Clothes Encounters

Clothes Encounters

Size up these books for a peek at what your ancestors wore.

1. Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans and Fashion, 1840-1900 by Joan Severa (Kent State University Press). Divided by decades, Dressed for the Photographer uses photos and writings from each period to show how even economically disadvantaged Americans could wear styles within a year or so of current fashion. This book is especially helpful if you’re trying to date an ancestor’s photograph. By comparing the clothing and hairstyles, you can pinpoint the time period in which the picture was taken. Each of the 272 photos has a detailed description, such as: “The child is posed in summer dress style worn around the turn of the decade [1870s]: one-piece, with bodice and skirt gathered into a yoke and waistband…. The Alice in Wonderland look of this hairstyle is created by tying back the hair and holding it off the high forehead with long, curved combs, then tying a pastel ribbon in a wide bow at the back of the crown.” This book is well worth the expense if you have a lot of photographs to date.

 

2. Everyday Dress of Rural America, 1783-1800 with Instructions and Patterns by Merideth Wright (Dover Publications). Whether you’re interested in learning how your Colonial-era ancestors dressed or how to make authentic period costumes, Everyday Dress of Rural America is the book for you. The garments illustrated and discussed here include clothing both the settlers and the Abenaki Indians of New England wore. You’ll find full descriptions and scaled patterns with specific instructions for women’s outfits (shift, petticoat, skirt, gown, neckerchief, apron and headgear) and for men’s (shirt, cravat, breeches, breech-cloth, waistcoat, coat, frock and headgear).

3. The History of Underclothes by C. Willett and Phillis Cunnington (Dover Publications). This well-documented and heavily illustrated book offers an entertaining and sometimes humorous I look at the undergarments the English wore over the past 600 years, from the Middle Ages to the eve of World War II. The descriptions and terminology will be especially useful to family historians who find estate inventories for their English or American ancestors that list clothing items. What the heck was “a pair of bodies”? (It was an under bodice, “stiffened with busks of wood and whalebone inserted into casings in the ‘bodies,’ and tied there by ‘busk points’” — in other words, a type of corset.) Learn about types of drawers, waistcoats, nightclothes, bustles, chemises, petticoats, camisoles and, yes, even bust improvers our ancestors wore.

4. The Well Dressed Child: Children’s Clothing, 1820-1940 by Anna MacPhail (Schiffer Publishing). Discover what your ancestors wore as children growing up from the Victorian era to the first half of the 20th century. Just as men’s and women’s fashions changed over the decades, so did that of infants and children. In the 1880s, tartans and plaids were popular; by the next decade, velvet Little Lord Fauntleroy suits were in vogue for young boys, and sailor suits became as much a staple of girls’ fashion as boys’. This book is illustrated with color and period photographs of children’s clothing. Chapters cover The Layette, The Christening, Baby Girls and Boys, Young Girls, Young Boys, Bonnets and Bibs, and Footwear and Accessories.

From the October 2002 issue of Family Tree Magazine

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