PLATE TO POCHOIR: fashion before photography
By Tanisha Angel
This piece was written as part of the Fashion Writing Program 2019
Before there was Vogue, Harper's Bazaar, and Elle, there was Gazette Du Bon Ton, Cabinet Des Modes, and Journal Des Dames Et Des Modes. Prior to the advent of photography, fashion and art went hand in hand; with illustration being the primary method by which to circulate fashion news and report trends.
The PLATE TO POCHOIR: Illustrating Fashion lecture was held in the elusive, heritage-listed The Johnstone Collection museum. It truly is elusive - the museum's address isn't available to the public. Guests are required to meet at the Pullman Melbourne On the Park hotel to be then transported to The Johnstone Collection by their courtesy bus. Well worth the secrecy, The Johnstone Collection was housed in a beautiful whitewashed vintage terrace-style house, framed by lush greenery.
Lectured by Danielle Whitfield, a writer and curator at the National Gallery of Victoria’s Fashion and Textiles Department, PLATE TO POCHOIR: Illustrating Fashion explored the use of illustration in fashion, from the printed fashion plates of the 17th and 18th century to the pochoir technique of the early 20th century. The interconnected nature of fashion and art was evidenced in the lecture, with fashion plates eventually begetting the ever-popular street style documentation of today.
Initially didactic in nature, fashion plates were illustrations depicting current fashions or an idealised aesthetic. Focused entirely on the clothing themselves, printed illustrations typically featured well dressed women (real or fictional) set against a blank backdrop with mostly white space accompanied by a sharp and amusing caption, and were designed to direct women on how to dress. Anterior to the rise of the fashion plate, women were the sole directors of their own style; fashion plates marked the first dictation of taste by an external party, providing women with guidance to take to their tailors.
Danielle Whitfield touched on how King Louis XIV utilised fashion as a means by which to boost the French economy, shifting the world’s fashion capital from Madrid to Paris. Louis XIV established France as the leading country in taste by focusing on the production of luxury items like clothing, jewellery, fabric, and furniture, with the then king employing protectionist policies against foreign imports to grow France’s luxury good industry. Louis XIV recognised the power of art and imagery and its ability to shape consumers’ perceptions, and subsidised the production of fashion plates by French artists in the 17th century to promote French luxury fashion domestically and internationally.
Fashion plates were made with the intention to sell fashion and influence consumption as opposed to being merely a caricature or costume print, and were perhaps best summed up by poet Charles Baudelaire who described them as the embodiment of “the moral and aesthetic feeling of their time.” Fashion plates prompted the rise of fashion magazines marketed towards the general public such as Cabinet Des Modes, Galerie Des Modes, and Journal Des Dames Et Des Modes, which formed the basis for our current fashion publications.
From the 20th century onwards, there was a shift from the Marie Antionette corseted style silhouette of the 18th century, to a more streamlined, liberated silhouette. Simultaneously, printed fashion plates began to be overtaken by the more expensive pochoir technique, a labour-intensive hand-stencilling process which involved layering applications of gouache or watercolour paint to achieve nuanced colour schemes. The higher cost of the pochoir technique meant that fashion magazines transitioned from being inclusive of the wider public regardless of socioeconomic status, to being marketed towards the elite strata of society.
The pochoir technique was famously utilised by designer Paul Poiret who worked with pochoir artist Paul Iribe to create an album for his collection; differing from the printed fashion plates of past centuries, the Les Robes de Paul Poiret racontées par Paul Iribe album was more artistic and conceptual than a realistic depiction. This trait continued with the establishment of French magazine and literary journal Gazette Du Bon Ton in the early 20th century, an elite title which featured ten full page pochoir fashion plates per issue. Fashion illustration continued into the 1920s and 30s, with pochoir illustrations continuing to appear on the covers of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar before being overtaken by photography.