Identifying Everyday Clues in Photographs, Part II

Dating PhotographsIn my first post in this series, I set out to date a photograph of my 2X great grandmother, Elizabeth (Schwartz) Yegerlehner and one of her granddaughters, an unidentified Wolfe. I went through the process of identifying clues in the photograph that would provide me with usable information. Each woman was broken down by age and by the various parts of her clothing.

Before we proceed further, I want to add a few fashion warnings. Dating photographs is never a precise process, and oftentimes, without other documentary evidence, may never be completely accurate. My goal is to help the average genealogist or vintage photography enthusiast to understand and recognize fashion trends as well as to give advice for finding resources.

  • Older people may not change their clothing fashions as quickly as younger persons do or be inclined to adopt new trends, however this is not always the case. A great example would be in the costumes of Downton Abbey. The Dowager Duchess was wealthy enough to buy new clothing every season but her clothing style evolved more slowly than some of the younger characters like those of her granddaughters: Mary, Edith and Sybil.
  • People from metropolitan areas are more fashionable than rural areas (sometimes!). With the advent of ladies and fashion periodicals, like Godey’s Lady’s Book, country women were able to see the latest fashions more quickly. Mail order catalogues, like Sears, Roebuck & Co. and the National Cloak & Suit Co., allowed women away from the big cities to purchase the latest fashions. Even if they made their own clothing, they could be inspired by the fashion plates. Pattern companies, like McCall’s and Butterick, also sold high fashion to rural customers.
  • Working class people dressed differently than wealthier people. One must always consider class when dating a photograph. The “best” dress for a poorer woman might last for many years while the “best” dress for a wealthy woman might last one season. People tended to hold onto clothing, and remade dresses year after year, as well as handing them down to young folk.

The second step is to Identify the Period Silhouette:

What is a period silhouette, you might ask? A handout from the The Secret Life of Costumes by Canada’s National Art Centre describes it thus….

“A silhouette provides an uncluttered outline of the basic shape of a person from a particular period in history as dictated by the clothing worn. Each shape is different from any in the century either before or after. The outline of your body wearing today’s styles would be very different from your great grandmother’s or grandfather’s shape at the same age.”

The pdf article contains wonderful advice as well as a fun activity for identifying some different silhouettes. Make sure you download it for future reference!

Fashion silhouettes can change very rapidly. They can also overlap as evidenced by my first point above. A woman from 1880 will have a different silhouette from a woman in 1860 or 1900. In both of my costume history courses, I was required to keep a sketchbook of period silhouettes for every century from the 1st through the 20th, for men and women. Within a hundred year period, fashion silhouettes can change a dozen times or more. Just for fun, I’m including two costume renderings from two different time periods, about 100 years apart. Try guessing the decades of the two pictures, and leave your answer in the comments!

Learning the intricacies of fashion trends takes time, and requires paying attention to little details.

There are many great resources for learning about historical fashion trends, in contemporary documents. Here are a few:

A couple sources for Godey’s Lady’s Book
http://www.accessible-archives.com/collections/godeys-ladys-book/
http://onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/webbin/serial?id=godeylady

Ancestry has many Sears catalogs available for searching from 1896-1993. To find them, go to Ancestry’s main catalogue and search under Sears. You can browse by year. Many years had more than one to chose from (spring/fall).

Ancestry screen shot

Internet Archive has many old catalogs and magazines in their collection. Here is a National Cloak & Suit Co. catalogue  from 1907: https://archive.org/details/newyorkfashions00nati

Dover books sells reprints of old fashion catalogues. Be careful of some of their “costume” books as they are secondary sources.
http://store.doverpublications.com/by-subject-fashion-and-costume-vintage-fashion-catalogs.html

Dated photographs are great resources since fashion plates are not always realistically drawn.

The Library of Congress has a Civil War Collection: http://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/cwp/

The website PhotoTree has thousands of dated photographs:
http://www.phototree.com/gallery.asp?cat=90s&f0=1890s

Several museums have clothing collections.

One of my favorite is the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute. Here is an example of a shirtwaist, dated 1899-1902:
http://www.metmuseum.org/collection/the-collection-online/search/109353?rpp=30&pg=1&ft=shirtwaist&pos=10

©2015 copyright by Deborah Sweeney
Post originally found: https://genealogylady.net/2015/05/09/identifying-everyday-clues-in-photographs-part-ii/

3 thoughts on “Identifying Everyday Clues in Photographs, Part II

  1. currentdescendent

    Thanks for the great links. I am going to guess mid-late 1700s and mid-late 1800s for those 2 silhouettes. But I can’t narrow it down more than that. I think there is one other thing to consider besides wealth (or lack thereof) and class and urban/rural. How about people who come from a culture that focuses more on plainness and a people who are more sophisticated? For instance, my Dutch ancestors in Kalamazoo were very tied to their Calvinistic religion and associated mainly with (and married) other Dutch immigrants. Even the ones with a comfortable middle class life wore clothes that were quite plain.

    Reply
    1. Genealogy Lady Post author

      Those are definitely valid points! There are so many reasons why clothes are difficult to date. Too many variables! Although I consider myself fairly knowledgeable, I will still shy away from giving anyone a definite date on a photograph, unless I have another document to back it up. I love reading my grandparents’ letters for that reason because I am able to date some of the photographs they took so precisely now.

      You mention both ethnicity as well as wealth. For example, many immigrants who arrived in the late 1800s and early 1900s came with different fashion sensibilities. Jewish immigrants would look different from Dutch immigrants for that very reason. My 18th century “plain” Quaker ancestors would have dressed differently from my New England mill working ancestors.
      Good guesses on the pictures!

      Reply

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