Had you been a fashionable woman in the 18th century, you might have had to look to decadent pre-Barbie dolls to keep up with the latest trends. No joke. Marie Antoinette’s dressmaker, for example, would travel around Europe with a case of dolls dre
ssed in the latest French fashions to distribute the style of the French court. Lucky for her, she didn’t have to lug around dolls for too much longer.
When fashion prints, or fashion plates as they were called, began appearing in magazines in the late 18th century, they revolutionized how to spread the what-to-wear word to designers, merchants, and artists. The English were the first to publish these hand-colored engravings in The Lady’s Magazine, beginning in 1770. Early prints portrayed one model in a blank background. Later on in the mid-19th century when color prints became extremely popular in America as well, magazines began depicting their models in elaborate scenes involving upper-class leisurely activities. These prints are now wonderful collectibles that represent the styles and designs of the past.
Ebenezer Butterick and his wife, patternmakers from Massachusetts, founded a fashion, culture and fine arts magazine called The Delineator in 1873. It became the premier American magazine at the turn of the 19th century. Not only did The Delineator promote antique fashion prints, but also it offered patterns for women to create their own stylish clothes. Butterick was known for creating different sized patterns for women, a rarity in a time when patterns were usually one-size-fits-all. This 21-inch-by-29.75-inch long print from the fall of 1873 is a colorful outdoor scene that portrays 21 models dressed in glamorous Victorian clothing. Available at Antique Investments.
Forever trendsetters, the French relied on prints in their fashion magazines to promote their latest style throughout Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries. This featured print of two women wearing satin dresses is an original 19th century French fashion plate by the famous French artist, Emile Préval. It is a hand-colored, steel-cut engraving that was created for the magazine, Le Journal des Dames et des Demoiselles, édition Belge. Look for special signatures or symbols on antique fashion prints, as some have the signature of the artist who engraved the print. The engraver Gervais signed this 8-inch-by-11.75-inch print. Available at French-treasures.com.
Fashion books published at the beginning of the 20th century were a popular device to spread contemporary ideas of art and design to the general public. While not all people could afford to buy these fine clothes, they could at least enjoy looking at the vibrant fashion prints. This 7.5-inch-by-7.5-inch print is an original from a book published in 1910 that followed the trends from that era. New York artist Clara Reynolds produced this art-deco-style print, which depicts two women elegantly laughing. Available through AntiquePrints on Etsy.
[Photography courtesy of Antique Investments (top), French-treasures.com (middle), and Etsy (bottom).]