The Sartorial Art Journal Fashion Plates: In Living Colour


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.)


December 1881  1894-1899, Plate 008 (misfiled) 1894-1899, Plate 009 (misfiled)

December 1881.  American Fashion Review refers to the magazine’s title prior to July 1889.
1894-1899, Plate 008 (misfiled)
1894-1899, Plate 009 (misfiled)

December 1883 1894-1899, Plate 001 (misfiled)

December 1883
1894-1899, Plate 001 (misfiled)

December 1885 1894-1899, Plate 015 (misfiled)

December 1885
1894-1899, Plate 015 (misfiled)

December 1892.  Outdoor illustrations always included walking sticks. 1890-1895, Plate 026

December 1892. Note how illustrations of formal outerwear always included walking sticks.
1890-1895, Plate 026

November 1894 1894-1899, Plate 024

November 1894
1894-1899, Plate 024

November 1896. First dinner jacket shown in formal setting. 1896-1899, Plate 037

November 1896. This plate is the earliest one to feature a dinner jacket in a formal setting.
1896-1899, Plate 037

December 1897.   Note velvet collar. 1896-1899, Plate 023

December 1897. Note the velvet collar on the tailcoat on the right.
1896-1899, Plate 023
1800s, Plate 039

Servant & master.  September 1900 1900, Plate 021 1900-1901, Plate 032

September 1900.  Formal household livery (left and centre) is contrasted with a gentleman’s evening dress.
1900, Plate 021
1900-1901, Plate 032

December 1903 1904, Plate 023 (misfiled)

December 1903
1904, Plate 023 (misfiled)

November 1904 1904, Plate 019

November 1904
1904, Plate 019

December 1904 1904, Plate 010

December 1904
1904, Plate 010

Aug 1905 for fall & winter 1896-1913, Plate 005

August 1905.  August issues featured fashions for the upcoming fall & winter
1896-1913, Plate 005

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. 


  1. David V

    I love the variations possible. A zig zag trouser strip!

  2. Hal

    Vintage illustrations and fashion plates are always interesting. They are of course as artificial – and doubtless often as unreliable as a guide to day to day wear – in their own way as magazine photo shoots of clothing are today.

    Particularly suprising here, surely, is the man with the beard in the illustration labelled ‘December 1890
    1890-1895, Plate 006’
    He appears to wear light grey trousers with what is otherwise a conventional white tie outfit. Are there any other references in the period to this or is it a one off peculiarity?

    1. Peter Marshall

      The formal separates are definitely a one-off.


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