Boston Public Library
À la Mode, 1795 to 1920
Fashion Plates
Rare Books Department


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.

At right 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 selected from Gallery of Fashion show the prevailing classical style. The purest and most radical example is that 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 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
Fashion Plates 1862-1896
Changes in 19th Century Male Fashion
Fashion Influences from Abroad
Fashion and Modernism
Back to À la Mode Main Page


Exhibit Images

French Republican Dress, 1795

French republican dress 1795
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Gallery of Fashion, 1796

Gallery of fashion
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Gallery of Fashion, 1798

Women's fashion 1798
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The Mirror of the Graces, 1811

1811 women of fashion
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