Photo Detective: Men’s Clothing

By Maureen A. Taylor Premium

Only a small percentage of the photographs submitted to this column for identification purposes are of men. Is it possible that more of our male ancestral photographs are identified or did fewer men have their picture taken?

Whatever the reason, assigning a date to a male portrait presents particular challenges. In the absence of a photographer’s imprint or family story, it is necessary to rely on costume details. Even when other evidence such as a photographer’s imprint provides a broad range of dates, using clothing details can help you arrive at a more specific date. When compared to the subtle differences in men’s clothing, women’s fashion changes seem dramatic. Dating a portrait relying on men’s clothing requires an observant eye and consultation with a costume encyclopedia. Let’s compare two images as an example.

Unidentified Boston gentleman 

This photograph from Ruth Robertson is unidentified, but a photographer’s imprint provides a range of 1879-1899. In the second image of Levi Wilder from Mimi Malcolm, family tradition identified him by name, but with no date for the image. A comparison of these two images highlights the process of dating these images through costume clues. In these two photographs, the basic costume included pants, jacket, vest, shirt and tie.

A good place to start is with hairstyles since men’s hair became more formal as the century progressed. In the photograph believed to be Levi Wilder (1809-1888) his hair and beard place the image in the 1850s, just as the unidentified man’s neatly combed hair and meticulously groomed mustache reflect the style of the late 1880s.

Levi B. Wilder

Men’s jackets of the late 1850s consisted of loose sack coats, not the fitted fashion of later in the century. The shape of the lapels—from broad with rounded edges on Levi Wilder’s to the other man’s angular ones—also helps place the image within a historical context. Vests usually followed the form of the jacket. In these cases, the earlier image shows the man wearing a loose, double-breasted vest with rounded lapels, while in the other photograph the vest is barely visible under the form-fitting jacket. What isn’t apparent is the vest’s snug fit and lapels that match the jacket.

Shirts and ties also provide clues to the time period. Look at the differences between the loosely tied solid black bow in the first image and the patterned necktie in the second picture that resembles what men wear today. The shape, color and way a necktie is worn can date a photograph. Be sure to pay attention to the position of the shirt collar. For the decades in which ties are similar, you may date the image by whether the collar is worn up or down over the tie.

Other factors include the shape of a suit’s pant leg and even the type of shoe. In order to help you date an image based on men’s clothing, consult a good resource like John Peacock’s Men’s Fashion: The Complete Sourcebook (Thames and Hudson, $29.95). It features color illustrations of clothing, hairstyles and accessories.

Find out how to submit your own picture for possible analysis by Maureen Taylor.

Solve your family photo mysteries with these books by Maureen A. Taylor:

  • Preserving Your Family Photographs
  • Fashionable Folks: Hairstyles 1840-1900
  • Finding the Civil War in Your Family Album

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