In the penultimate blog of our Guest Blog Month, Grace Evans discusses the fashion plates of the Olive Matthews Collection, Chertsey Museum.
The Olive Matthews Collection trust was established in 1969 and features many items of national significance. It contains over 4,000 men's, women's and children's fashionable clothes dating from c.1700 to the present. Included within the collection are fashion plates, the earliest of which date from the 1770s and the most recent from the 1930s. In the penultimate blog of our Guest Blog Month, Grace Evans, the Keeper of Costume at Chertsey Museum, discusses the fashion plates of the Olive Matthews Collection, exploring the collection, how some of the plates came into the collection, and the work done with the vast collection.
Each of the five images included in this blog are watermarked and are the property of Chertsey Museum.
I am fortunate to hold the post of Keeper of Costume at Chertsey Museum in Surrey, where the Olive Matthews Collection is housed. This nationally significant collection contains men’s, women’s and children’s fashionable dress and accessories dating from c.1600 to the present day. The garments are supplemented by a large group of fashion plates. These now number over 3,000 and date from the 1770s to the 1930s.
The fashion plates complement our dress collection. They are a wonderful resource and a great tool for understanding fashion history, but just as the fashion spreads in magazines of today may not represent what we all wear, they should not necessarily be understood as direct representations. In the words of Doris Langley Moore, fashion plates tell ‘of aspirations because those alone are what fashion plates disclose, not realities’ . This awareness should remain at the front of our minds when studying all fashion plates. They must be treated with a certain level of caution. However, when we appreciate them with our eyes and minds open, we are able to use them in many different ways and they remain a wonderful resource for curators and researchers alike, as I will attempt to explain while I discuss the Olive Matthews Collection plates in more detail.
The earliest fashion plates we have are rare and few in number. They have been taken from the Magazine à la Mode, a short-lived periodical which was published in London for just a year from December 1776 or possibly January 1777. These eleven plates were purchased from Christie’s auction house during the 1980s. The detailed engravings show individuals dressed in the latest styles with short captions below. The plates give us an impression of the ideal fashionable silhouettes, hairstyles, trimmings and accessories at a particular date and season. Though we do have beautiful garments from this era, we rarely have the array of items of the correct date required to complete a toilette. The plates can be used in lectures or exhibitions to give a broader fashionable picture. After all, a 1770s ‘Full Dress’ ensemble does lose some of its impact without a marvellously tall hairstyle above it.
A few small pocket book plates from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries are also found in the collection. Pocket books were small leather-bound books like the diaries of today. Usually, they contained only one or two plates as a record of the outfits that had been popular during the previous year. Though small, pocket bookplates are very detailed and often include images of room settings or other backgrounds which help to contextualise the garments.
The largest group of fashion plates in the collection; nearly 2,000 in number, is housed in four weighty volumes. These are effectively scrapbooks. Each page is labelled by year and sometimes by month, and they run from 1800 to the 1880s. Groups of plates from the 1890s, stuck to the same green sugar paper, suggest that there was originally another volume which completed the century. Although unceremoniously removed from their original magazine contexts, they are a remarkably complete group of images compiled by an unknown hand. The volumes were probably created during the early twentieth century when plate collecting in this form was a popular pastime. Though the images in these types of albums frequently lack key information about publishers or dates, these details are thankfully present for at least some of the plates in our volumes.
Such a complete run of mostly hand-coloured plates does offer a good overview of illustrated and published fashionable styles of the nineteenth century. A general sense of the evolution of fashion and fashionable silhouettes through the decades is gained by leafing through them, as well as an understanding of more specific dress details. With the usual caveats of idealistic body shapes and extreme flights of fancy that may never have been translated into actual garments, it is possible to find some plates that look remarkably like real surviving pieces.
The volumes allow us to appreciate the plates themselves from a stylistic point of view too. The sheer number of images from a wide selection of magazines such as Costume Parisien, Ackermann’s Repository of Arts, La Belle Assemblée and The Queen is a treat for those who simply love hand-coloured fashion plates for what they are. Many are the painstaking work of unknown artists and colourists whose beguiling compositions sing out to us from the pages. The images draw us in and pique our interest; their visual power in no way diminished since the time when they were first published.
Another large group of plates came to us in 2013. We jumped at the chance to add a further 300 loose plates to our collection. They were earmarked for transfer from the Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester. Many of these come from different magazines to the examples in the volumes and the range extends from the Regency period to the early twentieth century. They include, amongst many other treats, charming examples from the First World War and the 1920s; an era not previously covered by our collection. The ex-Whitworth examples have since been carefully catalogued, digitised and housed in acid-free ring-bound sleeves. These allow easy access and keep the plates safe and clean. Further twentieth century plates, sometimes still housed in the context of their original publications, are also part of the collection. They include stylish pre-First World War fashions from the Supplement au Moniteur de la Mode and the impossibly slender models or ‘croquis’ of 1930s supplement Paris Chic. Fortunately, we also have a few treasured plates from the wonderfully chic and short-lived Gazette du Bon Ton.
Fashion plates are regularly included in fashion exhibitions, adding another layer of information and context. We have also made use of them in online educational resources such as short films about selected garments which are available on our YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCYKzNYCm5hDHrESXH-TtP-wWe are working hard to make these plates more accessible for users, both in a virtual and physical sense. Our website, http://www.chertseymuseum.org, does have a ‘search the collections’ function which features a selection of plates. We are fundraising for a new website with greater digital access. Researchers can of course contact us to make appointments to study the plates and other items housed within the Olive Matthews Collection by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
Grace Evans is a Curator, Lecturer and Author, and currently holds the post of Keeper of Costume at Chertsey Museum. Having curated the Olive Matthews Collection of dress since 2001, she has developed a broad and detailed understanding of this nationally significant group of items. She interprets the collection through exhibitions, talks and publications, both online and in print form. Her published works include Fashion in Focus: Treasures from the Olive Matthews Collection, Titanic Style: Dress and Fashion on the Voyage and ‘Marriage a la Mode’ in Costume (Vol.42, 2008).
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 Langley Moore, D. (1971) Fashion through Fashion Plates 1771 – 1970, London, Ward Lock Limited, p.9
Bibliography/ Further Reading
 Langley Moor, D. (1971) Fashion through Fashion Plates 1771 – 1970, London, Ward Lock Limited
 Holland, V. (1988) Hand Coloured Fashion Plates, London, Harper Collins
 Matthews, H. and Buck, A. ‘Pocket Guides to Fashion. Ladies’ Pocket Books Published in England 1760 – 1830’, Costume, 18 (1984) pp. 35 - 58
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