A Brief History of Fashion Plates
As a young girl of about eight, I discovered a collection of what I would painfully learn later were fashion plates my mother (an aspiring fashion designer) had created. Thinking the ladies looked like Barbie dolls with their lithe figures and flawless dress, I used them for play. I had never been one of those girls attracted to the Barbie dolls, (although my daughter and granddaughters love them), but enjoyed drawing, reading, or anything creative. Not realizing these were important to my mother—and shamefully, never asking her for permission to play with them—they became lost, ruined, or both because of my meddling in my mother’s things. That was the last time I can recall doing such a thing, as the impression she made upon discovering my crime was lasting.
My mother never pursued her dream, although it is my opinion that had she, she could have gone far. She has an unmistakable talent for drawing. Despite my attempts at drawing, I never showed promise. The beauty of those that she salvaged fascinated me, especially as I realized people chose dresses and complete wardrobes based on fashion plates.
During the Regency Era (and as early as 1678) men and women chose their fashions based on these images of women (or men) dressed in the latest styles or trends. Despite the invention of photography in the 1830s, these fashion plates kept their popularity for their garment instruction to the latest style, therefore deriving the name fashion plates. By the eighteenth century, once drawings were created, they were often transferred to copper engraving plates, steel etchings, printed, and hand painted. They passed the finished products on to publications, modistes and others in the industry. Copper could only be copied a few times before the plate lost its viability. Because of the amount of work that went into creating them, they were often costly. Fashion plates conveyed the standard for clothing fashion and, while not meant only for the elite classes, the cost of producing them often limited access to the aristocracy.
They were also used for military, theatrical, and other types of fashion. Although many of the more fashionable ones were costly because of the copper and were reserved for members of the aristocracy. [Should you discover patterns made well into the twentieth century, their covers often feature these same types of drawings, especially the older ones.] Learning to create these drawings was the focus of many of my mother’s high school art classes.
As steel became predominant in the 1820s, its lower cost and sturdier composition increased accessibility. When the British government lifted the paper tax in the mid-eighteenth century, they copied the etchings into cheaper magazines, making them much more accessible to everyone. By 1880, the pictures were mechanically color printing.
The twentieth century saw an increased reliance and growth of photography, making fashion plates no longer the only conveyance of popular fashion trends. The fashion plates had become more art than pattern. And it is that beautiful art of my mother's that I wish with a heavy heart that I had not destroyed as a child.