In historical fiction, a writer must research clothing. But what if there aren’t any photos of your novel’s time period? Or what if all the photos are black and white? You can study portraits, of course, or descriptions of clothing by historians. But one type of resource I found helpful was the fashion plate.
Popular in the 18th and 19th centuries, the fashion plate was a lithographed or steel-engraved print illustrating fashionable styles and published alone and in periodicals. And, much like photo spreads in today’s fashion magazines, they depicted styles that were to be the new trend in clothing.
It’s easy, however, to become confused in your research. For example, in the article, “Antique Costume & Fashion Plates: Early Costume Plates History, Part 1 – 1494 to Early 1800s,” Pauline Weston Thomas of fashion-era.com explains,
“There is a difference between a fashion plate and a costume plate. Costume plates show costume as it was worn in the past, especially everyday past fashions. Fashion plates promote and publicize possible future fashions.” So it pays to be careful in your research.
The time period of my novel is the 1890s and there are plenty of black and white photographs available, but I enjoy studying fashion plates. I wonder whether women in the past would peruse magazines as I do today and think, “I wouldn’t be caught dead in that.”
“Fashion plate” has also come to mean a person who wears the latest fashion, yet I don’t hear the term used much anymore. If you’re interested in taking a look at fashion plates, which are considered works of art in themselves, there are a number of good websites devoted to historical clothing. One of the more extensive is the one I quoted from above: www.fashion-era.com.