Using original existing garments as inspiration for replication is wonderful. But there’s just something about a historical fashion plate that pushes you to bring it to life.
True, a drawing from a century or two ago was the epitome of fashion that was presented to ladies of the time. But as our glossy Vogues and In-Styles present runway fashion today that you rarely see on your friends, plate sketches from the past gave the contemporary woman (and us) the dream to chase after.
Of course, loads of details go into the production of the chosen plate design, many of which we stumble through. We analyze, scrutinize, ponder, decide, and create. Somehow at the end of it, we’re left with a beautiful garment – even if it doesn’t resemble the original design at all.
Before starting your reproduction, study these considerations to keep you on track.
1st: Accept that you don’t look like the fashion plate
In 2008 when I absorbed myself in reproducing the Godey’s July 1876 plate, I discovered, much to my dismay and education, that I am about 6″ shorter between my waist and knees than the drawing. Shucks.
I accepted that fact easily. But then I had to work out a plan to scale down the design so that my dress still mimicked the plate. Not exactly easy when dealing with a detailed, multi-layered bustle overskirt! But it worked, as you can tell.
So, make sure to allow for adjustments when constructing the design. Work with as many mockups as you need to allow for the tweaking that always comes with reproductions. And remember you won’t ever look like the ideal of the time.
Also, before you begin, measure yourself and the fashion plate and figure proportions between them.
If the plate is 5″ high on paper and you stand at 5’4″, you can then break this down into sections, like neck to waist, waist to knees and knees to hem, to proportionally calculate how long pieces of the garment will be when on a real person. I use this method a great deal when reproducing a fashion plate.
2nd: Take time to look at the details & each section of the garment
Before you can reproduce a fashion plate, you have to know what it looks like. Now before you say “duh!” let me tell you: just because you can see a full skirt and puffed sleeves, you’ll find loads more details than on first glance.
Now grab your plate, some paper, and pencils and let’s start the dissection.
Initially, stick with only what is visible in the plate. A full skirt. Puffed sleeves at the top, then a smaller puff, and finally a long, tight lower sleeve. A pleated bertha collar around the neckline. Some fancy cut trim on the skirt topped with a roll or band. Looks like the entire dress is from one fabric. Etc. Etc.
Write down all you see. Fill in your picture on paper. Look closer. Re-sketch the plate to give you an idea of all involved. (This is a great way to develop design skills – like figuring out how you get dressed in the garment.)
Next, start thinking about pattern shapes. What would the pieces look like?
The skirt is probably cut from straight panels. The bodice, fitted with darts. The sleeves could be leg o’ mutton with a band around it.
Start researching patterns that come close to the various sections of your plate design. You may have to combine a couple to produce the final result. And don’t feel bad for doing so! You are trying to bring a particular design to life, not make up a commercial pattern as is. But they do help immensely as a jumping off point.
3rd: Know the time period you are working on – do research
If you want to make a dress from the mid-Victorian era, and have found a to-die-for fashion plate, you’re going to have to know a little bit about how dresses were constructed back then. Simply getting a pattern and fabric and sewing it up won’t cut it.
That fashion plate would look awful without the undergarments. Remember, it was produced from the time, so everyone knew what was worn under it. We, however, have to find out.
Museum websites and books like Nineteenth Century Fashion in Detail, Costume in Detail, and Patterns of Fashion are packed with period details, measurements and photos of the real thing, helping us create our own versions of antique garments.
Have you tried Pinterest lately? Oh my! You can get lost in your research, but that may be a good thing. The more you know of a particular era, the higher quality you’ll construct your garment.
General questions to make note of: Are the skirts lined? Where do the bodices open (front or back)? Which seams are hand-sewn? Are trims sewn into seams or mounted on top? What are the most popular fabrics?
Remember here, you want to get a good overall picture of the time period. If something seems odd or pops up only once, it’s probably not a mainstream idea – and a fashion plate IS the mainstream. Stay with the general construction techniques, those most popular in what you find.
4th: Decision-Making Time
N0w that you know a bit more of your fashion plate era, have studied the details, and looked for patterns, it’s time to finalize your design.
This is where it comes down to “What do YOU want the design to look like?” The best reproductions reflect your personality and skill. Finalize your garment to what you want. This means making some decisions.
Because a fashion plate only gives us one side of the garment, it comes naturally that we have to do some guesswork. What DOES the front of that bustle dress look like? Is there a bow on the back of that belt?
This part can stump even seasoned costumers. But be brave. Based on your new knowledge of the period, select a design that runs in tandem with it. Add a collar. Scoop the neckline. Add a big honkin’ flower to the center front décolleté. Decide on hooks & hand eyelets to close the back. Carry the hem ruffle around to the front.
Don’t be timid, and don’t fizzle out. Push through and simply make a choice. Or rather oodles of them. Force yourself to step out of your zone and attempt something fabulous!
Fashion plates open up a dream world. One that is “perfect” to our historical costuming eyes. Use them in delicious fashion to build up your period wardrobe. Have fun!
Have you made reproductions from fashion plates? Do you find using plates useful in your historical sewing?