Pointers on Style for Ladies à la Mode: French 19th-Century Fashion Plates

Valeria Butera | 17 August 2022

French fashion exerted a strong influence on European tastes in the 19th century and one way in which it did so was via fashion magazines and fashion plates. In her article to accompany the exhibition “Richard Wagner and the Nationalization of Feeling“, Valeria Butera of the Applied Arts and Graphics department describes how these publications not only disseminated the very latest dictates of fashion and elegance, but also indirectly documented the habits and customs of a whole society.

Fashion plates[1] – engravings, etchings, or lithographs of fashion styles, printed separately and then bound into fashion magazines – had a very long tradition in France, going back at least to the mid-17th century and Michel de Marolles’ collected illustrations of the “habits de nations”.[2] Marolles’ engravings provided a panorama of the national costumes of other countries. In fact, national costumes had been a popular topic of interest all over Europe since the second half of the 16th century, from Germany’s Trachtenbuch by Hans Weigel with woodcuts by Jost Ammans[3] to Italy’s De Gli Habiti Antichi, Et Moderni di Diverse Parti del Mondo by Cesare Vecellio.[4] However, although they can be seen as the forerunners of fashion magazines, these costume books, usually arranged geographically and sometimes according to period or social class, were really more like snippets of world theatre or exhibits from a cabinet of curiosities than a medium for documenting the constant evolution of fashion. In any case, fashion simply followed the dress code of the court. It was not until the end of the 17th century, with the arrival of periodicals and larger print runs, that fashion magazines started reaching a growing middle-class reading public.

Fig. 1: Fashion illustration featuring French ladies accompanied by a gentleman, from Les modes parisiennes reunies, 1854 © DHM

The very first fashion magazine was the Mercure Galant,[5] published monthly from 1672 to 1714[6] in Paris and after 1678 in Lyons, Toulouse and The Hague as well. It was followed in 1728 by Le Cabinet des Nouvellistes[7] and from the late 1770s by a whole plethora of magazines, including the Galerie des Modes et Costumes français, one of the most beautiful and lavish publications of its genre.[8]

In the 19th century, France led the world in fashion magazines, with titles like the Journal des Dames et des Modes (from 1797), Petit Courrier des Dames (from around 1821), and Le Follet (from 1829) being just some of the most successful. In 1852 there were around forty French fashion periodicals, half of them well established.[9]

Fashion magazines not only featured dress styles with accompanying texts, describing patterns and fabrics and giving instructions for tailors and dressmakers, but included articles on the latest trends in politics, theatre, interior design, children’s education, music, housekeeping, and garden design. Most of them, in fact, can be seen as general-interest society gazettes. These literary-cultural periodicals were soon being distributed all over Europe and German-language versions of French publications began to appear, like the Journal des Luxus und der Moden, which was founded in Weimar and appeared from 1787 to 1812 and then under different titles until 1827, and the Zeitung für die elegante Welt,[10] published in Leipzig from 1801 to 1859.

Fig. 2: Fashion illustration featuring French ladies accompanied by a gentleman, from Les modes parisiennes reunies, 1854 © DHM

Although many critics think the quality of the engravings declined somewhat around 1830, it was the years between 1830 and 1870 that saw the greatest expansion of the fashion magazine, with print runs exceeding 100,000 copies by the middle of the century.[11] The Moniteur de la Mode (established in 1843) is one example. For decades, the artist and illustrator Jules David (1808–1892) produced illustrations for the magazine and is seen as having breathed new life into the genre by depicting the models in domestic interiors or talking a walk in bourgeois surroundings.[12]

A background is by no means a fixed element of fashion-magazine illustrations. In many fashion plates it is missing altogether or is minimalistic and functional; its only purpose being to present the outfit in a possible scenario. The outfit itself is the real protagonist; the mannequin is just a stereotype, not a portrait.

Six coloured fashion plates[13] from the Print Collection of the DHM, originally from the women’s magazine Les modes parisiennes reunies of 1854, are currently on display as part of the exhibition Richard Wagner and the Nationalisation of Feeling, in the section entitled “Eros” (fig. 1–3). Together with a wonderful silk dress from the museum’s textile collection (see exhibition view above) displayed beside them, they represent the exquisite fabrics, patterns and colours with which the composer surrounded and bedecked himself in his private life. Whatever we may think of his penchant for luxury, in matters of taste, Wagner was always at the height of fashion, probably thanks, in part, to fashion magazines.

Fig. 3: Fashion illustration featuring French ladies accompanied by a gentleman, from Les modes parisiennes reunies, 1854 © DHM

Despite its French title, the magazine Les modes parisiennes reunies was produced for the German public, to keep it up to date with the latest Parisian fashions. Paris was seen as the quintessence of elegance and style, as demonstrated by a huge number of dress styles originally from Parisian periodicals which appeared in all sorts of other (often foreign) magazines, sometimes with the colours and accessories altered (fig. 1 and 4).[14]

As well as outfits for appearing in high society, at a ball or the theatre, for example, the fashion plates in the weekly Les modes parisiennes reunies showed clothes and accessories for paying and receiving social calls and even for fancy-dress parties. As part of her evening wardrobe, every fashionable lady simply had to have elegant dresses in brightly coloured silks and satins, with frills and lace, bows and flounces, tight bodices, natural waistlines and exposed shoulders (fig. 1), which gave the female figure an hour-glass silhouette.

The first thing that strikes one about these ladies’ fashions are the stiff, voluminous underskirts. Horsehair crinolines (invented in 1850) supported wide, sweeping skirts, which could measure up to two or two-and-a-half metres in diameter[15] and made the upper body look even slimmer.

In one of the fashion plates (fig. 2) we see favourite items of clothing for going out for a walk: a casaquin or mantilla,[16] a little hip-length taffeta jacket, fitted at the waist, and a straw hat trimmed with flowers. A straw hat or a poke bonnet – a hat with a high crown, broad brim, and large ribbons for tying under the chin – soon became an indispensable component of female attire when out and about. 

Now and then men’s fashions also appeared in fashion magazines aimed at the female reading public – but they usually played a merely supplementary role. In one of the fashion plates in the exhibition (fig. 1) we see a gentleman resplendent in narrow, elegantly tailored cloth trousers, a fur-lined coat, a top hat and – an almost obligatory accessory – a cane or walking stick. Men’s fashions became gradually simpler: for everyday wear, a homburg hat and a practical tweed jacket replaced the top hat and tailcoat.[17]It must be said, however, that men’s fashions in the 1840s and 1850s hardly changed at all – unlike ladies’ styles, which underwent a total transformation.[18]

From the 1820s onwards, and particularly under the ostentatious Second Empire (1852–1870), the classicising taste of the Napoleonic era changed completely. Instead, fashion now drew inspiration from the elegance of the Rococo period, so much so that the period became known as the “second Rococo”. The waistline returned to its natural level but was awkwardly styled – at least from a health point of view: agonisingly tight corsets emphasised the so-called “wasp waist”. Ostensibly guided by aesthetics, on closer inspection this fashion trend also had social consequences: with styles that afforded women so little freedom of movement, fashion focused on the ostentatious requirements of ladies from the upper echelons of society, who didn’t have to work. Practicality was not its concern.[19] 

Figure 4: Fashion illustration from La Mode: revue des modes, galerie de moeurs, album des salons, [Paris], January 5, 1854, Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France (Source gallica.bnf.fr / BnF).

This ostentatious and – certainly from the perspective of the 21st century – inconvenient fashion style appealed not only to the fine ladies of high society, but also to women from the middle classes and the petty bourgeoisie. The expansion of the textile industry and the rise of the chemical industry made the production of dyes,[20] fabrics, lace, and embroidery and the processing of raw materials and textiles imported from the colonies both quicker and cheaper.

Home dressmakers could now also make their own favourite items of clothing, thanks to the advent of the domestic sewing machine, which became an everyday household item from the 1860s onwards, and of cheaper fashion magazines containing dress patterns and instructions. This led to a split in the focus of fashion periodicals. On one hand there were practical periodicals for dressmakers and, on the other, the fashion magazines that reported on everything from etiquette to sports techniques, spas and bathing resorts and kept their readers up to date on the latest from the world of theatre, opera and literature.


[1] The first hand-coloured fashion plates were produced from copper engravings or etchings, but from the 1840s onwards the copper was usually replaced by steel. Woodcuts were also used from the 1850s, the advantage being that lettering could be included, but unfortunately the prints could not be coloured. Cf. Kunstgewerbe Sammlung der Stadt Bielefeld – Stiftung Huelsmann, Streit der Moden. Modejournale von 1870 bis 1930, [catalogue for the exhibition of the same name at the Museum der Kunstgewerbesammlung der Stadt Bielefeld/Stiftung Huelsmann, 25.10.1996–02.02.1997], Bielefeld, 1997, p. 11 (referred to below as Bielefeld 1997).

[2] Gaudriault, Raymond. La gravure de mode feminine en France, Paris 1983, p. 7.

[3] Weigel, Hans. Habitus praecipuorum populorum tam virorum quam feminarum singulari arte depicti = Trachtenbuch, Nuremberg 1577.

[4] Cesare Vecellio, De Gli Habiti Antichi, Et Moderni di Diverse Parti del Mondo Libri Due, Venice 1590.

[5] Rather like a newspaper supplement, the Galante contained articles devoted to cultural and social life, but not politics. See Völkel, Anika. Die Modezeitschrift. Vom „Journal des Luxus und der Moden“ zu „Brigitte“ und „Elle“, Hamburg 2006, p. 36.

[6] Not published in the years 1675 to 1676.

[7] Le Cabinet des Nouvellistes, ou les Nouvelles du Tems mises en Figures, contenant un recueil général de toutes les curiosités, nouveautés et événemens qui arrivent chaque mois dans toutes les parties de l’Europe, avec une description des Modes, des habillemens, des meubles…, Paris 1728. Cf. Gaudriault 1983, p. 34.

[8] Gallerie des modes et costumes français, dessinés d’apres̀ nature / gravés par les plus célebres artistes en ce genre, et coloriés avec les plus grand soin par Madame Le Beau. Paris 1779– [1787]. The fashion plates, numbering 420 in total, appeared at irregular intervals, either with only a brief text or with none at all.  

[9] Gaudriault 1983, p. 78.

[10] The Zeitung für die elegante Welt appeared three times a week and included illustrations or musical supplements, depending on the day. Cf. Völkel 2006, p. 76.

[11] In 1872 the print run of Bazar, published in Berlin, rose to 140,000. Cf. Bielefeld 1997, p. 9.

[12] Gaudriault 1983, p. 70.

[13] Inv. nos. Gr S 60/18204, Gr S 60/1207, Gr S 60/18212, Gr S 60/18221, Gr S 60/18223 and Gr S 60/18232.

[14] As can be clearly seen by comparing a fashion plate from the DHM (fig. 1) with one from the magazine La Mode: revue des modes, galerie de moeurs, album des salons (Paris, 1829–1854).   

[15] In 1856 an artificial crinoline was invented in which steel hoops replaced horsehair fabric and padding, making it lighter to wear. See Thiel, Erik. Geschichte des Kostüms, Berlin 1985, p. 343.

[16] The name comes from the Spanish lace mantilla, made fashionable by Empress Eugénie. Cf. Bielefeld 1997, p. 31.

[17] Kybalová et al. 1966, p. 274.

[18] Despite this, there was no lack of fashion magazines intended exclusively for men: Le Narcisse (1830–1848), Journal des Modes d’Hommes (1830–1871) and Le Dandy (1838) are good examples. Cf. Kleinert, Annemarie. Die frühen Modejournale in Frankreich: Studien zur Literatur der Mode von den Anfängen bis 1848, Berlin 1980, p. 14, n. 23.

[19] Ebenda, p. 319.

[20] For example, the dye fuchsine, first manufactured in 1858, which was also called magenta. The shade of intense purple takes its name from the bloody battle of Magenta, a town in Lombardy where the Austrian army was defeated by the French in 1859. The artificial dye known as solferino got its name in a similar way. Solferino was the name of a village near Mantua where almost 5,500 soldiers lost their lives. Cf. Bielefeld 1997, p. 31.


Valeria Butera

Valeria Butera works as a museologist in the Applied Art and Graphic Arts Collection at the German Historical Museum. She received her PhD from the University of Bologna and worked as a research assistant at the University of Göttingen.