13 January 2021
This week’s rare book is The Gallery of Fashion, one of the earliest English fashion magazines, published in London between 1794 and 1802. Its publisher, Nikolaus von Heideloff (1761-1837), was born in Stuttgart and started his career in Paris. At the outbreak of the French Revolution he fled for safety to London, where he lived until in 1815 he was appointed director of the collection that is now the Mauritshuis in The Hague. In the words of his ‘Advertisement,’ von Heideloff regarded his magazine as not only of interest to ‘Ladies of the highest fashion’ but it was also ‘submitted to the admirers of the fine arts’, so staking an implicit claim that clothes and fashion represent an art form.
The Gallery was published in monthly instalments and Emmanuel’s copy in the Graham Watson Collection is bound in nine volumes for each year of publication. Such a complete set in such a fine state is a very rare survival and differs from some other copies in having an uncoloured plate included alongside the coloured plate in 38 cases – presumably for the use of subscribers in composing their own variations on the colour combinations shown in the plates. The list of subscribers is of the grandest, including daughters of George III, along with Duchesses, Marchionesses and Countesses, but also featuring such surprising subscribers as the Ottoman Embassy in London. Many subscribers are men, presumably on behalf of their wives, and many lady subscribers opt to remain anonymous, like ‘A Lady at Philadelphia’. Although early issues could be purchased individually by non-subscribers, von Heideloff soon went over to subscription only – which meant the latest fashion trends were first known exclusively to subscribers. But it could also be a two-way relationship, with subscribers gaining the kudos of publishing their own fashion-leading innovations: ‘Several Ladies of Rank and Fashion’ have allowed von Heideloff to ‘make drawings of their new dresses’ and ‘thus the credit of the invention of the different dresses will be secured to the Fair Subscribers who contribute to the embellishment of this work’.
Published by an immigrant refugee from the French Revolution in the midst of the long wars with France, this new English magazine of high fashion perhaps inevitably displays some edgy competitiveness with the notion of French leadership in fashion. For von Heideloff ‘This work, so necessary to point out the superior elegance of the English taste, is the first and only one ever published in this country; it surpasses anything of the kind formerly published at Paris …’
The English claim to primacy is that contemporary English fashions emulate the simplicity of Ancient Greek dress: ‘France has given her dresses to the other nations, but it was reserved for the Graces of Great Britain to take the lead in Fashion, and to show that, if they do not surpass, they certainly equal the elegance of the most celebrated Grecian dresses. In short, beauty, shape and taste are nowhere more general, nor anywhere better united, than in England …’
To a modern eye these fashions do often have – at least when seen free of the clutter of accessories – an elegant simplicity of line, with their very high ‘Empire line’ waistlines. The profusion of cloaks, bonnets, gloves and muffs is explained by the fact that dresses at this period tended to be made of quite thin material … brrr! A Grecian inspiration was also suggested by the fashion for wearing white, especially in the evening. To wear white implicitly signalled wealth and leisured status, in that white was so easily soiled and would need cleaning (by someone else).
To a modern viewer the Gallery’s elegant plates will seem like visualizations of scenes from Jane Austen’s novels, particularly when the young women are shown reading novels or letters (Plates 1-3), or at such ladylike diversions as playing the pianoforte (Plate 4) or playing the harp while wearing an elaborately tall headdress of ‘three white ostrich feathers with a bandeau crossed with flowers’ (Plate 5).
The plates for each month show examples of dresses for the morning (when one might take the air), for afternoons, and for the evening at concerts, the opera and receptions. There is usually an example of Court Dress, which mostly tends to be the very opposite of supposed ‘Grecian’ simplicity (Plate 6). There is much depiction of fashions to be worn during periods of mourning – not only in black but in gradations of grey and white – since mourning, which might be worn even for quite distant relatives, was frequently required. There are some strikingly smart riding habits (Plate 7) , which very much suggest the impact that a self-confidently styled woman might achieve outside in company if dressed to impress in such a way, as in a scarlet one worn with ‘a black beaver hat trimmed with purple velvet riband and two black feathers’ (Plate 8). Backgrounds where included sometimes imply ample gardens and grounds, with some elegant garden furniture, while a few scenes seem to admit that English fashions will need to contend with wind and rain (Plate 9).
The backgrounds to quite a few of the plates acknowledge the fashionable new craze for being at the seaside in new resorts and watering places (Plates 11, 12), as in the plate that shows two young ladies rather perilously perched on a cliff edge with a beach with bathing machines far below (Plate 10), or a lady with a telescope and ‘a black beaver hat trimmed a la militaire’ (Plate 13). One rather revealing plate (Plate 14) depicts two young women breakfasting in their dressing-room before the fashionable day begins, although their nightcaps and dressing gowns are still as elegant as their splendid silver tea-service and richly patterned carpet .
The first decades of the nineteenth century – loosely ‘the Regency’ – may now seem synonymous with elegance, and in depicting something of it The Gallery of Fashion is one of the most beautiful books on costume ever published, and certainly the finest example of coloured aquatint as applied to fashion plates.
Barry Windeatt (Keeper of Rare Books)
Images by Helen Carron (College Librarian)Back to All Blog Posts