Fash­ion’s fab­u­lous il­lus­trated his­tory


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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.

The elab­o­rate, em­bel­lished bus­tle, cre­ated with pad­ding and ruched fabric, is on parade in Myra’s Jour­nal Of Dress And Fash­ion for Novem­ber 1882

‘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

Long spats and socks con­verted trousers into knicker­bock­ers, rem­i­nis­cent of golf­ing plus fours, for fash­ion­able rid­ers

All images: © The Bri­tish Li­brary Board

This is an edited ex­tract from Fash­ion Il­lus­tra­tion In Bri­tain: So­ci­ety & The Sea­sons, by Am­ber Jane Butchart, pub­lished by the Bri­tish Li­brary, £25

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