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Identify Your Old Photographs - part 4

This is part four in my series about how to identify family members in old photographs. To read part one, go here. In this post, we will look at another way to date a photograph. Getting a date for the image will go a long way in helping you identify who the subject is in your photograph. If you have already recorded what you know about the chain of custody and context of the picture and if you suspect this is an ancestor of yours and have a family tree put together with known images of family members, you are off to a good start and should be able to discover who the person is staring back at you from that old photograph. You may have already guessed a date range for the photograph based on the type of photography, as well as photographer stamp or other clues. But clothing can be another key factor in dating photographs. Clothing in the 1800s to mid 1900s is very distinctive. Trends and styles are unique to each decade. In this post we will cover one hundred years of women's fashion from 1850 to 1950.







To date women by the fashion they wore in photographs, note the following things: skirt shape and length, sleeve style, neck design and any embellishment and accessories.


Then, compare with my 'cheat sheets' and photo collages for each decade below. Feel free to message me if you have questions or comments.






1850s - Rounded, removable, contrasting collars with a brooch or Jenny Lind collar, a high stiff band. Corsets, flat and elongated in the early 1850s and flare with an hourglass shape by the late 1850s. Hoop skirt, large full skirt, the mid to late 1850s. Bishop sleeve (long full sleeve, cuffed wrist) or Bell Sleeve (off the shoulder and gets fuller down the arm, flaring like a bell at the wrist). Bonnets were worn, rounded with no brim. Capes, shawls or ribbons hung on shoulders.


1860s - Removable contrasting collars continued. More ribbons and ornamentations on a dress. False yolk on the bodice that covered collar bone, and shoulders, often edged in ruffle, ribbon or lace. Bishop sleeve continued and Pamela sleeve was a trend during this period with puffs down the arm. By late 1860's skirt fabric pulled to the rear, giving a flat ungathered look in the front and folds of fabrics in back. Bonnets sat on the back of the head with ribbons, or small hat or oval hat perched on front of the head. Belts came into fashion, some large. Shawls were worn into the early 1860s but then were changed, with sleeves added, like a jacket. Capelets and vest type jackets became popular by the end of the 1860s.




1870s - Narrow flat skirt for day dresses, a flat front for a formal dress, with excess fabric pulled into the rear and bustled. Overskirts came into fashion and revealed ruffled underskirts. Sleeves were straight or open bell shape. Bonnets were narrow and high and sat back on the head. Neck scarves or ribbons were popular.





1880s - Bustle still existed but by late 1880s skirts weren't built up in a full bustle. Lots of ruffles and draping. Overskirt sometimes swooped up to the side. Corsets were short-waisted. Jersey bodices were popular. High neck, narrow sleeve, tight fitting button-down style. Collars were high and tight. Narrow sleeve, until the late 1880s where a slight puff at shoulder appeared. Large hats with modest brims or exaggerated bonnets. Long narrow jackets or wraps were worn.






1890s - Bell shaped skirt- snug and smooth over the hips and flared hem. Walking skirts cleared the ground and the tops of shoes could be seen. Puffed sleeves after 1892, growing in volume as the decade went on. By the end of 1890s leg-o-mutton sleeves, voluminous full puffs from shoulder to elbow, then fitted from elbow to wrist. Bonnets had large brims and many ornamentations - feathers, bows and flowers. Hats were large and perched on the front of the head with lots of decoration. Jackets had sleeves that matched the sleeves of blouses. Many had two rows of buttons.





1900s - "S" silhouette, with a corset that thrust bust forward and forced hips back. Early 1900's shirts and blouses were tucked and puffed out at the waist Tailored suits and long skirts Puffed leg-o-mutton sleeves or Pamela sleeves (puffs tied off down arm) during the early 1900s to narrow, tailored sleeves with a slight puff at the shoulder by end of the 1900s. Clothing was more subdued, but the hats were lavish. Ostrich feathers, ribbons and flowers adorned brimmed hats of all shapes and sizes. Decorative parasols and gloves were used. Women wore long straight coats, sometimes with fur collars.






1910s - The silhouette was straight and simple from 1910 - 1915. Women were more comfortable with loosened corsets or none at all. Bustles disappeared. Ornamental hats remained. After 1915, hemlines rose slightly, revealing women's ankles. In the early 1910s hats were still large and lavish, but by the end of the decade, they shrank in size and were simpler. Feather or fur boas and muffs were in fashion. Gloves and pocketbooks were popular.




1920s - Hem lengths rose up and down during the 1920s but dresses overall were shapeless.

The dropped waist was popular.

Feathers and fringe commonly adorned dresses.

Women wore long necklaces. Tailored suits were cut in a straight shapeless style. Separates and casual sporting attire first made their appearance; women could purchase outfits for golfing or tennis, for example. Hats were small and fitted (the cloche style was popular), or large and floppy with an oversized brim.

Orientalism was seen in patterns and styles. Some dresses shared similarities to a kimono,




1930s - Waistlines rose and a more natural shape developed for dresses. Easy graceful lines, long slim cut for clothing. Short sleeves were popular. Hats were close to the head but worn tilted to one side. The beret became popular and the cloche hat continued to be worn. Gloves and pocketbooks were common accessories.

Furs were still in style. Hemlines were about mid-calf.

Housewives would wear light weight print dresses with aprons.




1940s - Dresses with cinched waists and a skirt that flared away from the body as it made its way to the knee. Fabric in bright colorful patterns were in style. Fashion accessories such as gloves, hats, and pocketbooks were still popular. Makeup was very popular in the 1940s and a red lip was common. Utilitarian clothing was introduced as women went into the workplace during WW2. Pants, usually with a high waist and wide leg were worn.

Workwear overalls and jeans created the 'Rosie the Riveter' look. Dresses had a masculine or militant look with sharp collar points, shoulder pads, and sometimes, a tailored jacket. Hemlines rose to knee length.


These fashion descriptors for each decade are a guide but not a hard rule. Keep in mind that using fashion alone to date a picture can be faulty. Many women wore clothes that were outdated simply because it was practical or money was tight. Casual at home wear was often outdated, especially in rural or impoverished areas. However, a good rule of thumb is to take note of new trends as a sure way to tell the earliest the photograph was taken. For example, women's hemlines rose just before 1920. If you see an ancestor in a photograph with a skirt that reveals her ankles, it isn't a photograph taken in 1890. And if you see a lady wearing pants in a photograph, it probably wasn't taken before 1920.


Next time, I'll give a break down of men's fashion through the years. I hope you'll join me as we continue to learn how to date vintage photographs!


#historypreservation #historydetective

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