Trend Setting for the Women of its Time; An exploration into Godey’s Ladey’s Fashion Plates

Imagine yourself flipping through the pages of Vogue or Elle Magazine. What jumps out at you? What do you remember most about your probably ten minutes with the piece of work. My guess is the photographs. These photographs are not really photographs. They are autistically constructed editorial art pieces. The beginnings of the Vogue Editorials can be rooted in the illustrations in Godey’s magazine.

These illustrations within Godey’s magazine are called fashion plates. Louis A. Godey, a Philadelphia publisher and the owner of Godey’s Lady’s Book was insistent on the inclusion of fashion plates in the magazine. He faced opposition from the editor, Hale, however he override her. These fashion plates allow for the women of the mid 19th century to understand the trends in fashion. The people depicted in these fashion plates are models or mannequins displaying the clothes. Each month ladies were granted a new issue which included the monthly fashion plates hand-colored by the group Godey referred to as “our corps of one hundred and fifty female colorers.”

The plates allow for instruction to a tailor of what to make and sell in his or her store. These plates can be seen as a illustration of a department store window. They were American fashion’s first trend setting tools, the displayed the latest fashionable garments and styling techniques of the time so women could copy. Godey’s has brought window sopping to print. These fashion plates dictated what type of material is used to make the garments as well as how a woman should be wearing the clothing. Godey’s fashion plates were a vital part in the magazine’s rise in popularity during the mid nineteenth century. The colorful imagery drew readers in and provided an art piece within each issue. Godey’s Magazine fashion plates were extremely influential to many parts of the economy because they dictated what tailors made and what women wanted to buy. The fashion suggestions made we worn by the upper class women of the time. Similar to looking at a vogue editorial, only the top of the one percent is going to purchasing six hundred dollar slides.

metal carving technique used by printers of Godey’s Magazine. source (google images)

The physical making of these fashion plates is a very intensive process. More than 150 women were employed to hand tint the plates for each issue. Black and white steel and copper engravings were also used to illustrate the published articles. Traditionally they are rendered through etching, line engraving, or lithograph and then colored by hand. The was done in order to reach extremely high quality and provide visual appeal. The colored plates were hand painted in Philadelphia both at the Godey plant and in the home of young women hired to assist with the painting. This was sometimes problematic because the different artists misunderstood certain instructions and as a result colors were changed on certain pieces of clothing.

Steel­ engraving first made its mark in the shionable drawing-room annuals of the 1820s. Originally copper plates we used for the engravings, but past the second decade in the 19th century steal was used. Steal could withstand the constant wear and tear of the painting and repainting much better than copper (Twyman, 23).

The artists who contributed to the fashion plates came from many different backgrounds. One of the engravers whom my research led me to was Alfred Jones.  He was an engraver born in England in at the beginning of the 19th century. In addition to engravings for Godey’s Magazine he also did portrait and landscape paintings. One interesting fact about Jones was he engraved the 1890 postage stamp that honored Thomas Jefferson.

Godey’s Magazine can be utilized as somewhat of a timeline for mapping American women’s fashion from the mid eighteenth century. For example, the fashion at the time this issue was published was very constricting and cumbersome for the woman of this time. The dresses of this age had hooped skirts, with elaborate detailing. In addition, the skirts had an immense amount of material that included a crinolines. These garments were so heavy and was almost inconceivable to wear the pieces. Thus, it can me inferred that the women of the time were not involved in any strenuous actives or work. However, the magazine also comprises other fashions that evolved because of the wearability.


The fashion plate above depicts three women all dressed in many different garments. The cool tones of the coloring and detailing in the background display the winter time months. This plate is from the November issue of Godey’s Magazine. These women are all wearing ornate bonnets, petty coats and hooped skirts. Each woman’s facial expression is almost identical demonstrating the lack of importance in who these women are but rather the clothes that they are wearing. The background of the image is still in ink demonstrating the focus on the clothing. In addition, certain items of clothing are vividly colored. These colorful pieces are talked about within the magazine. I read the the text that is in tandem with the fashion plate and it notes that the Godey’s Magazine is the first to be reporting the cloak fashion. Godey’s established itself as the premier choice for a lady looking to wear the latest trends.

The magazine was an avenue for the encouragement of female self expression. The female role within society at this time was suppressed and the fashion statements they made were representative of their voice within society.