Shortly after I began writing my now award winning book, Out-of-Style: A Modern Perspective of How, Why and When Vintage Fashions Evolved, I met the late Caroline Rober, past president of the Southern California Chapter of the Association of Professional Genealogists.
Caroline sent me a family picture to date for her. It showed two women wearing tailor-made suits with gently shaped jackets, ankle-length, A-line skirts and large brimmed hats. From these style clues I concluded the photo was taken between 1912 and 1914.
Here is how I came to that conclusion. Tailor-made suits (a.k.a., tailor-made costumes in England) first became popular in the 1880s. They continued in popularity to the 1920s in various proportions and silhouettes. By 1909, tailor-made suits outnumbered dresses in Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalogs.
Suits became mainstays in women’s wardrobes because different shirtwaist styles could change outfits from plain to dressy, as needed. Worn with or without their jackets, suits could span the seasons.
From 1900-1909, suit jackets which fitted over fashionable S-curve corsets, produced the S-curve silhouette (a.k.a., the pouter pigeon look). Shirtwaist blouses, which bloused over the tops of waistlines, are primary clues of those years.
After 1909, styles dramatically changed. Paul Poiret, a French designer, had revolutionized women’s fashions with a high-waisted, natural silhouette and a shorter skirt that showed the ankle: The distortion of corsets was now passé for women. Suits now had gently shaped mid-length jackets; skirts were A-line and shorter, showing the shoe and hats were larger.
Since suits could be worn for a long time and were expensive, an outfit could be quickly updated for the price of a new hat, so the best way to date suits in those years is to recognize the changing shapes of millinery, That is how I came to the conclusion that Caroline’s picture was taken sometime between 1912-1914.
Next, Caroline sent me another picture to date for her: This time it was a wonderful example of high-style vintage fashion. The woman in the picture was wearing a narrow-skirted gown with a short fitted jacket: long, upholstery fringe edged the draped apron overskirt which ended in drooping back bows over a mermaid train. Her hair was long in back, narrow at the sides, piled high on top with feathery bangs. This outfit and hairstyle could only have been worn between 1878 and 1883, but the woman thought to be in the picture had died in 1872. That meant the wrong ancestor was being traced, both disappointing and exciting news to a genealogist.
One of my favorite case histories came to me from a reader of my Ancestry Magazine columns. The picture showed three women, two standing and an older lady who was seated. I could tell by the erect, vertical sleeve caps that the picture was taken between 1888 and 1892 (probably 1890-1892, because the women in the picture were not avant garde fashion types).
After 1892, vertical sleeve caps lowered, widened and mutated into leg-o’mutton sleeves (developing into their most extreme proportion between 1895 and 1898).
I first saw the photo in question on my computer screen, but once printed out, I now saw that all three women were wearing first phase mourning crepe on their dresses. This meant that someone close to them had died that year.
The older woman, who was seated, was obviously the widow because her skirt was made with a broad band of mourning crepe across it, plus more on her bodice. The other women had dresses made with somewhat less mourning crepe on their sleeves, collars and skirts.
An entire industry had developed in England for heat crinkling dull black, silk gauze into a rough textured fabric (like exaggerated crepe paper). The European spelling was English Crape. This unexpected information provided an estimated date of death of the husband of the older woman sitting in the center of the picture.
OUT-OF-STYLE has over 700 of my own sequential illustrations which reveal the style clues that time-date clothes worn by men, women and children in the 19th through 21st centuries. Although it is filled with fascinating gems of social history, it can be used like an encyclopedia to match your photograph to a particular time frame.
Another version of this article first appeared in Family Chronicle Magazine and was later reprinted by permission of the author in the FGS Forum.
Illustrations excerpted from the book OUT-OF_STYLE: A Modern perspective of How, Why & When Vintage Fashions Evolved ©copyright 2013, Betty Kreisel Shubert which can be found on Amazon.com or by visiting www.OutOfStyleTheBook.com.