Puzzling over Black Dresses

By Maureen A. Taylor

Rebecca Foster wrote to me: Most of my elder family has passed away, so I am struggling to piece together my family history. I believe this is my third-great-grandmother Mary Ann Fagan.


Rebecca initially thought this could be her in 1860s mourning dress, but she’s right to doubt her initial assessment. This is an older woman. Mary Anne had a daughter in 1881, so an 1860s date is unlikely.

She wears a dark dress, but is it black? It’s possible the photographer colored only the chair and background, not the dress, making it appear the dress is black.

Photographic methods of the 19th century and early 20th century made many colors look black in photos.
This woman posed around 1900 to 1910. Wicker chairs with curled backs appear in photographs taken in the 1890s and into the first decade of the 20th century (and a bit beyond).

The dress has full sleeves and a pleated bodice. She could be wearing mourning clothes, but before making that determination, I’d like to learn more about Mary Anne and her family. I’ll email Rebecca and see what else she knows.

The rules for black mourning dress in the 1860s were set by Queen Victoria, and included black fabric without a sheen, black crape covering the face and a total lack of color. However, the rules for mourning varied based on the relationship to the deceased, and not every woman in a black dress is in mourning.

Other colors also were popular to show respect for the deceased. There are additional details in Finding the Civil War in Your Family Album.

Solve your family photo mysteries with these books by Maureen A. Taylor:

  • Family Photo Detective: Learn How to Find Genealogy Clues in Old Photos and Solve Family Photo Mysteries
  • Fashionable Folks: Bonnets and Hats 1840-1900
  • Preserving Your Family Photographs
  • Fashionable Folks: Hairstyles 1840-1900
  • Finding the Civil War in Your Family Album