A Short History of Fashion Illustration

For the past centuries, fashion illustration has been the major source for fashion information. Before photography, fashion was documented through engravings, paintings and drawings that were eagerly sought after world over. Fashion illustration offers a unique visual account of the history of fashion.

fashion plate 1800s victoria and albert museum

Fashion plate showing women's costume. Hand-coloured etching, Paris, 1787. Collection Victoria and Albert Museum, London. CC-BY-SA. http://bit.ly/1oN6FKD

During the 1500s and 1600s, two centuries of exploration and discovery, there was a strong desire to know about the costume of other nations. Costume books with engravings, but also painting became important sources of information. By the end of the 1600s it was even in fashion to collect fashion engravings! Around the same period, fashion for the first time became a topic in periodicals and in the 1700s pocket books with small and uncoloured fashion illustrations enjoyed a wide circulation. By the end of the 18th century, the first fashion plates appeared in periodicals dedicated to fashion only.

The 1800s were the heyday of the fashion plate and saw the emergence of a large number of fashion magazines. There were even lower priced black-and-white and more expensive hand-coloured versions of the same magazine. Another development in fashion illustration were plates that not just showed the clothes, but depictions of women wearing them in social contexts, illustrating the appropriate circumstances for the clothes to be worn. The late 1800s saw the beginnings of experimentation with fashion photography, but even then magazines copied photographs through engravings.

fashion plate 1800s victoria albert museum europeana fashion illustration

Fashion plate, published in "Le Monde Elégant" and "The Ladies Gazette of Fashion", England, ca. 1855-1868. Collection Victoria and Albert Museum, London. CC-BY-SA. http://bit.ly/1uX4dDe

In the early 1900s, fashion photography became a more dominant medium. The large circulation of fashion magazines had led to a decline in the artistic quality of fashion plates. It was Paul Poiret who reinvented the fashion plate by commissioning artists to depict his designs. From the 1920s onwards, fashion illustrations were often featured on magazine covers. They did not necessarily reflect the content of the magazine, but were seen as work of arts by themselves. Fashion had become art.

gazette du bon ton 1920s europeana fashion centraal museum utrecht

Fashion plate from La Gazette du Bon Ton, 1923. Collection Centraal Museum, Utrecht. All rights reserved. http://bit.ly/Uvt6sW

After WWII, the fashion plate still blossomed in fashion magazines, but from the 1960s onwards it was replaced by photography as the main conveyer of fashion. Fashion illustration largely disappeared from magazines, although there was a revival in the late 1980s, reminiscent of the style of the 1920s.

Nevertheless, up until today fashion illustration is considered an art form and, thanks to the digital revolution, is experiencing a renaissance. The Internet is an excellent platform for fashion illustration that offers fresh and unique perspectives in a fashion world that is saturated with photography.

You can find many fashion plates in Europeana Fashion by searching for “sketch”, “drawing” and “plate”.







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