Just as modern women read Vogue or Mode or other magazines to keep abreast of current fashion trends, women of the 18th and 19th centuries relied on fashion plates. Since all clothing was made by hand, whether by a high-priced modiste or by one’s mother, fashion plates were an important resource to ensure that one’s wardrobe remained up-to-date and fashionable.
The first significant efforts to record contemporary costume appeared in the 17th century. These were issued more for education and amusement than as an attempt to set or predict fashion trends. Most of these early costume plates were of male costume. It was not until the last quarter of the 18th century that fashion plates began to be issued, designed to guide ladies in their choice of dress. They became extremely popular during the English Regency, coincident with the publication of several magazines devoted to feminine interests.
The magazines were issued in paper-bound covers, and each month’s issue generally included one or two fashion plates, along with other prints. Subscribers could return their monthly copies to the publisher for leather-bound volumes, usually in 6-month sets, or they could have them bound privately.
Sometimes women would cut out the fashion plates and keep them in a scrapbook. The number of Regency-period fashion plates still available indicates that they were not thrown away, but important enough to be kept in one form or another.
The prints were hand-colored, usually by teams of young girls and women, with the best artists used for painting faces. (The Ackermann’s are particularly notable for their beautifully painted faces.) Hand-coloring by illiterate workers had some interesting results. A dress described as green might show up in one copy as pink.
This collection concentrates on Evening Dress. Examples are provided from 1801 to 1818. Though it is difficult to make blanket statements about fashion trends in terms of hemlines (they go slightly up and down) and waistlines (they remain generally very high for evening wear throughout the period), other changes of style are more clearly defined. The earlier dresses have simpler decoration than the rather fussy embellishments of the later years; and the straight classical line of the skirt slowly moves toward the bell-shape that becomes prominent in the 1820s. It is also interesting to note the hairstyles, accessories, and even furniture shown in the prints.
Evening Dress, September 1812
“A white crape robe, with demi-train, and long full sleeves, gathered at regular distances, and ornamented with simple bows of ribbon; bosom and back formed very low, the former ornamented with gold or Chinese silk trimming, and united with gold buckles on the right side. The robe is worn over a white satin slip, and trimmed at the bottom with lace or silver ribbon. Hair confined in the Eastern style, and ornamented with a wreath of variegated flowers. Necklace and cross of blended pearl and amber and earrings en suite. Roman slippers of white satin with gold clasps; fan of white and gold crape, or carved ivory. An occasional Grecian scarf of white lace.”
Full Dress, May 1813
“A celestial blue satin slip with short full sleeve, trimmed round the bottom with a full border of lace, gathered on a knotted beading. A Polonese long robe of white crape, or gossamer net, trimmed entirely round with lace and knotted beading, united in front of the bosom with rows of satin bead. Hair in irregular curls, confined in the Eastern style, and blended with flowers. Necklace and drop of the satin bead or pearl; eardrops and bracelets to correspond; double neck-chain and heart of Oriental gold, inclosing an amulet. Grecian scarf of pale buff colour, embroidered with shaded morone silks, in Grecian characters, and fancifully disposed on the figure. Slippers of blue satin or kid, trimmed with silver. White gloves of French kid, falling below the elbow. Fan of carved ivory, with Italian border of coloured feathers.”
Evening Dress, November 1813
“A round robe of blossom-coloured crape, with demi-train, worn over a white satin slip, gather frock back and stomacher front; the sleeve unusually short, and back and bosom uncommonly (not to say unbecomingly) exposed. The sleeves and neck of the robe ornamented with puckered white satin, and a fancy border round the bottom composed of white satin and crape, the same as the dress; belt of the same round the bottom of the waist, confined with a pearl, or other appropriate clasp, in front. The hair in irregular curls, divided in front, and confined on the crown of the head with white beads and blended with small autumnal flowers of various hues. Necklace, a single row of pearl or the satin bead; a small elastic chain of Oriental gold, from which is suspended a large convent cross of diamonds. Earrings and bracelets of pearl, with diamond studs. French kid gloves, below the elbow. Slipper of white satin, decorated round the instep with silver fringe. Indian fan of carved ivory.”
Evening Dress, January 1815
“A celestial blue crape frock, over a white satin slip, ornamented round the bottom with a deep border of tulle or net lace, embroidered with shaded blue silks and chenille; short full sleeve, trimmed with tulle or net lace; the dress trimmed entirely round the top to correspond. Hair parted in the center of the forehead, confined in the Grecian style, and blended with flowers. Necklace of pearl; eardrops and bracelets to correspond. Slippers of blue satin or kid. White gloves of French kid.”
Full Dress (designed by Mrs. Bean, Albemarle Street), February 1815
“Pale pink or primrose-coloured crape petticoat over white satin, ornamented at the feet with a deep border of tulle, trimmed with blond lace and pink or primrose-coloured ribband, festooned and decorated with roses; short full sleeves, composed of tulle and crape, with a border of French embroidery; the back drawn nearly to a point, corresponding to the cape front of the dress, and trimmed round with blond lace; The waist very short, and an easy fullness in the petticoat, carried entirely round. Necklace and drop of pearl; eardrops and bracelets to correspond. Hair in irregular curls, confined in the Eastern style, and blended with flowers. French scarf, fancifully disposed on the figure. Slippers of pink or primrose-coloured kid; gloves to correspond.”
Evening Dress, August 1815
“A white satin petticoat, richly ornamented at the feet with a broad border of tulle and satin; a frock-body, tied behind, and composed of tulle and satin, with a quilling of tulle terminating at each point of the shoulder strap; a short sleeve, richly ornamented with frilled tulle, corresponding to the bottom of the dress; short sash of white satin tied in full bows behind. Cap composed of white satin and gathered tulle, decorated in the front with a full wreath formed of tulle edged with satin. Stockings plain silk. Slippers white kid or ribbed sarsnet. Gloves French kid drawn over the elbow. ”
Candice Hern is the author of several Regency Romance novels and an avid collector of period fashion accessories. Her heroine’s wardrobes are often ispired by the period fashion plates, such as these, in her personal collection. Knowing the history behind these clothes helps bring her stories even more vividly to life.
Candice’s latest story, “From This Moment On” can be found in, It Happened One Night, which features characters from her famous “Merry Widows” series.
Reprinted with permission from Candicehern.com
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