The Illustrious History of the Fashion Magazine

We explore Amsterdam's brilliant new investigation into the history of fashion

This week signals the opening of a brilliant new exhibition at Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum. Entitled New For Now, it is a showcase which locates the contemporary incarnation of fashion magazines within an illustrious history – one that, even in the 18th century, showed a surprising parallel to current publications with decrees on the latest must-have carriage and examinations of the outfits of VIPs. Placed alongside commissions from contemporary artists – a Quentin Jones zootrope and Piet Paris images – the show also offers a reminder of the subjectivity of fashion illustration; as co-curator Christian Borslap explains, "Photography affords us the reality; illustration, an interpretation by an artist." Here, we speak to him about the exhibition, alongside some of our favourite images.

On the latest, must-have carriage of 1785...
"You often think they had totally different ways of doing things in the past, but that’s not always the case. Nowadays, although we have an abundance of media and techniques for producing fashion magazines, the needs and behaviours of people have remained virtually unchanged. For example, the way fashion was spread was essentially the same – ever since the release of the very first fashion periodical in 1785. The magazine appeared every two weeks and had the same function as a fashion magazine does today: 'what to wear'. Similarly, there was also a focus on 'lifestyle' back then: accessories, interior and ‘the latest must-have carriage’. Another example can be found in 18th-century costume prints which were renowned for depicting the nobility of the day. Below each print in big letters would be the name of the VIP in question. This made the clothing more desirable and sought after; a similar concept to how fashion brands today use celebrity endorsement. The purpose and effect on the public is also the same."

On the ribbons and bows of 17th century soldiers...
"The most interesting aspect for me was men’s fashion from the 17th century – army officers with very flamboyant, richly decorated clothes, collars, breastplates and feathers. The grace and elegance is a strangely beautiful contrast with the nature of an army. In fact, it seems men’s fashion was never more pronounced than it was in the second half of the 17th century: puffy trousers, long hair down to the shoulders, lots of lace, ribbons and bows. They weren’t even outdone by the extremes and excesses of Louis XIV’s reign."

On the interpretive elements of fashion illustration...
"The exhibition ends right before the advent of photography in fashion magazines. Nowadays, we are so used to seeing fashion photographs, yet in the first one-and-a-half centuries of fashion magazines, there were only illustrations. You can also see how the hand of the artist determined an image; an abstraction of the reality, in which certain things were emphasised. For instance, the expression of volume and texture. Sometimes, to the point of them turning into a caricature, sometimes, to the point where they were almost satirical. Photography affords us the reality; illustration, an interpretation by an artist. Finally, the exhibition is a fascinating overview of the tradition of reinterpretation within the fashion world. Or as Karl Lagerfeld would say, quoting Goethe: 'Make a better future by developing elements from the past.'"

On the enduring presence of print media...
"The internet has existed for 25 years: if the digital age made print redundant, it would already have disappeared, whereas successful new titles are being launched all the time. Print and digital can happily co-exist because each type of media has its own characteristics and traits. The same goes for the use of media at the Rijksmuseum: all 8,000 costume and fashion prints from the collection have now been catalogued, captioned, and digitised for free download. But you will only see paper, paint and ink in the museum. I deliberately chose not to include any computer screens in the exhibition. We already look at them enough all day."

New For Now: The Origin of Fashion Magazines is at Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam from June 12.

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