Fashion Plate: Definition and Meaning

Fashion plates are miniature prints of people dressed in the newest trends and presented in minimally narrative social settings. They are frequently hand-colored. They were popular from the late 1800s through the early 1900s and were typically issued with fashion periodicals as supplemental plates or as essential components of the editorial material. Fashion plates are a mirror of the creative, historical, moral, and aesthetic sentiment of their period, according to the poet Charles Baudelaire, who wrote about them in his essay The Painter of Modern Life. He wrote in 1863, at a time when fashion plates were at their height of development

What is a Fashion Plate?

A fashion plate is a costume portrait; that is, it depicts the type of clothing that is being worn or that is most likely to be worn rather than an individual. It is a broad portrait exhibiting the kinds of garments that a tailor, dressmaker, or retailer may produce or offer or demonstrating how various materials can be used to create garments. A fashion plate is tied to the clothing of its day and not to the history of clothing, with the possible exception of when a historical figure’s attire may be copied at a later time. A fashion plate is replicated mechanically, with the early woodcuts and engravings being followed by lithographs and then the modern photographic techniques.

Furthermore, a fashion plate is an illustration showcasing the key elements of current clothing trends. Traditionally, they are created using lithography, line engraving, or etching, and then manually colored. The best of them typically “achieve a very high degree of artistic merit,” according to historian James Laver.

Although commentators warn that because fashion plates were high-end aspirational catalogues, it should not be assumed that the majority of people dressed in the same way expressed by a plate, fashion plates are frequently used as primary source material for the study of historical fashions. A truer method to use fashion plates for study is to think of them as the designer’s store window or a contemporary high-end fashion magazine, where only a select few people are wearing such expensive clothing. The fashion plate’s attractiveness gives it a firmly established place among the minor graphic arts, despite the fact that its primary goal was to show new fashions and sell more clothing. Unfortunately for students, fashion plates are frequently taken out of the publications in which they were published and sold as collectibles; removed from their original context, they lose a lot of their value as historical sources.

Historical Background

Fashion plates are pictures of people dressed in the latest fashions, and they were invented by the French. Even after photography was invented in the 1830s, fashion plates continued to be used as a source of information to teach dressmakers how to produce or change clothing in the newest style. The term “fashion plate” refers to the engravings made with steel and copper used to create these pictures. The first fashion plate was published in the journal Mercure Galant in 1678. This journal included pictures of both men and women wearing the newest fashions, along with information on where readers might purchase the displayed items and in-depth explanations of the prevailing trends. There were depictions of dress prior to the Renaissance, but they served to educate about “different styles of national, regional, military, dramatic, or court apparel,” not necessarily the most recent trends worn by Paris’ aristocracy.

By the late eighteenth century, these pictures had developed into the fashion plates we know today. A single figure or small group of figures framed within a thinly lined rectangular border with accompanying text appearing at the header and footer was an everlasting formula for fashion plates that would last, unmodified, for two centuries with less textual material. Fashion plates were created in the eighteenth century using copper engraving plates that were later hand-colored. Steel engraving plates took the place of copper by the 1820s because it was a stronger metal that could be used to make more plates, improving accessibility.

The paper used to make nineteenth-century magazines and, consequently, the fashion plates they were printed on, were significantly less expensive than they had been before thanks to technological developments in printing in the middle of the nineteenth century and the repeal of the paper tax in 1854. Hand colouring had been replaced by mechanised colour printing by the 1880s. Fashion plates started to go out of style in the 1890s as photography, which had started earlier in the century, became an even more popular medium.

Despite the growing popularity of photography, the fashion plate experienced a brief rebound in the 1910s and 1920s after first declining in the 1890s. The fashion plate was no longer about a line-by-line replication of clothing, as it had been for centuries, but about portraying a certain mood, spirit, or lifestyle, as April Calahan writes in Fashion Plates: 150 Years of Style. Fashion plates are no longer the only way to learn about the latest trends in clothing; as a result, they have developed into an art form in their own right. Despite this brief rise in popularity, photography would eventually surpass the conventional fashion plate by the middle of the 1920s. By the late 1920s and early 1930s, a new generation of fashion artists, including Eric, H. Bouet Willaumez, Bouché, and Christian Bérard, had begun to capture the spirit of fashion in bright impressionist plates, though their lack of detail was occasionally criticized


In conclusion, fashion plates typically do not feature particular individuals. Instead, they use broad portraiture that simply specifies the types of garments that a tailor, dressmaker, or retailer could produce or sell, or it shows how different materials could be used to create clothing. Most of them may be found in women’s fashion publications, which started to appear in the latter part of the eighteenth century. The term is sometimes used figuratively to describe someone who dresses according to the newest trends. The fashion plate continues to be a part of publishing in the early twenty-first century because of its capacity to express the spirit of the garment in addition to the seams, the ambience and dynamism of fashion, and the essence of its modernity

Updated on: 03-Feb-2023


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