Sunday, December 23, 2007

Fashion plate

Reading someone other than Proust this afternoon, I found this sentence, a description of a wig-maker's shop, sending me to the dictionary:

By way of decoration, it had an ancient fashion-plate stuck on one of the window-panes and a wax bust of a woman, which had yellow hair.

Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary, translated by Geoffrey Wall (London: Penguin, 2003), 60
I haven't heard the term fashion-plate (or fashion plate) in years. It conjures up for me a lost world of vaguely moral misgivings about those who choose to dress in shiny fabrics and loud, flashy colors. In other words, the only fashion plates I've heard of have been human. So what is this "ancient fashion-plate" in the window?

The Oxford English Dictionary makes everything clear, defining fashion plate as "a pictorial design showing the prevailing style or new style of dress," and noting that the term is "also applied to other kinds of fashionable display." The term's first appearance is from 1851, and by 1891 it's being used of people: "The latest philatelic 'fashion plates' tell us that the new idea of collecting postal cards is to collect them direct from the countries issuing them." My guess (and it's only a guess) is that the French term gravure de modes came first and that English borrowed from its fashion-minded neighbor.

The University of Washington has an online collection of fashion plates for your viewing pleasure:
Fashion Plate Collection

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