Divide & Clothe: Illustrating Fashion in Nineteenth-Century Europe

Curated by Isabelle Gillet and Courtney Wilder


A dramatic surge in images of clothing appeared in European books, journals, and prints from the 1780s through the 1870s. As a dedicated fashion press emerged by 1800, so did expectations about what people chose to wear: trends depicted in widely-circulated fashion plates began to dictate the pace at which clothing should be updated. But the early nineteenth century also witnessed a rising interest in traditional clothing not subject to fashion’s rapid changes. These types of clothes became subsumed in the category of “costume.” The period’s prolific illustrated press documented costumes worn in rural regions of Europe or far-flung parts of the world. Such images contributed to perceived divisions between those who participated in fashion and those who did not. In so doing, these images complemented contemporary beliefs that progress and modernity were inherently metropolitan, Western phenomena.

The exhibition traces these contrasting ideas about clothing as fashion and as costume (as well as hybrids of the two) across visual representations ranging from fashion plates to caricatures, and from journals associated with clothing production, to encyclopedic volumes on historic dress and world costume. The objects included have been drawn from the Special Collections Research Center and as loans from the private collection of Dr. James Ravin. Throughout the exhibit, each curator's work is attributed through the use of her initials.