I can’t resist the pull of a period piece be it a television series or a movie, so it’s no surprise that last night I sat down to watch the first episode of Season 3 of PBS’ “Downton Abbey.” There were a lot of moments relevant to both family history and photography.
The 1920s were a time of transition. Women’s hairstyles changed and dresses became less form-fitting. Compare the styles worn by the Dowager Countess of Grantham and the attire of the American Martha Levinson for instance. You can view their attire on the PBS Character Hub.
The Dowager Countess is conservative and clings to tradition. Her dress and hair support that; she wears dresses from the early 20th century and her hair pulled back. The hourglass figure is the shape attained with corsets and fitted dresses.
Martha Levinson is all about being modern. She dresses like a contemporary woman of 1920 with her waved colored hair and shorter, loose dresses. The opening sequence of her appearance says it all. She steps out to greet the staff in a wide-collared brocade coat and a rakish hat with a plume.
If these women were members of your family and you had a photo of them taken individually against a simple background, then dating the photo based on the Countess’ clothing could be misleading. Her appearance suggests a date earlier than 1920.
Both women’s fashion choices also reveal their personalities. I’ll be watching to see if the Dowager Countess changes her style as the series progresses or if she remains tied to her long dresses.
Personally, I love checking out their hats—wide-brimmed summer hats for the wedding of Matthew and Mary, as well as the everyday ones worn by staff and family. You can learn more about women’s hats in Fashionable Folks: Bonnets and Hats 1840-1900. I’ve included several English photos of women “in the service.” It’s a reference to their occupation of working for families.
Photo identification and dating an image relies on information. What a person wears is helpful, but not the whole story. Pictorial context is important–where was it taken, who took the image and what else is visible. Adding up the clues can solve the mystery, date the image and identify the person.
Solve your family photo mysteries with these books by Maureen A. Taylor: