You are about to discover rare and
precious fashion plates from the Boston Public Librarys collection. In their
delicate and beguiling pages, youll 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.
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
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 imagescheap copies and poor
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 Dufys 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, instructor of
fashion history at Massachusetts College of Art, curated this exhibition.
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.
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); Ackermanns Costume Plates, Womens
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
Fashion Plates 1818-1846
Fashion Plates 1846-1896
Changes in 19th Century Male Fashion
Fashion Influences from Abroad
Fashion and Modernism 1900-1920