In the 16th and 17th Centuries, the most popular printed materials were newspapers, pamphlets, and broadsides. Unfortunately, in the early 18th Century, the English government realised that an awful lot of political propaganda was spread through these cheap, easily made publications, and so decided to stick a tax on them. In order to cover everything, the tax was on “single and half sheet publications.” Publishers responded to this tax by printing lengthier material less frequently, and so the magazine was born in England.
However, other magazines had begun to appear in the late 17th century, in Germany, France, and the Netherlands. It was easier for publishers to have a regular schedule, but it would be difficult to say that the magazines they produced were particularly easy reading: they tended to be intellectual and fairly heavy going, until the publication of the Mercure Galant in 1672, combining news, pleasurable reading, and images.
The rise of female literacy rates meant a new market for publishers, too, and the Lady’s Mercury appeared in 1693, intended specifically for women: the Athenian Mercury ran an advice column that was so popular with women, a separate magazine was briefly created. It was not truly a magazine as we would recognise it today, however, being printed on two sides of a single sheet of paper. The Review, the Tatler, and the Spectator all emerged in the early 18th Century, and likewise grew offshoots aimed specifically at a female audience.
The first Fashion Magazine after the Mercure Galant, however, did not appear until 1770. The Lady’s Magazine (an offshoot of the Gentleman’s Magazine (1731-1907)) lasted until 1847, and contained detailed illustrations of clothes alongside fiction, biographies, music, medicine, and news. Middle and upper class women found it of equal appeal: the court dresses shown helped those of higher rank keep up with the fashions, while the middle ranks could attempt to emulate it on a smaller scale.
The main difference between magazines aimed at women and men in this period was the manner in which politics was treated. While men were being prepared to take military roles in upcoming wars with neighbouring countries, women were reassured that all was safe, and there was nothing to fear, so that no upset was caused in the domestic sphere.
While the Lady’s Magazine was varied in its material, and contained relatively few fashion plates, other magazines, such as The Gallery of Fashion (1794-1803), Gallerie des Modes et Costumes Français (1778-1787), and the Magasin des Modes Nouvelles Françaises et Anglaises (1786-1789) consisted almost entirely of fashion plates. These were (unfortunately) more expensive to produce, hence their short lifetimes, but the fashion magazine as we know it today was born!
These magazines gave very detailed descriptions, elaborating on colours, materials, styles, and how such items might be procured. Adverts for various manufactures were included, too.
Such plates could be hand tinted before distribution, coloured by hand once bought, or, more unusually, turned into “dressed prints” with colour being added through the use of fabric and glue.
While these magazines were ostensibly aimed at women (though that is not to say that they didn’t also include male fashion plates too!), they also contained a voyeuristic element for men, from the high fashion of the 1780s involving women’s breasts showing over their necklines, to the form revealing fashions of the 1790s and 1800s.
The effect of these fashion magazines was a homogenisation of European fashion. Marie Antoinette’s constant spending and ever changing styles led to them being printed every 10 days to keep up with her, and while some small regional variation remained, fashion at the end of the 18th Century was very similar all across Europe, with the same silhouettes, styles, trims, and headwear rendering it virtually impossible to tell where someone was from by their clothes. When countries were at war, efforts were made to avoid imitating the styles of the country you were fighting against, but that tended towards small details.
One notable feature of dress that remained radically different depending on location was court dress. Strict rules were in place, dictating what could be worn in front of a country’s monarch, from silhouette to train length, and such things as sleeve length and headwear varied depending on occasion and time of day. As can be seen above, the English retained the paniers of the mid 18th Century, raising them with the waistline, while the French adopted the new fashion of slim skirts.
Such magazines continue to this day in much the same manner as the first 1770 Lady’s Magazine, containing everything from fashion and news to fiction, biographies, and recipies.
For more on fashion magazines, and the history thereof, see (in no particular order:
John L. Nevison’s “Early History of the Fashion Plate“
British Library’s Article on Fashion Magazines
Articles in the Lady’s Magazine
Fashion Plates in the National Portrait Gallery
Julia Jones’s “The Fleeting Art: Fashion and Culture in Eighteenth Century France”
Matthaeus Schwarz’s Fashion Book