Fashion plate

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Fashion plate, 1860 V&A Museum no. E.267-1942

A fashion plate is an illustration (a plate) demonstrating the highlights of fashionable styles of clothing. Traditionally they are rendered through etching, line engraving, or lithograph and then colored by hand. To quote historian James Laver, the best of them tend to "reach a very high degree of aesthetic value."[1]

Fashion plates do not usually depict specific people. Instead they take the form of generalized portraits, which simply dictate the style of clothes that a tailor, dressmaker, or store could make or sell, or demonstrate how different materials could be made up into clothes. The majority can be found in lady's fashion magazines which began to appear during the last decades of the eighteenth century.

Used figuratively, as is often the case, the term is a refers to a person whose dress conforms to the latest fashions.


Prior to the French Revolution, fashion plates were view and far between. This method of disseminating fashionable styles was mostly popular during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Their origins, however, date back to the 16th century, even if the history may not be continuous.[2] Portraits, especially royal portraits, served as the base for the future of fashion plates, as they offered a visual cue as to the popular styles, fabrics and embellishments of the time. Dolls were also popular prior to fashion plates. In fact, Marie Antoinette's dressmaker was known to tour the continent every year with berlines containing dolls outfitted with the latest fashionable styles.[3] Fashion plates were first circulated at the end of the 18th century in England, rather than in France, as would be expected.[3] "The Lady's Magazine", one of the first distributors of fashion plates in magazines, began publishing in 1770, spreading the trend across Europe. In France, La Galerie des Modes was a pioneer in fashion plate publication. Encompassing over 400 prints, this series was issued sporadically by the print merchants Jacques Esnauts (or Esnault) and Michel Rapilly between the years 1778 and 1787 and paved the way for the distribution of popular magazines such as the Magazin des Modes Nouvelle Françaises et Anglaises.[3] As technology improved, speed of communication and transportation increased, thus allowing consumers access to foreign fashions, accessories and hairstyles. The introduction of an educated middle class also allowed for a more fashion-conscious population that became devoted to fashion plate publications. However, the increasing popularity of photography spelled out the end for fashion plates, as photos offered a realistic portrayal of fashionable styles.[2]

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Tomy revived the concept as a toy marketed simply as Fashion Plates.[4][5]

Fashion Plates v. Costume Plates[edit]

Fashion plates should not be confused with costume plates. As outlined by the French social and cultural historian Daniel Roche, there was a point when depictions of costume and of fashion "diverged"[6]: the latter came to depict clothes of the present day, while the former came to represent clothes "after the event", that is, after the epoch of the fashionable style. "Le Monument de Costume" of Freudenberg and Moreau le Jeune, published in Paris between 1775 and 1783, consisted of costume plates.[3]


  1. ^ Laver, James. Fashions and Fashion Plates 1800-1900. London and New York: Penguin Books Limited, 1943, p. 3
  2. ^ a b Nevinson, John L. "Origin and Early History of the Fashion Plate". Retrieved November 10, 2011. 
  3. ^ a b c d Laver, James (1986). Costume & Fashion. London, England: Thames and Hudson. p. 288. ISBN 0-500-20190-0. 
  4. ^ Doll Kind - Fashion Plates
  5. ^ Retroland - Fashion Plates
  6. ^ Roche Daniel. The Culture of Clothing: Dress and Fashion in the Ancien Régime." Translated by Jean Birrell. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989, p. 476