Photo Detective: Weighty Accessory

Photo Detective: Weighty Accessory

How an oversize necklace provides a date for these portraits

When you first look at these two pictures, you are struck by the size of the necklaces worn by both young women. It’s hard to imagine that the weight of their accessories is comfortable or practical. The large links combined with the length of the necklace suggests a discomfort not apparent on their faces. In fact, these necklaces were not heavy and probably no more uncomfortable than most of women’s clothing in the 19th century.

Their choice of jewelry reflects that both women followed the fashion fads of the mid-1870s. Chains of large links of gold or jet beads worn looped around the neck, or dangling a cross or other ornament, appear in similar portraits from that time period. Jet is a polished black stone used to make buttons, toys and the necklaces in these pictures. The lower necklines of the 1870s also encouraged women to wear small black chokers around their neck combined with small brooches at the closure of their collar. While the sheer number of accessories may seem a bit overwhelming, these young women were actually conservatively attired.

How these two women chose to wear their hair reflects the variety of options open to fashionable women. The lady on the left wears her hair parted down the center and pulled away from her face. She appears to have a roll of hair on the crown of her head and her hair neatly pulled into chignon at the back of her head. During the mid-1870s, women who wore their hair pulled away from their faces often left hair hanging down their backs. This woman doesn’t appear to follow that prevalent style. Her choice of dangling earrings balances her severe hairstyle. The woman on the right seems to be younger based on her hair. Generally older women wore their hair up, whereas she left it pulled back from her face in a hair ribbon and let it fall loosely over her shoulders. Only a few wisps of bangs cover her forehead.

Unfortunately, the details of their dresses are obscured. It appears that the woman on the right has dropped shoulders on her dress, but that may be an illusion based on the quality of the pictures. Too bad more women didn’t pose for full-length portraits. If these two had, you would probably see a bustle and an overskirt.

These are copies of original photographs by a relative of the person who submitted them for identification. Nothing else is known about these portraits. There is no photographer’s imprint on the images and no family stories associated with them. Perhaps dating the two women in the mid-1870s, with ages in their late teens or early 20s, is enough of a clue to help family members give them a name.

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