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Sometimes Strange, Sometimes Humorous, but Always Beautiful

William Blueher
November 16, 2016


Headgear 1860–1921, Plate 166

«Watson Library and The Costume Institute are working together to digitize thousands of fashion plates from the 18th to the 20th century. The Costume Institute Fashion Plates collection, which already has over 12,000 items, offers an illustrated glimpse into the mercurial nature of fashion over the last three centuries.»

Because of the breadth of this collection, an extremely diverse array of fashions is portrayed. One particularly eclectic set of plates is a series of "theatrical satires" from the 19th century. Though the satirical punch might be lost on most of us today, the image itself is still quite funny.

theatrical fashion

Theatrical Satire 19th century, Plate 031

Another more conventional series consists entirely of women's costume and headgear from the 1850s. The plate below advertises "A Web of Summer Gossamer" and portrays several innovative ways for a lady to make the most of her gossamer.


Women Costume / Headgear 1850–1859, Plate 018

There are hundreds of children's fashion plates spanning from the earliest years of this collection up through the middle of the 20th century. In the two plates below, one from 1837 and the other from 1922, pay careful attention not only to the children's fashion but also how the children themselves are portrayed.

children fashion

Children 1800-1849, Plate 010

1920s children fashion

1921-1940, Plate 006

The difference in clothing is, of course, striking (fashions inevitably change over the course of a century), but so too is the representation of the children themselves. Whereas they appear more like miniature adults in the 19th-century one, they've transformed into distinctly more childlike beings by the 1920s.

Another provocative juxtaposition can be seen in a series of wedding fashion plates. The first plate, from 1832, shows a somewhat stoic woman holding a green sash, with the utterly prosaic caption "Bridal Dress" beneath her.

old wedding dress

Wedding 1820–1869, Plate 006

In a later image, from 1921, a beaming woman stands in front of a colorful backdrop with the gushingly sentimental caption "c'est l’aurore d'un beau jour" (It's the dawn of a beautiful day).

1920s wedding dress

Wedding 1870-1929, Plate 061

There are hundreds of other sometimes strange, sometimes humorous, but almost always quite beautiful fashion plates in the collection, and we encourage you to explore further.

Related Link
Thomas J. Watson Library Digital Collections

William Blueher

William Blueher is the manager of cataloging in Thomas J. Watson Library.