Earlier this year, we introduced a series on our blog featuring the expertise of Betty Shubert, historical fashion expert and author of Out of Style to help time date old family photographs based on our ancestor’s fashion choices and clothing trends of their time.
You can see Betty’s first post which gives an overview of fashion trends in the 1800s-1900s, and this post where she helped fill in some rich details of different community members’ ancestors. Being able to determine the approximate date and time of photographs may confirm existing research or lead you to discover new ancestors in your family tree. It’s also a fun way to get a sense of what their personality was like, especially for those with more fashion forward ancestors.
Betty has selected a handful of beautiful photos submitted by our community members and has provided her insights below to help color in the story of their ancestors. Enjoy!
I would date this picture about 1914 because of the huge circumference of the hat. At that time, hats had grown from about 18 inches in diameter in 1906 to 20 -22 inches wide in 1912 -1914. One thing to note, when fashions reach their most extreme they usually change dramatically to the exact opposite. This brought smaller hats worn from 1914 to the end of the decade, at which time we saw the first appearance of low-crowned, bell-shaped cloche hats of the 1920s (In French , the word “cloche” means “bell”).
Girls’ clothes reflected what their mothers were wearing. In 1866, triangular shaped hoops had replaced the bird-cage shaped hoop skirts of the Civil War Era. For little girls, long pantaloons were out of style, replaced by loose drawers which showed an inch or so under their skirts. This A-line shaped dress, smooth across the stomach, emphasized by ruffles at the hem, reflects the shape of some of the pre-bustled dresses from 1865 to 1870. So, that is when I think this photo was taken.
The key style clue here are her fancy pleated sleeve cuffs. In the mid 1870s to early 1880s, there was an emphasis on creatively designed cuffs that covered the mid-arm to the wrist. This, combined with long, plain, tailored jackets & narrower skirts, is the key look of the era. Necklines were high & filled with frills or jabots to soften the look. Her hair is surprisingly plain for such a fashionable outfit, leading me to guess that this photo was taken about 1875-1877, before plain, center-parted hair was replaced in the late 1870s by hair that was fluffy on top with feathery bangs. (See illustrations of these style clues on pages 142-145 in my book, OUT- Of –STYLE).
This is a very interesting picture of six young guys all dressed alike. They differ only in the quality of their tailoring or stylish appearance. It is easy to date this picture as 1880 to 1890 because they are all wearing 4 button coats with only the top button closed, revealing high vests & dangling watch chains. Hats are low-crowned, soft felts, worn rakishly as if making a joke of being dressed up. In those years, young men had short hair & were mostly clean-shaven. Beards were more commonly worn by authority figures. Their pants do not yet have sharp creases & cuffs, which did not appear until 1887 but was still not widely adopted until later. The fellow at the top left, wears a bandana instead of a dress shirt & tie. The fellow at the top center, wears a work shirt. The two sitting gentlemen on the left, appear to be better dressed & more professional types. So, I think this picture was taken before 1887. (Illustrations of this look are on Pages 180- 181 of my book, OUT-OF-STYLE).
Also, all the men’s coats are buttoned right over left. Men’s clothes always button left over right. Often when you see this aberration, the picture is a tin type which was flipped when it was reprinted.
I would guess this picture was taken in Europe. They are wearing boots and low-crowned bowler hats. The fellow on the left, wears arm garters & suspenders. With this grab-bag look, they do not seem to be dressed like Americans. Immigrants to America who chose to be photographed, usually waited until they could afford new clothes so they could send pictures back home to proudly show they were now, real Americans. These fellows do not appear to be taking a formal portrait. But wherever they were, I think it was taken in the 1880s.
Mary Minnie (Left)
Mary Minnie was photographed in mid to late 1890s. The extreme size of her Leg O’ Mutton sleeve caps and her plain, pulled back hairstyle with a small coil, bun, or knot on top of her head, softened by short, curly forehead bangs, date this picture. A contemporary writer described this look as, “A small head between two large melons.”
Mary Minnie (Right)
It is difficult to date hats of the 1890s because vintage photos show women wearing various shapes all through the decade. It is more accurate to time-date this era by the size and shape of sleeve caps (see pages 158 – 159 of my book, OUT-OF-STYLE). I date this photo as late 1890s because Mary Minnie’s sleeve caps are starting to deflate and her hair is beginning to widen as the influence of artist Charles Dana Gibson is widely copied. His beautiful Gibson Girls with their pompadour hairdos, became role models influencing fashion of late 1890 until well into the next century. Mary Minnie’s flat, small brimmed hat with vertical trim was typical of the late 1990s, however her vertical trim is unusually tall & exaggerated. This seems out of character for her low profile, conservative looking face & demeanor. Could she have been a secret non-conformist with a hidden sense of humor?
Want help dating your old family photographs? Betty Shubert is a historical fashion expert and the author of Out of Style. She is offering to help a handful of community members date their historical family photographs. Email your old family photographs, along with any information you have about the photo and the person(s) in it to firstname.lastname@example.org. Your photograph may be selected to be featured in one of Betty’s future blog posts.