I have a teenage daughter which means Iâ€™m all too aware of contemporary fashion trends–short skirts and camouflage prints. â€œI think you should change,â€ is commonly heard at my house followed by a strongly uttered, â€œBut MOM!â€
Since I study costume history I know that itâ€™s only a matter of time before the styles change. (Whew!) Just like my daughter, yesterdayâ€™s teenagers tried to look as fashionable as possible. The proof is in your family photo albums. What they wore reflected when those teens lived, their economic status, and their knowledge of fashion. The fatigue pants and camouflage prints worn by todayâ€™s teens are similar to trends in past generations like the military braid of the 1860s and the sailor suits of the World War I period.
A family photograph tells you many things such as what your ancestors looked like and who took their picture. However, some details are left to your imagination. Those gorgeous heritage photos show family dressed in their everyday clothes or Sunday best, but those black and white images seem incomplete. If youâ€™re at all interested in the styles of the times, you want to actually touch the fabric of those beautiful dresses and see the colors in your great-grandpaâ€™s checked coat. There are ways for you to understand the clothing trends followed by your relatives and get a feel for the past.
- Visit a museum. I watch area museums for costume exhibits and then mark my calendar. Dating photographs from the 1850s takes on a whole new meaning when you actually look at the clothing worn by these individuals. A recent exhibit of attire from that period at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston was so fascinating I returned again and again. It enabled me to see in 3-D and in brilliant color the styles worn by my pre-Civil War ancestors. While I couldnâ€™t touch the fabrics, gazing at them was great! A new directory of â€œClothing and Textile Collections in the United States,â€ by Sally Queen and Vicki L. Berger (Texas Tech University Press, 2006) lets you find costume collections in your area.
- Touch the Past. There actually are ways to feel the cloth in our ancestorâ€™s closets. Sally Queen and Associates publishes limited edition spiral bound books that describe historic fashions and contain swatches of popular fabrics. Once you buy the book you can touch the samples as much as you like. My new favorite is â€œfigured silk.â€ According to Diane L. Fagan Affleck and Karen J. Herbaughâ€™s â€œTextiles for Victorian and Edwardian Clothing: 1880-1920â€ (Sally Queen and Associates, 2004) this patterned brocade swatch was used for evening gowns and wedding dresses. To find out what this looked like made into a dress, I can go to my public library and look at fashion plates in the January 1883 â€œPetersonâ€™s Magazineâ€ as referenced in Affleck and Herbaughâ€™s book. A resource section refers you to period references for further research as well as present-day fabric outlets that carry the cloth.Â
- Look at a magazine or book. My teen glances at â€œTeen Vogueâ€ to see new trends, but past generations studied the color plates in historical magazines and pattern books. Dover Publicationsâ€™ series on nineteenth and early twentieth century fashions reprint plates from those sources. Take a peek. You might discover your great-grandmother made the dress your grandmother wore for her childhood photo using a Butterick pattern.
Studying the clothing worn by our ancestors is another way to look at family history. A picture of your teenage great-grandmother proudly posed in her muslin graduation dress becomes even more special once youâ€™ve learned more about the fabrics of her life. Your teen might discover she has a lot more in common with her distant relatives than she ever thought possible–a sense of fashion.
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Maureen Taylor loves writing about photography and family history. You can reach her through her website. She is also the author of Uncovering Your Ancestry Through Family Photographs, which is on sale until Wednesday in the Ancestry Store.