First issued during the reign of Marie Antoinette, the fashion and costume plate series Galerie des Modes et Costumes Français has been called “the most beautiful collection in existence on the fashions of the eighteenth century.”
Beginning around 1778, the Parisian print merchants Esnault & Rapilly began issuing this series of engravings at irregular intervals in cahiers—or sets—of six that could be purchased in their shop or received as a subscription. The series was touted to be “designs from nature,” real-life ensembles worn by French elegantes in Paris or the Royal Palace at Versailles. The plates were issued hand-colored as well as uncolored so as to be tinted by the home hobbyist. Over the course of Galerie des Modes et Costumes Français’ nine year run, four artists were responsible for the majority of the plates, Claude-Louis Desrais, who designed the first 68 plates in the series, followed by Pierre-Thomas Leclère and François-Louis-Joseph Watteau. In the final year of the series, Augustin de Saint-Aubin contributed eighteen plates depicting formal court styles.
Many of these original eighteenth century plates were destroyed during the course of the French Revolution, as owning objects associated with the decadence of the Ancien Régime implied political sympathies that put one’s life at risk. By the early twentieth century, the Galerie des Modes et Costumes Français plates had become exceedingly rare and a complete set was not known to exist. Sometime around 1910, Paul Cornu, a historian and librarian at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, undertook the task of tracking down as many of the plates as possible, and in 1912 reissued a selection of 325 of the plates in a folio format that mimicked that of the original. Short passages of text sourced from eighteenth century periodicals and literature accompany each image, providing a context that supercedes the depiction of extravagant and whimsical fashions and provides a detailed, nuanced account of the luxurious lifestyle enjoyed by the aristocracy and wealthiest members of the bourgeoisie just before the tides would turn with the outbreak of the Revolution in 1789.
Today, even the 1912 edition of Galerie des Modes et Costumes Français is considered valuable and rare, usually kept under lock and key in rare book and museum collections. The tome has only ever been published in French, and SPARC hopes one day to release the first English translation of the title. If this sounds like a title you would like to buy, we’d love to hear from you… leave us a comment!