Fashion Plates and the Rise of Consumer Culture

Fashion was an important aspect of many Victorian women's lives (particularly among the middle and upper-classes) and it may be argued that through dress women made a space for themselves which, unlike many other aspects of their lives, was not necessarily defined by men. Fashion may be seen as either repressive or expressive, but there is no doubt that, at one level at least, fashion represents self-expression, sensuality and creativity, and that it is bound up with a sense of identity in terms of gender, class and even race.

Fashion magazines

Fashion originated in the early capitalist city. It was urban and metropolitan, born of the world of modernity. The Victorian fashion magazine shared these characteristics; just as the Great Exhibition of 1851 was a monument to consumption, so too was the fashion magazine with its emphasis on glossy sophistication, urbanity and the world of commerce. Titles such as Le Follet, The London and Paris Ladies' Magazine of Fashion and The World of Fashion overtly declared an affiliation with the sophisticated world of France, the home of haute couture. All commercial magazines for women covered fashion in one way or another. What these expensive monthlies excelled in was the construction of a lady who was defined by her conspicuous consumption, who spent her time non-productively pursuing leisure, and who focused on clothes for the purposes of both consumption and display.

[ballroom] Manchester City Art Galleries

The backgrounds of the fashion plates were very significant. There were usually a number of models grouped in a particular indoor or outdoor setting. The settings always denoted wealth and respectability and often reflected popular leisure activities indicating desirable and desired lifestyles. Surrounded by these settings, the fashionable woman was represented as an opulent spectacle through her wide and excessive crinolines, in themselves consummate examples of conspicuous waste, and through the ostentatious display of personal accessories such as jewellery, ribbons, shawls and bonnets.

In these titles emphasis was very much on the exquisite hand-coloured fashion plates which were very detailed and gave both the dressmaker and the general viewer a good sense of the texture and the weave of the fabrics. It can be argued that the looking of the world of fashion is essentially self-reflexive and this is clearly evident in the fashion plate.

Consumerism and narcissism

In the second half of the nineteenth century, women were targeted as key consumers, vital to the development of consumer capitalism. Consequently the fashion plate operated as advertisement and as image, and can be seen as the early equivalent of the shop window used to display a range of commodities, in this case fabric, patterns and accessories. In these plates the models never look directly out to the reader and whatever the direction of the look, the gaze is always averted. This is a rather ambiguous sign of modesty and virtue as the model is both spectacularly gorgeous and sexual, and self-conscious and shy.

According to the costume historians Jane Gaines and Charlotte Herzog, women have a profound sense of the constant surveillance of their public selves, and this extends to their surveillance of other women too. Female narcissism was encouraged in the Victorian plates and in fashion illustrations generally which tended to feature a large number of mirrors.

The rise of the department store in the 1870s and 1880s demonstrates the increasing importance and changing nature of consumer culture. For women especially it also provided an escape from the dull life of home. According to the costume historian Elizabeth Wilson, towards the end of the nineteenth century, shopping became almost sexualised with its seductive displays and accounts of the shoppers' thirst for possession. Many magazines included regular features on shopping, demonstrating the relationship between the practice of looking and that of consuming--the pleasure of looking, either textually or visually, became a commodity for which money was exchanged. These features stood alongside a host of different types of advertising, including full page pictorial adverts such as the one below, more common advertisement pages that utilised a mixture of print and illustration, as well as covert advertising, known as the advertorial, in which the feature writer or agony aunt or uncle recommended goods which were advertised elsewhere in the magazine.


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The model is seen looking at a fashion plate and this denotes that she is interested in the world of fashion. Representations of the fashionable female body functioned as both celebration of the body and its adornment, and as advertisement for an image that could be purchased like any other commodity.

[Thomson's] The British LibraryThe Lady's Own Paper 'Thomson's Novelties for the Autumn are ready, and can be had at all first-class Retailers.'

In the dominant discourse on fashion in women's magazines, as evidenced through the fashion plate, a key selling point of the magazine is that the fashionable woman is attractive and she is modern. Linked to the market and burgeoning consumer culture through a network of relationships of exchange, including buying and looking, the modern fashionable woman is something to aspire to, a testament to the sophistication of all that consumer capitalism can provide.

Corsets and their effect on Women's Bodies
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# Secret History of the Corset and Crinoline # Flamboyance and the Crinoline Craze
# From Crinoline, to Crinolette, to Bustle # Over-Structured Opulence to the 'Healthy Corset'
# A Turn Toward the Bust: Early 20th Century # All Tied-Up: The Corset in Contemporary Fashion

# Fashion | Page 1 # Charles Frederick Worth # Court Fashion # Fashion Plates
# Dress, Fashion and Modernity # Corset Controversy # Bloomers and Reformers # Bicycles

Victorian Age Fashion Galleries
# 1837-40 # 1840 # 1850 # 1860
# 1870 # 1880 # 1890 # 1900


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