400 years of fashion porn at the Rijksmuseum

In 2009, the Rijksmuseum acquired two vast collections of fashion plates: the Raymond Gaudriault Collection and the MA Ghering-van Ierlant Collection. The two collections brought more than 8,000 prints, many of the hand-colored engravings, from the year 1600 through the first half of the 20th century to the museum. It took years for curators to catalogue and document this exceptional record of historical clothing and costume. This month, more than 300 prints will go on display for the first time at the New for Now: The Origin of Fashion Magazines exhibition which runs from June 12th to September 27th, 2015.

The first fashion plates — mechanically reproduced portraits depicting the contemporary clothes worn in given place and time rather than a specific individual — appeared in the 16th century. Books like Omnium fere gentium nostrae aetatis habitus (1563) by Ferdinando Bertelli and Trachtenbuch (1577) by Hans Weigel showed what people wore in different countries in significant detail. Books on what different classes wore within one country, on hairstyles and accessories followed. Bohemian printmaker Wenceslaus Hollar, a highly prolific and varied artist who made etchings of the rich and famous, landscapes, anatomical studies, maps, ruins, animals, architecture, religious subjects, heraldry and much more, published two series of costume prints of women wearing fashionable outfits, Theatrum Mulierum in 1643 and Aula Veneris in 1644.

Thirty years later, the Mercure Galant, a periodical by Jean Donneau de Visé, published fashion plates and articles on the styles of the season in supplementary issues. France under King Louis XIV set fashion trends all over Europe. People wanted to see what courtiers were wearing and de Visé obliged. The plates were also sold separately as prints of elegantly attired men and women were increasingly popular. In the 18th century series of fashion plates were published for retail and subscription. They weren’t magazines — they were captioned but that was it as far as words were concerned — but they were periodically published glossy prints designed to make contemporary fashion look damn good.

The publishers of fashion prints did everything to make their product as attractive as possible. They attracted skilled illustrators for this purpose, some of whom went on to become specialists in this area: true ‘fashion illustrators’. The trick was to portray the models on the prints as skillfully as possible and with a great sense of elegance. The printmaker was responsible for transferring the design sketches onto an engraving that could reproduce the design. A so-called ‘colourist’ subsequently added colours to each individual image by hand.

This painstaking process continued well into the age of multi-colored lithography because brilliant, varied colors and crisp details were of paramount importance in making the clothes look their best.

In the second half of the 18th century, the periodicals like the Galerie des Modes et Costumes Francais and the Collection de la Parure des Dames captured the last hurrah of Ancien Régime style. They were printed in sets called cahiers (notebooks) in the decade before the French Revolution and they celebrated the indulgence and extravagance of aristocratic fashion in clothing, hairstyles and accessories. The French fashion spigot was nearly cut off during the Revolution when anything that suggested appreciation for nobility could land a person in front of a tribunal or in the cold embrace of Madame Guillotine.

With the advent of the Directory and the revival of imperial grandeur, fashion magazines like the Journal des Dames et des Modes picked up where their predecessors had left off. The epicenter of style had shifted. No longer were the prints focused on the latest elaborate coiffure and gown worn by the First Estate at court. Muses like Josephine de Beauharnais inspired imitation, but editors like Journal des Dames et des Modes‘ Jean Baptiste Sellèque sought out the latest trends worn by fashionable people frequenting the theater, public promenades, balls the Parisian hotspots.

The fashion glossies spread across the continent, the English Channel and the Atlantic Ocean. People wanted to see the latest in Parisian and French fashion and replicate them as closely as possible. Fashion plates were widely copied and reprinted. By the 1830s the fashion plates were accompanied by patterns giving readers a template to bring to their seamstresses or to make on their own. In the 19th century we also see the rapid development of what we now recognize as fashion magazines with more and increasingly diverse content. Issues of the Magasin des Demoiselles included editorials, plays, articles on history and nature, how-to guides, detailed explanations of the outfits in the plates and closed with a rebus.

Even the advent of photography couldn’t stop the fashion plate. The color and detail that could be produced with illustrations remained the option of choice for fashion magazines until indoor color photography became widespread in the 1950s.

What makes the Rijksmuseum’s collection so signficant is that it covers almost the entire history of fashion glossies from their antecedents in the costume books well into their modern magazine setting, 400 years of what-are-they-wearing. And the best part, which I have deliberately saved for last, is that you will soon be able to browse the whole thing. The fashion plates are being digitized and integrated in the museum’s exceptional online database of high resolution photographs of the art and objects in its permanent collection. While they’re not quite done with the digitization project, there are already thousands of images you can peruse. I count 5,915 plates uploaded as of this moment although some of them — almost all of them from the 20th century — have no photographs attached yet.

Have I scrolled through all 5,915 search results, you ask? Yes. Yes I have. It’s historical fashion porn of the highest quality. You can refine the search to narrow them down by date, place, maker, etc. if you’re looking for something in particular, or you can just spend the forseeable future bingeing on the whole beautiful buffet of style.


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Comment by Jaimie
2015-06-05 13:46:38

Ah the true percursors to the fashion magazines of today! I wish that modern publications would bring back fashion plates, since fashion illustration is absolutely wonderful!

Comment by Annie Delyth
2015-06-05 14:22:45

Oh, goody! I am not a fashionista, but am drawn to fashion illustrations as some would be drawn to a sideshow. This is going to be fun.

Comment by livius drusus
2015-06-08 13:12:27

That it is. I had so much fun picking out images for the post and spent an unseemly amount of the weekend browsing some more.

Comment by Jeff
2015-06-05 15:20:36

:yes: what fun

Comment by livius drusus
2015-06-08 13:11:07


Comment by Hels
2015-06-05 21:43:37

I used to think that fashion was a trivial subject and that fashion history was a trivial subject trying to be scholarly. Now I think that the analysis of fashion is one of the best ways of studying social history in at least the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.

We should be very grateful to the sources you cited, especially the Mercure Galant by Jean Donneau de Visé. Of course France under King Louis XIV set fashion trends at the time, but NOW we can rely on the original sources for reliable information.

Comment by livius drusus
2015-06-08 13:10:57

Comprehensive digitization is a democratizing force. First popular culture through the function of age becomes rare and prized, accessible only to collectors and scholars. Then scanning and uploading to the web makes the popular culture popularly accessible again.

Comment by Cheryl
2015-06-06 21:26:09

Wonderful – I’ve always been very interested in the history of clothing!

Comment by livius drusus
2015-06-08 12:54:38

It’s a fascinating and beautiful subject. :yes:

Comment by Lauriana
2015-06-07 03:12:14

I’m a history geek, seamstress and collector of vintage fashion magazine. And I live in the Netherlands so I can easily plan a trip to the Rijksmuseum… So guess what I think about this collection :boogie:

It’s easy to think of fashion as a trivial subject but, as Hels mentioned, it’s a great window into social history. And as great as it is (especially if you’re interested in the details of garment construction) to see period clothes, those have now become like fossils. They’re alone, preserved and the life is gone from them. On fashion plates, we get a better chance to see them the way people saw them at the time. Get some notion about the general ideals of beauty at the time and about the rules of who could wear what and where and when…

I just have to say that I wish the Rijksmuseum would have uploaded the prints in such a way that you could randomly zoom in and out. On my computer, they open too big for the screen and you can’t scroll up and down to study detail outside the frame and then you can only zoom out to see the whole image.

Comment by livius drusus
2015-06-08 12:50:21

Agreed most vehemently on the Rijksmuseum zoom feature. It’s almost annoying enough to ruin the fun of browsing thousands of fashion plates. They have a great website with lots of neat features. Somebody needs to sort out a decent instazoom option.

Also agreed on the significance of fashion history, particularly as it regards women’s social history which was oft neglected. For a long time the study of clothes, hair (love you, Janet Stephens!), the domestic sphere in general were considered unworthy historical pursuits. We’re lucky these fashion plates have survived at all, thanks almost entirely to their aesthetic value to collectors.

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