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Ideas about metropolitan fashion spread more rapidly throughout the eighteenth century as travel became easier, communications improved, and the literate gained access to burgeoning illustrated periodicals. The travel time between Paris and Lyon, for example, halved from the ten-day journey of the seventeenth century to five days by the late-eighteenth (Sargenston 1996:103). The proliferation of detailed engravings permitted the rapid dissemination of fashionable ideals, spreading also the cult of individualism, novelty and possibly a new manner of discussing fashion. Printed sets of ‘modern habits’ depicting elegant dress and posture of men and women after French designs by Hubert-François Gravelot and Bernard Picart had circulated in the first four decades of the eighteenth century in England. Cheaper English Ladies ‘Pocket Books’ illustrated existing court and ‘de bon ton’ fashions in the 1760s, but the specialized fashion press first emerged in France in 1768 with the Journal du Goût and in England in 1770 with The Lady’s Magazine. Gallerie des modes et des costumes français (1778-1787) published seventy portfolios with detailed texts and engravings of breathtakingly variable dress for men and women, naming many of the suppliers. By the end of the century, more than fifteen fashion journals were printed in England, France, Holland, Germany and Italy, also providing details of seasonal changes in accessories, schemes of interior decoration, furniture, silver, ceramic and other luxury objects as well as regular coverage of carriage design.
Fashion illustration provides a compelling insight into the details of real fashions that might not survive in material form, as well as the set and pose of the dressed body. Fashion history itself has been constructed to a substantial degree through the representation of clothing in art, which scholars, ranging from art historians to sociologists, have used as a type of evidence, albeit in different ways. To bring together an original and previously unpublished water-colour for an eighteenth-century fashion plate with the published engraving, and comparing it further in two differently coloured versions, provides the opportunity to consider the translation of drawing into the medium of print, as well as print’s further potential for innumerable transformations.
One of the most elegant late-18th century journals for the quality of its drawing, scale, balance and colouring is the periodical Gallerie des Modes, whose correct title is Gallerie des Modes et Costumes français dessinés d’après nature, gravés par les plus celebres artistes en ce genre, et colorés avec le plus grand soin par Madame Le Beau. The magazine was published in Paris by ‘les Srs Esnauts et Rapilly’, in the ‘rue St Jacques, à la ville de Coutances, avec privilege du roi’ from 1778 to 1787. It is unusual to name the colorist-director for a publication of this date, and this might explain the great care taken with different impressions of this publication. As colour is central to fashion knowledge, perhaps this is not surprising.
Copyright acquired for all images (Private Collection).
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