La Belle Assemblée was a landmark in the history of magazine production and a testimony to John Bell’s talent in raising the standards of magazine production. Bell believed a periodical needed to appeal visually and the lavishness of La Belle Assemblée marks it as the ancestor of modern glossy magazines. Leigh Hunt, the Romantic critic and poet, described Bell’s innovations in typography as ‘elegant’; the layout and illustrations were equally fine and produced in a format larger than other contemporary magazines, such as the Lady’s Magazine, and much larger than the pocket-sized Ladies’ Monthly Museum.
La Belle Assemblée is now best known for its Georgian fashion plates but until the 1820s it also published original poetry and fiction, non-fiction articles on politics and science, book and theatre reviews, and serialized novels, including Oakwood Hall by Catherine Hutton. Another notable contributor to La Belle Assemblée was Mary Shelley, and works by both of these authors can be found in the collections here at Chawton House Library.
Each number of La Belle Assemblée typically contained five plates—one depicting a member of the court or fashionable society, two depicting the latest fashions, and a further two providing sheet music and a sewing pattern—the magazine was not dominated by the frivolities of fashionable dress. Bell separated the portion of the work dealing with the fashions of the month from the remainder of the publication. Initially the two sections could be purchased separately; the first consisting of the bulk of the letterpress, together with two of the plates, the second ('La Belle Assemblée') consisting of the fashion plates and a sewing pattern, together, usually, with four pages describing the plates and discussing the latest London and Paris fashions. The presentation was meticulous and for the first few numbers each section was bound in a bright orange wrapper and with engraved title pages.