Unflattering Fashion Plates

A Brief History of Political and Satirical Fashion Cartoons


Fashion prints are a staple for costumers. They’re the Vogue magazines of the past– maybe a bit high-brow and out of reach for most people, but definitely beautiful examples of how trends developed and morphed. Though they don’t necessarily portray the everyday fashions being worn at the time, fashion plates are invaluable. I love collecting them, and just like fashion-conscious ladies before me, I dream of owning all those fabulous gowns and accessories!

Usually when I think of fashion plates, I think about something like the plate above: an illustration from a Victorian women’s magazine. Though the fashion plate reached it’s heyday in the 19th century, they are much older than that! Fashion plates traditionally depict fashion extremes or popular delights among the wealthy– both focuses of heavy scrutiny during the revolutionary 18th century– and the plates developed into a political tool of sorts.

This is a Rose Bertin fashion plate. Rose Bertin, “The Minister of Fashion” brokered Marie Antoinette’s fashions to the rest of France and Europe. She had the queen’s ear on all matters of fashion and collaborated with the extravagant monarch to create some of the late 18th century’s most iconic fashions. By using fashion plates, Rose Bertin accomplished two things: She made sure Marie Antoinette stayed the queen of fashion and Rose made sure that her fashion prowess remained indispensable. You can read more about Madame Bertin by clicking on the picture which is linked to a wonderful article by Ingrid Mira.

The fashion plates of the 18th century are often rooted in satire and social commentary as much as they are rooted in style.  Some fashion plates began their lives as a means to broadcast new fashions, but their excessive, sometimes ridiculous, and often radical depictions of upper-class life opened them to the scorn of political cartoonists and disgruntled masses. Considering how grand rococo fashion became by the middle of the century, many fashion plates gained political scorn with no cartoonist or scathingly twisted illustration necessary. No doubt you remember this infamous plate, which is one of the most widely recognized images from the 1700s:

I think it’s gorgeous, but then again, I am not a starving peasant forced to fight my way through life wondering when my next meal would be while the aristocracy floated around in rafts of silk satin and lace. Wigs bore a huge chunk of the ridicule and were the favorite subject of fashion satirists in England, France, and America.

It’s rather ironic that after the French revolution, the satire turned from condemning 18th century fashion as frivolous and unbelievably vain to considering them frumpy and overwrought while the Neoclassical Regency fashions took a beating for being far too see-through and revealing, especially for those blustery, cold European winters!

It’s quite entertaining when you realize that “kids these days” aren’t dressing any more ridiculously than before, they just have a different kind of rediculous. It’s all about culture and perception. What is popular one year is passe ten years later. Think of your old 1970s pointed collars, 1980s bangs, or your 1990s prom outfit. Would you wear them again anywhere except to a costume party?

We’re making fashion history right now, so who knows how we’ll be viewed 50 or 100 years down the road. We love to make fun of avant garde people like Lady Gaga, but wasn’t Marie Antoinette made fun of in her time? Guess who has a whole fan-base 250 years later wearing panniers, bows and her much-ridiculed wigs!

Fashion is the Eternal Masquerade

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