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A Brief History of the Fashion Plate

Emily McCort, 2019 Summer Fashion Archives Intern

In the last couple of years, I personally began collecting fashion plates. As someone who has an interest in fashion history and a background in the arts, the combination of fashion and art fascinated me. Earlier fashion plates give the most up to date look into the styles of the past from the point of view from the people who were living during that time. Later fashion plates have an amazing use of color and line that make the fashion trends of the early twentieth century into fantastical creations that are works of art in themselves. 

So, what are fashion plates? And why are they called plates instead of prints?

Women, 1790 – 1799, Plate 002, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Woodman Thompson

Created by the French, fashion plates are images depicting women, and sometimes men, dressed in the latest styles and trends. Even after the advent of photography in the 1830s, fashion plates disseminated the most current fashion trends and provided a reference that instructed their dressmaker how to construct or alter a garment in the latest style. Those who made these illustrations used copper and steel engravings, hence the name “fashion plate.” 

The first fashion plate can be traced back as early as 1678 in the journal, Mercure Galant. This journal featured images of both men and women in the latest styles, information on where the depicted styles could be bought, and detailed descriptions of the current trends. Images of clothing existed earlier, but their function was to provide information on “various forms of national, regional, military, theatrical, or court attire,” [1] and not necessarily the current fashions worn by the elite class of Paris.

Habit d'Hyver (1678), The Victoria and Albert Museum, Gift of Antony Griffiths and Judy Rudoe

By the late eighteenth century, these images evolved into the style of fashion plates we recognize today. With less textual information, “a single figure, or small grouping of figures framed within a thinly lined rectangular border, with accompanying text appearing at the header and footer, was an enduring formula for fashion plates that would persist, unchanged, for two centuries.” [1] In the eighteenth century, fashion plates were produced by using copper engraving plates, which would later be hand-colored.

Women, 1790 – 1799, Plate 002, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Woodman Thompson

The malleability of copper meant that these plates could only produce a limited amount of images. The combination of hand-coloring and the limited number of plates being produced meant that these fashion plates were costly and were typically reserved for members of the aristocracy and the wealthy bourgeoisie class.

By the 1820s, steel engraving plates replaced copper since it was a stronger metal that could produce more plates, thereby increasing accessibility. Mechanical advancements in printing in the mid-nineteenth century and the end of the paper tax in 1854 meant that the paper used to create nineteenth century magazines and therefore, the fashion plates they were printed in, were much cheaper than they had been before. This meant that people of varying social classes could afford to purchase these stylish images, more so than in the previous century. Although the fashion plate originated in France, they were not the only people to take advantage of these technological advancements. Instead of copying the fashion plates from French magazines like they had in the eighteenth century, “from the 1830s, French engravings were themselves sent over for inclusion in high-class English periodicals.” [2]. These high-class engravings were then copied into cheaper magazines, widening the circle of readers.

Women 1840, Plate 100, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Woodman Thompson

The publications that printed fashion plates also reflected the changing socio-economic climate in the nineteenth century. Periodicals targeted to both wealthy women and middle class women were being produced, which led to ladies’ magazines, and therefore fashion plates, being a regular commodity for households of varying social classes. It is important to remember, however, that this accessibility didn't mean that women could buy new clothes with every issue. Much like today with magazines like Vogue and Elle, women can read about the latest styles, but unless they have the financial means, they aren't buying new clothes every month. 

1800-1866, Plate 079, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Leo Van Witsen

Women are not the only people to depicted in fashion illustrations. Men's fashions have been portrayed since the creation of fashion plates, although less frequently than women's.


Along with advancements in technology, depictions of children's clothing can also be seen in nineteenth century fashion plates. 

Children 1800-1849, Plate 017, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Woodman Thompson

By the 1880s, hand-coloring was out and mechanical color-printing was in. However, photography, which had begun earlier in the century, was developing into an even more popular medium and in the 1890s, fashion plates began to decline as photography grew.

Les modes,1917-1918, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Photography at the turn of the nineteenth changed the way fashion trends circulated. Like with the technological advancements of the early nineteenth century, photography as a growing medium continued to make information on fashion trends ever more accessible.  As early as 1901, the fashion publication, Les Modes, was one of the first magazines to primarily use photography in its publications. And it would not be the last as yet more advancements made it possible for photographs and textual information to be printed on the same page. 

However, even with the rising use of photography, there was a brief resurgence in popularity of the fashion plate in the 1910s and 1920s after their initial decline in the 1890s. Luxury magazines like Gazette du Bon Ton, Le Goût du Jour, and Journal des dames et des modes took inspiration from their eighteenth century predecessors by recreating the colorful hand painted images of the current trends, this time in twentieth century styles.  And, like their inspiration, these publications became more expensive and reserved for those wealthy individuals willing and able to purchase them.

Women 1921-1940, Plate 002, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Woodman Thompson

Publications took fashion plates a step further by utilizing a popular method called pochoir, a type of stenciling printing style that was “used to reproduce the work of renowned Art Deco illustrators, including George Barbier, Robert Bonfils, Paul Iribe, and Georges Lepape.” [1] A similar style of art can also be seen on the cover of twentieth century issues of the American magazine, Harper's Bazaar, usually with illustrations by the artist and designer, Erte (a personal favorite of mine). These illustrations step away from the traditional eighteenth century fashion plate by creating fantastical scenes in which to showcase the latest styles. 


Gazette du bon ton: arts, modes et frivolities,1912–15 and 1920–25, The Metropolitan Museum of Art,

Purchased with income from the Jacob S. Rogers Fund

As April Calahan states in Fashion Plates: 150 Years of Style,“the fashion plate was no longer about a line-for-line transcription of garments, as it had been for centuries, but about conveying a certain mood, spirit, or lifestyle.” Fashion plates no longer remained the only source of information on current fashion trends and so they became their own art form in addition to providing information on current trends. 

Despite this brief resurgence in the popularity of fashion plates, by the mid 1920s, the popularity of photography would win out over the traditional fashion plate. 



[1] Calahan, April and, Karen Trivette Cannell, ed. Fashion Plates: 150 Years of Style. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015). 

[2] Ingham, Erika. “Fashion Plates introduction.” The National Portrait Gallery. Accessed June 28, 2019.

The Victoria and Albert Museum. “One Hundred Years of Fashion Photography.”

The Metropolitan Museum of Art. “Women, 1790 – 1799, Plate 002.” Gift of Woodman Thompson.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art. “Women, 1790 – 1799, Plate 002.” Gift of Woodman Thompson.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art. “Women 1840, Plate 100.” Gift of Woodman Thompson.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art. “1800-1866, Plate 079.”Gift of Leo Van Witsen.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art. “Men's Wear 1790-1829, Plate 007.” Gift of Woodman Thompson.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art. “Children 1800-1849, Plate 017.” Gift of Woodman Thompson.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art. “Les modes,1917-1918.”

The Metropolitan Museum of Art. “Women 1921-1940, Plate 002.” Gift of Woodman Thompson.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art. “Gazette du bon ton: arts, modes et frivolities,1912–15 and 1920–25.” Purchased with income from the Jacob S. Rogers Fund.

The Victoria and Albert Museum. “Habit d'Hyver (1678).” Gift of Antony Griffiths and Judy Rudoe.