Fashion’s fabulous illustrated history
ILLUSTRATIONS FROM VINTAGE FASHION MAGAZINES REVEAL MORE ABOUT OUR ANCESTORS THAN WHAT THEY WORE. THEY ALSO SPEAK VOLUMES ABOUT THE TUMULTUOUS TIMES IN WHICH THEY LIVED BY AMBER JANE BUTCHART
DRESS is at all times a frivolous distinction, and excessive solicitude about it often destroys its own aim,” wrote Jane Austen in her satirical novel, Northanger Abbey (1817). Yet despite treating it with sass, Austen was fully aware of the importance of fashion in social life at her time of writing.
From the late 18th century until the onset of the Second World War, fashion illustration was one of the key means of circulating and identifying new styles of dress. A period of great modernisation, these years saw British society change irrevocably, as the Industrial Revolution and the ensuing urbanisation saw a gradual shift of power away from the landed aristocracy. This change can be seen in the pages of fashion magazines in the advice given to readers, which regulated and instructed them regarding manners of dress, taste and behaviour. As such, fashion illustrations offer us not only a snapshot of current modes, but insight into the rituals and practices of the upper echelons of an ever more democratised society.
The period covered by my new book, Fashion Illustration In Britain, spans not only a multitude of changes in fashion, but also charts irreversible changes
in society caused by the Industrial Revolution, the subsequent expansion of the middle class, and the demise of aristocratic rule. These are necessarily broad historical brushstrokes, but, in this light, the advice found in British fashion magazines, plates and periodicals can be seen as a tool for navigating the boundaries of social respectability and advancing through the ranks. While we have to be wary of accepting fashion advice and illustrations as verifiable evidence of what readers wore and thought, as with the various forms of fashion media today, we can view them as selling an aspiration – as a guide to an idealised life.
While some early fashion publications featured both men’s and women’s dress, sartorial advice for men largely spread through the tailoring trade press. The Taylor’s Complete Guide, published in 1796, was the first work in English to outline a system of cutting, despite featuring no measurements or scale. The mid-19th century saw publishing in this area flourish, parallel to the growth of the tailoring industry centred on Savile Row in London, which became a world leader. The Tailor: A Weekly Trades Journal and Advertiser launched in 1866, swiftly followed by The Tailor and Cutter Model Pattern Depot and Cutting Academy in Drury lane, which ran its own publishing division alongside the training academy.
The 19th century saw diversification of fashion media and readers. Increased urbanisation, and improved literacy and transport, coupled with a decrease in newspaper tax in the form of stamp duty and the removal of tariffs on French luxury goods, all paved the way for a much expanded middle class – nouveau riche newcomers with the ability to embed themselves within the cycles of fashion and the world of conspicuous consumption. The hand coloured nature of early fashion plates had made them a collector’s item – bound into volumes or displayed as artworks in their own right. Technological developments saw hand-colouring replaced by chromolithographic printing by the end of the 19th century, at around the same time that photography began appearing in fashion magazines. The interwar era saw the rise of photogravure printing methods, which allowed high-speed
printing with high quality results, often used in glossy magazines aimed at a wealthy readership. By 1936, the publishing titan Condé Montrose Nast, who had brought the American fashion and Society magazine Vogue to Britain in 1916, claimed that photographic covers were outselling illustration, ending the reign of illustration as the dominant force in fashion magazines.
As media technologies developed, artists, musicians and film stars overtook the nobility as cultural tastemakers in the 20th century. Film and fan magazines catering to working-class audiences were on the rise, and included photographic fashion features linked to favoured stars. This cultural shift was matched by a geographic shift in fashionability that saw America – home of Hollywood and New York’s Seventh Avenue fashion trade – begin to rival Paris as the centre of style. This did not go unnoticed in the fashion press, as heralded by British Vogue in March 1933:
“Time was when we sent [our] daughters to Paris to be finished, for in Paris we recognised the supreme city of culture, of chic, and (although the phrase was then unknown) of sex appeal. But to have been finished in Paris nowadays is to remain still more than a little incomplete. Agreeable as it may be to parade a familiarity with the French language, to be fluent in French is not nearly such an asset at a modern party as to be fluent in American.” Vogue, March 22, 1933
All of this can be read on the pages of the style press. Fashion illustration provides an insight into broad cultural and societal changes, from evolving fashions to technological advances and shifts in the power of nations.
‘Dainty sashes are to be seen on many of the new gowns,’ declared Home Fashions in April 1914. The benefits of the raglan sleeve, seen in the centre, are also extolled, and thrift is encouraged
Throughout the history of fashion, millinery has been a source of extravagance. Flowers, ribbons, veiling and feathers are plentiful in Le Beau Monde, 1877
The elaborate, embellished bustle, created with padding and ruched fabric, is on parade in Myra’s Journal Of Dress And Fashion for November 1882
Long spats and socks converted trousers into knickerbockers, reminiscent of golfing plus fours, for fashionable riders
This is an edited extract from Fashion Illustration In Britain: Society & The Seasons, by Amber Jane Butchart, published by the British Library, £25