The tailoring trade magazine The Sartorial Art Journal was published from 1874 until 1954 and a number of its early fashion plates were reprinted in a 1990 book called Men’s Fashion Illustrations from the Turn of the Century which explains their background:
Large-format fashion illustrations were issued as a supplement to The Sartorial Art Journal for tailors to use in consulting with clients in order to determine the finest points of style in bespoke garments. The journal itself reproduced smaller versions of these illustrations, along with descriptions of the fabrics shown, flat-pattern drafts and advice concerning suitable occasions for wearing the garments. In April 1905, the editors were pleased to point out that “everything we illustrate is first sketched from the thing itself and that the thing itself is the product of some high class metropolitan tailoring establishments that has kindly loaned it to us for that special purpose; the novelties we illustrate are not experiments but new things that men of high reputation are wearing.”
Until recently, the black-and-white book’s limited reproductions were probably the definitive resource for American men’s fashions illustrations from the late Victorian and Edwardian periods. However, I’ve just discovered a new source for these plates which renders the book all but irrelevant: a vast collection of full-colour, ultra-high resolution scans available online from the Museum of Metropolitan Art’s Costume Institute.
Admittedly, colour doesn’t add a whole lot to the depictions of evening wear but it certainly brings the backgrounds to life. (Backdrops were often based on real New York locations such as Grant’s Tomb and the now demolished Vanderbilt houses and old Waldorf-Astoria hotel.) Furthermore, the extremely high resolution is astounding in its ability to allow up-close inspection of the smallest details. Take, for example, the following illustration shown in its entirety and at actual size:
I made screen captures of all the Journal eveningwear illustrations for my own archives and would like to share them here since it’s quite a time-consuming process to source them individually within the Institute’s complete collection of fashion plates.
In this, the first of two installments, I present the plates issued in conjunction with the Journal’s winter issues, depicting both formal and informal versions of evening dress. The illustrations shown here represent period trends already noted in The Black Tie Guide’s history section as well as some new insights:
- black and white waistcoats and bow ties were not yet exclusive to the tailcoat or dinner jacket.
- shawl collars were popular on tailcoats in the late Victorian period
- semi-peak lapels become popular at the turn of century
- tailcoat and dinner jacket sleeves often had cuffs that were false, turned back and/or faced to match the lapels
- waistcoats were often embroidered
- prior to the Edwardian era, pointed lapels were often only partially faced and had multiple button holes
- collapsible opera hats were often worn during this time period
- watch fobs were a popular accessory
- boutonnières were far more common at this time that I had previously realized
Click the thumbnails for versions twice as big or click the hyperlinked Costume Institute references within the picture captions for the original scans. (Note that there are multiple copies available for some plates.)
Next installment: the summer illustrations
The Costume Institute’s digital collection offers thousands of menswear fashion plates and advertisements ranging from the 1700s to the 1930s and new plates are being scanned and uploaded on an ongoing basis. However, the collection is fragmented and catalogued vaguely which makes it very difficult to search by gender or by a specific year. The following tips should help with searching and viewing the collection.
- As indicated on the site’s Fashion Plates home page, the illustrations have been grouped into three primary collections: 1790-1929 (approx. 8,500 images of women’s and men’s wear), 1700-1955 (approx. 3,000 images of women’s and men’s wear) and men’s 1880-1939 (approx. 650 images). This is problematic because (A) there is significant chronological overlap between the three collections, and (B) the first two collections have relatively few menswear images scattered randomly amongst a sea of women’s wear
- To focus on menswear specifically, it is more efficient to search the smaller sub-collections that make up the three main collections as they are segregated by gender. (Links to these sub-collections are noted on the Fashion Plates home page also.) However, chronological searches remain difficult because (A) there is still a lot of overlap between the date ranges of the sub-collections, and (B) images are filed only by date range, not by specific date.
- Many images have been filed in incorrect date ranges.
- The gender designation of the sub-collections is not always correct. (i.e. some categories labelled as men’s fashions are actually women’s fashions and some categories not labelled as men’s fashions actually have many men’s fashions)
- Be aware that extensive searches or viewing of materials will cause browsers to run out of memory. (Some browsers return a “Bad Request” notice when the limit is reached while others simply stop loading the pages’ images.) To fix this problem, clear your browser history and try again.