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 Vintage Fashion 17

Collecting Fashion Ephemera

Antique Fashion Plates

By Pauline Weston Thomas for


Collecting Fashion Ephemera


Instead of collecting vintage or antique fashion clothes, many people choose to collect fashion related paper ephemera.  This can include such diverse items as costume plates, fashion plates, ladies magazines, paper dressmaking patterns, paper fashion dolls, fashion drawings, fashion related antiquarian books and costume or fashion related photographs.  Some of these items can be antique, vintage or reproduction items related to the era, but all capturing aspects of fashion through illustrations made long ago. 

I collect fashion plates of both authentic and reproduction types.  Just below is an example of a quality hand coloured 1831 fashion plate engraving I own and taken from the magazine La Belle Assemblée.  This print was purchased from the eBay seller Cabrio4 who specialises in Regency and Romantic engravings.  You can read more about the history of La Belle Assemblée and other fashion periodicals with fashion plates in my new section coming shortly.

Hand Coloured Engraving 1831 La Belle Assemblée

Hand Coloured Engraving 1831 La Belle Assemblée

This hand coloured engraving (click) is from a William IVth fashion periodical called La Belle Assemblée.  It came complete with the text, a fashion description of fabrics and styles of the greatest detail for May 1831. Descriptive text is so often missing so this was a joy to read.

 At 24cm by 15cm, La Belle Assemblée is often much smaller than people expect when they first buy original prints. That's because at about 9" tall it was intended to be held for reading.

However the smallness means the engravings have a delicacy and daintiness, making them even more attractive to collectors.  

As well as having a professional interest I collect my fashion plates purely for pleasure, based on criteria many women will understand.  It's a completely non intellectual, non academic approach most of you will recognise.  Firstly I ask myself -  'is it pretty??'  Secondly if I buy it, 'might it be the start of a new room colour scheme?  Thirdly 'might it come in useful for my website?'  I honestly don't mind if it's a reproduction as long as I like the print and the quality of the original work shines through.  Some prints on offer are crude and poorly executed, but as with most collections, with time you become more discriminating.


Differences Between Costume Plates and Fashion Plates

Many people do not realise that there is a difference between a costume plate and a fashion plate.  Fashion plates promote and publicize possible future fashions.  Fashion plates are always intended as an idea of a how a new possible fashion might be worn.   Some of the suggested fashions may never in reality ever be worn.  They are a drawing of a designer's idea and often deliberately provocative.  So fashion plates can and do often show an air of fantasy.  You can read more about fashion plate history in my special new section soon where you will see images and read about names of typical fashion periodicals that carried fashion plates.

Costume plates are different in that they technically show costume as it was worn in the past especially everyday past fashions as an historical costume record.  Such records of costume almost always include national or theatrical dress.  Costume plates are about the fashions of the past and fashion plates are about fashion ideas in the here and now or the future. 

If you want to collect fashion or costume plates some knowledge of the names of the original sources is useful and you will soon be able to read more about the first costume plates.

Fashion and Costume Print Prices

The late James Laver, fashion historian also noted that fashion plates were already becoming scarcer by the 1940s.  Once moving film and movies arrived Hollywood and other film company costume departments began to snap up fashion and costume plates to enable them to reproduce costumes more accurately. 

Today, it is still possible to find good fashion plates in antique shops, but more and more of us are buying our plates from internet shops such as those found at eBay which is an incredible resource for this format.  It still amazes me how many have survived and the internet has opened up this easy to collect treasure for enthusiasts.  In the main I feel sales of fashion plates are one of the things eBay does well with treasures to be found worldwide.  It should be  noted that fashion plates are different from trade plates, which were just advertisements which gave ideas on how to make up the fabric products sold by a manufacturer.

Hand Coloured Engraving from 1831 La Belle Assemblée

 Hand Coloured Engraving 1831 La Belle Assemblée


Prices vary and are dependant on the quality and rare value of the print.  Here above and below I show two examples of fashion plate engravings bought from eBay in March 2005, through a respected UK seller known as Cabrio4.  They cost me £15 for the two.  Of course if many others had been bidding that day, my purchase may have cost me much much more or I may have abandoned buying the prints altogether. However these were both a very fine purchase and are in a timeframe worth collecting.  The detail is exquisite.  On other occasions I've paid much less or much more for a print. 

One word of warning with bidding for these at eBay - don't get too carried away until you know what you are bidding on.  Fashion plates can be like buses.  You don't see many for a week or two and then just like buses dozens appear.   My advice is that to begin collecting you just watch eBay sales of these for a few weeks if you are interested in starting a collection.  Then use your knowledge to gauge the going rate noting the differences between types of plate and the variety available. 

This pursuit can be an interesting and related alternative to collecting vintage clothing.  It may be used as well, to enhance a clothing collection by helping you become more knowledgeable about style differences in fashionable dress.

I will be adding some more of Cabrio4's plates to the site in due course.  If you want to learn more about fashion and costume plates please visit my new section on this topic in due course where more historical periodical naming information can be dealt with more fully.


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About looks at women's costume and fashion history and analyses the mood of an era.  Changes in technology, leisure, work, cultural and moral values. Homelife and politics also contribute to lifestyle trends, which in turn influence the clothes we wear.  These are the changes that make any era of society special in relation to the study of the costume of a period.Fashion History can take no responsibility for any information on the site which may cause you error, loss or costs incurred from use of the information and links either directly or indirectly.  This site is owned, designed, written and developed by author: Pauline Thomas and Guy Thomas. This site is designed to be viewed in 1024 X 768 or higher.

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