The Fashion Plate

1897 Fashion Plate

Sears, Roebuck catalog for 1897

This image comes from a reproduction of the 1897 Sears, Roebuck catalog. You still hear the term “fashion plate” tossed around to describe someone who dresses well (and in the current style), but in fact these printed guidelines on “how to dress” date as far back as Ackerman’s Repository of Arts in the first quarter of the 19th century. The “plate” is of course the printed image. It is hard to imagine the turnover and churning of styles that was the 19th century without the developments in women’s fashions (and to a lesser degree, men’s) that took place over the course of the century. Once the man’s business suit had been “codified,” however, as seen in approximately half of these examples, it varied very little to the point that, other than the bowler hat, several of these outfits would not look terribly out of place today. These gentlemen appear to be on some sort of promenade in the park, and they tend to distract us from the “what the heck is going on here?” of the accompanying typography. “Fashion Plate” itself seems to have grown scales in some reptilian fashion. In a catalog that is the definition of “crowded,” this page jumps out at the reader as the work of a superior, although anonymous, delineator–a term seldom used today, but ubiquitous in the 19th century as well. To give you some idea of the cost of these suits, men’s black or blue worsteds are referred to on the next page as “our $5.50 wonders.”