’s designs with simple lines and vivid color.

In 1912, Poiret began publishing his designs in Gazette du Bon Ton, an unusual new Parisian fashion journal started by Lucien Vogel to emphasize the connections between fashion and art. The Gazette, illustrated by modern artists, brought fashion plates of the highest quality to the public and appeared in limited editions, on handmade paper, with no explanatory text.

The Gazette also featured designs for theatre costumes and book illustrations—all in the modernist style. Vogel printed special editions to feature certain artists; this section features the set decoration and costume designs of Georges Barbier, a fashion artist who also illustrated Poiret’s work, for a 1918 production of Casanova. The vividness and strength of these compositions correspond to the very best art of the period.

Gazette du Bon Ton also published the work of Raoul Dufy, then a young French painter, who collaborated with Poiret in textile designs. From 1912 to 1928 Dufy produced modern designs for the Lyons silk manufacturing firm of Bianchini, Férier. These examples are his sketches from 1920 contained in Gazette du Bon Ton of that year. These sketches placed the abstract female figure within the context of modernity: the backgrounds referred to the industrial, mechanized, and streamlined world of railroads, cars, and steamships. For Dufy—like all the modernist designers and illustrators of the early 20th century—fashion embraced the new velocity of life.

Created By
Kathleen McDermott


Photos by Kathleen McDermott, 2001