Photo Detective: Aging Well
5/13/2011

I've spent a lot of time this month cleaning out every nook and cranny in my house. All this tossing of goods made me think about the clothes people hang onto as they age. Dating a photograph of an older person presents a unique dilemma: Is the subject wearing contemporary fashion or an older style? Look in your own closet—are you so fond of a dress or a tie, you've forgotten how many years it's been part of your wardrobe? I'll confess that's true about a couple of outfits I just gave away.

These two photos, which Marcia Snyder sent, pose similar questions. In the first, Electa Hudson (1828-1922) poses with her three sons. Albert (born in 1855) is at the top left, John Walter (born in 1862) is in the center back and George (born in 1856) is on the right. Snyder thinks the second photo shows Electa standing between one of her sons and an unknown man. Snyder hopes to date both photos, identify the son and figure out the name of the older man.

Let's start with her clothing. In the first photo, Electa's dress features a long skirt, pleated bodice in a contrasting fabric, neck scarf and slightly full upper sleeves. Very full upper sleeves were all the rage from about 1893 to 1898, but Electa's puffy sleeves are a toned-down version of the leg o'mutton sleeves younger women wore.

Electa's sons wear a variety of styles. On the left, Albert likes narrow ties under the collar, while his brother John Walter wears vests and bow ties. It's difficult to see George's shirt and tie, but he's the only one with a full-crowned bowler hat. None of the boys are dressed in 1890s men's styles, which dictated wide silk ties and upturned collars. I'd date this photo to the mid-1890s, when Electa was around 70 years old.

The distinctive fashion sense of the sons in the first photo provides a clue to the identity of the son in the second one. George liked to wear three-piece suits like the one in the second photo, accessorized with a hat. His hairline, light hair color, ears, nose and mustache are similar in both photos.

In the second photo, George's clothes—high starched collar, tie and suit style-date the image to about 1918. Around that time, women wore loose dresses with long bodices and shorter skirts. This woman wears a dress from about 1900. Elderly women, preferring their older clothes, often didn't follow the latest fashions.

The problem with the second photo is it might not be Electa. Compare the height, build and hair of the women in these photos. Electa is slender with wavy hair, a long waistline and a small bust. The woman in the second photo is heavier set and short-waisted, with straight hair. Now instead of trying to figure the man's name, Snyder has to assign an identity to the woman as well. Since she bears some facial characteristics similar to Electa's, it's possible she's a sister.

Two steps will help Snyder establish an identity and location for the photo -comparing this picture to images of Electa's sisters and establishing whether George ever visited them.

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