Basics of Historic Fashion

By Maureen A. Taylor Premium

When we think of milestones in US history, the Revolutionary War, Civil War and civil rights movement immediately come to mind. Knowing the details of events like these puts your ancestors into historical context. But turning points in American fashion history—for instance, the first riveted blue jeans (1873), sunglasses (1885) and nylon stockings (1940)—matter, too. Match them with clothing and accessories in old photos, and you can identify those mystery faces.

Fashion constantly evolves, and our photographs reflect the changing styles. By examining the clothing clues in your unidentified images, you can narrow their time frames to just a few years, and determine which relatives peer back at you. Even a single accessory could tell you whether you’re looking at your great-grandmother or your great-great-grandmother.

For example, during the 1840s, women wore daycaps, bonnets made of starched white cotton, for everyday and special occasions. By the 1850s, this headgear had fallen out of fashion, though elderly women continued to wear them for several more decades. If you have a picture of a relative wearing one of these hats in her youth, the image likely dates back to the 1840s. (Of course, you’ll have to examine other clothing clues to be certain.) Once you’ve narrowed the photo’s time frame, you can examine your genealogical records to determine whether your female ancestors’ ages at that time match the age of the picture’s subject. With luck, you’ll find a match.

You don’t have to be a fashion maven to spot clothing clues in photographs. Just follow these identification tips and our 19th-century trend timelines, and you’ll be putting names to those mystery faces in no time.

Begin by enlarging segments of an unidentified picture with a magnifying glass or by scanning it. Examine every detail of the subject’s outfit. Look at the shape of a woman’s bodice, neckline, sleeves and skirt—and don’t forget accessories and hairstyle. Pay attention to a man’s coat shape, trouser width, necktie style, hairstyle and accessories. Any of these details could clue you in to when the photo was taken. Of course, shoe styles have changed, too, but they’re usually difficult to distinguish in old photos.

Most family portraits show relatives dressed in their “best.” In the 19th century, popular magazines such as Godey’s Lady’s Book advised women what to wear. But if your ancestor lacked the latest accessory, some studios kept shawls, pins and hats on hand for patrons to borrow. After all, a happy customer meant repeat business and referrals.

Our ancestors’ economic circumstances did influence their clothing choices, but style variations usually aren’t significant. Women who lacked financial resources or lived in rural areas still followed fashion trends, and remade dresses or added a few accessories to fit the current styles.

You’ll probably find style variations in portraits of recent immigrants or ancestors living in foreign countries, though. These variations actually could simplify the photo-identification process. For instance, a headdress worn for a wedding photo could tell you whether the image comes from your Russian mother’s side or your Polish father’s side of the family.

Dating a photograph through costume requires some knowledge of fashion history. We’ve identified key components of 19th-century fashion since the advent of photography, decade by decade, so you can start solving your picture puzzles now.