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


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.


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, 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.

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).


Exhibit Images

Fashion and Classicism 1795-1815

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Fashion Plates 1818-1846

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Fashion Plates 1846-1896

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Changes in 19th Century Male Fashion

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Fashion Influences from Abroad

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Fashion and Modernism 1900-1920

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