Photo Detective: The Height of Fashion

Photo Detective: The Height of Fashion

Tips to help this fashionable young lady's modern family find out who she is.

Why is it that some of the most stunning family photographs end up unidentified? These images are obviously important to the family they once belonged to. In fact, their unidentified status may mean that everyone knew who was in the photograph and didn’t take the time to write on the back.

Wendy McCullough received this photograph after her grandmother’s death along with other identified pictures. It’s a portrait of a beautiful young woman and Wendy is hoping there are clues in the picture that help identify it. She knows it is not a portrait of her grandmother Phyllis Hall (born in 1904) because she has other pictures of her. Wendy thinks it must be a picture of someone from the Hall, Finnie or Moncrief families from Peterborough County, Ontario, Canada.

The woman wears a very fashionable dress that dates between 1900 and 1905. The detailing, fabric and style suggest that this is couture fashion, worn by only prominent families. In the early 20th century, women’s clothing fell into several categories: everyday, activewear, evening dress and wedding clothes. The choice of fabrics and styles varied depending on economic status with major design details such as the shape of bodice or skirt constant regardless of who made the outfit so that anyone could be seen as “stylish.”

This dress consists of a lace collar (which could be replaced instead of washing the entire outfit each time it was worn), the dress and white gloves. When women went out, they often wore white gloves every day as a sign of their station in life. Obviously, gloves would be impractical for working women, but they were considered an essential part of a ladies outfit. The lace-and-satin or silk trim on the dress suggest a special occasion, but evening dresses typically featured a bare neckline. The woman in the photograph could be in her late teens or early 20s, posing for either a graduation or debutante photo. It is too formal for everyday wear, but not daring enough for an evening ball. It also doesn’t resemble any of the wedding fashions of the period. During this timeframe, 1900-1906, women wore their hair full on the top of their head. This young woman would have worn a large crowned and brimmed hat to finish her outfit.

Wendy McCullough posted information and photographs of the Moncrief and Finnie families on her family Web site. Two women fit the time frame of this image—one each from the Moncrief and Finnie families. If the photograph was taken 1900-1905 and the woman in the picture is approximately 20 years old, then she was born between 1880 and 1885. If she is older than I estimated, she could be Mabel Love Moncrief (born in 1888). The other suspect is Edna Ruth Hinckley (born in 1885) who married into the Finne family. There are other possibilities in the Hall family tree. There may also be additional documentation in Wendy’s genealogical research that helps pinpoint an occasion for the portrait.

This particular picture puzzle could be solved by another member of the Hall, Moncriefe or Finnie families. Wendy invites everyone to take a look at her home page and help her identify the rest of her unidentified pictures. If you solve this mystery, don’t forget to e-mail me. Readers of this column love to hear about photo success stories.

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