Photo Detective: Vintage to Vogue

By Maureen A. Taylor Premium

For years, my mother has said that if you wait long enough, an older style will come back in vogue. Now that my daughter chooses to wear 1960s styles, I believe her. This is one challenge of trying to interpret clothing in photographs. Styles not only resurface, but they also evolve in both subtle and dramatic ways from year to year. Two particularly troublesome decades are the 1870s and 1880s, which actually encompassed five distinctive fashion periods. You can still date late 19th-century photographs, though, by following these steps.

Get the facts.
Before and after examining clothing clues, it’s important to review the photo’s facts—that is, what you know about the picture from the photographer’s imprint, photographic method, caption and oral history. All this data provides you with a time frame for the picture.

Pay attention to details.
To date clothing, you must examine all the elements of a person’s attire, such as the neckline, collar, sleeves, skirt, trim and accessories. Here are a few key features of 1870s and 1880s fashion:

1869 to 1875

  • bustles
  • overskirts worn with a jacketlike bodice pulled over the hips
  • ruffles and pleats
  • long, flowing hair worn off the face
  • open-necked dresses highlighted by neck scarves
  • black neck ribbons with a charm or brooch attached

1876 to 1878

  • tight, long-waisted bodices buttoned up the front
  • longer overskirts, falling at the calf or lower
  • closed necklines with high-neck collars and trim
  • heavy-looking jewelry, especially long earrings and chains
  • false hair worn on top of the head

1879 to 1882

  • tight dresses with pleated trim and wide collars
  • bodices that button up the front
  • slight puffs of fabric at the hips (reminiscent of 18th-century panniers that greatly accented the hip)
  • some shirring in the skirt
  • dresses with a mix of fabrics and patterns
  • overskirts in a variety of sizes and shapes
  • hairstyles with curls worn flat on the forehead and the rest of the hair pulled tight to the head

1883 to 1888

  • dresses consisting of a skirt, overskirt and front-fastening bodice worn hip length
  • overskirts draped asymmetrically, often featuring a point in the front
  • a return of the bustle, which achieves its fullest form in this period
  • tight sleeves and high necklines accenting pleated skirts.
  • various fabric patterns within the same outfit
  • humorous jewelry, fans and parasols

1889 to 1892

  • narrow skirts, which are difficult to walk in
  • bodices with high collars
  • tight sleeves with small puffed shoulders
  • jewelry kept to a minimum, except for small pins

Compare the clues.
Developing an eye for costume details takes time and patience—especially if you’re not used to looking for them. If you’re not sure about the costume’s date, try comparing it to attire in books such as Dressed for the Photographer by Joan Severa (Kent State University Press, $60), Victorian Costume for Ladies, 1860-1900 by Linda Setnick (Schiffer, $29.95) or Dating Old Photographs, 1840-1929 edited by Halvor Moorshead (Family Chronicle, $12).

The complicated 1870s and 1880s costume changes require patience to decipher. But with a little effort, you’ll narrow your pictures’ time frames to within a few years. Look for more information on using costume clues to date family photographs in the August 2004 Family Tree Magazine.
Want more help with your mystery photos? See Maureen A. Taylor’s guide to photo research, Uncovering Your Ancestry Through Family Photographs, 2nd edition, available now from Family Tree Shop