What helps me is seeing actual drawings of fashion from the time and my favourite of the fashion plates is Heideloff. His coloured drawings also cover my particular choice of period.
From Sacheverell Sitwell’s introduction to my book of Heideloff and Ackermann fashion plates, we learn that Heideloff’s were the first publications of coloured prints of English fashions, preceding Ackermann and La Belle Assemblée, which began in 1806. Earlier ones were French. But post the Revolution, English fashions began to predominate over French in England, and even crossed the Channel.
Heideloff was born in Germany, into a family of painters and engravers, but gravitated to Paris in 1784 in the service of a German duke. He left him and painted miniatures for a living. He fled to England as an émigré and in 1794 began the Gallery of Fashion, which appeared every month until 1802. Apparently there were 251 coloured plates done altogether.
What I love about Heideloff’s drawings is the fullness of the gowns, often with so much movement in them you can almost see the scene alive.
A lot of them are set in wonderful backgrounds and there are often two or three women together and sometimes children, usually doing something: reading, chatting, driving, riding, hurrying along or dawdling.
Although my book has quite a few plates, it’s not nearly as interesting as the images I’ve downloaded. There are few copies of the original Heideloff extant, but a Japanese university has very kindly put their entire collection online. You can even get permission to use one on covers for a reasonable fee.
But what I find so valuable is the descriptions of the clothes. These I can lift and use, adapting them a little to be understood by my readers. Each plate is accompanied by a page describing the entirety of each outfit, even to the hats and shoes, and of course it gives an excellent flavour of the time and a completely accurate depiction with the correct terminology. I have not personally come across any other fashion plate as comprehensive and detailed.
Take the image of a woman reading by the sea. It’s called Watering Place. Note the huge background scene. And if you read the description below, you can follow just what it meant by the words used. A handkerchief, for example, is not the square of linen we would suppose. That was called a pocket handkerchief. There’s “tucker” and “riband” and “petticoat” - not what we mean by the latter.
If you look at the descriptions of the morning dresses in the windy day above, you’ll see how even the way the hair is dressed is given: “the hair in bushy curls in front, the hind hair turned up into a chignon” and “the hair curled round the face; the hind hair in loose ringlets”.
There must be sixty odd of these images I downloaded, and I didn’t do the lot. Fortunately one is allowed to grab them for personal use only, and thus my readers are treated to snippets of the real thing.
As an interesting research aside, I learned that fashion colourists did their drawings inside the premises of the modistes, from the actual clothes. As close a representation as you can get!