The Fabric of Our Lives, by Maureen Taylor

dresses in trunk2.bmpI have a teenage daughter which means I’m all too aware of contemporary fashion trends–short skirts and camouflage prints. “I think you should change,” is commonly heard at my house followed by a strongly uttered, “But MOM!”

Since I study costume history I know that it’s only a matter of time before the styles change. (Whew!) Just like my daughter, yesterday’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 today’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 you’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-grandpa’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 couldn’t touch the fabrics, gazing at them was great! A new directory of “Clothing and Textile Collections in the United States,” 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 ancestor’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 “figured silk.” According to Diane L. Fagan Affleck and Karen J. Herbaugh’s “Textiles for Victorian and Edwardian Clothing: 1880-1920” (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 “Peterson’s Magazine” as referenced in Affleck and Herbaugh’s book. A resource section refers you to period references for further research as well as present-day fabric outlets that carry the cloth. 
  • Look at a magazine or book. My teen glances at “Teen Vogue” to see new trends, but past generations studied the color plates in historical magazines and pattern books. Dover Publications’ 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 you’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.

Click here for a printer friendly version of this article.

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.

5 thoughts on “The Fabric of Our Lives, by Maureen Taylor

  1. Pingback: Wedding dresses

  2. In addition to Maureen’s book, one of the best resources for dating clothes in photos is
    Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans and Fashion, 1840-1900, by Joan L. Severa, pub. by Kent State University Press, 1995 (and 1997), hardbound.
    Don’t know if it’s still in print, but the 1997 edition is listed on, new for $39.60.

    To get an idea of what clothes children wore in the past, photographs and descriptions of the Wisconsin Historical Society Museum’s children’s clothing collection are online at

    Dee Anna Grimsrud,
    Reference Archivist
    Wisconsin Historical Society

  3. I enjoyed this article as my business is reproducing historical clothing mostly of the 1800’s and accessories. I deal with other time periods as far back as rennissance on occsion as well. A great book for dating fabrics si “Dating Fabrics a Color Guide 1800-1960by Eileen Jahnke Trestain” It helps me when looking for fabric today that is similar to that of a particular time period I am attempting to recreate. It also helps to date photos when I am looking to find designs in clothing to duplicate for reenactors.

    This then overlaps into my genealogy research. Knowledge is a wonderful thing!

  4. An elderly jewish friend of mine showed me an old family photograph of his family. He pointed out that the photographer had taken the picture in 2 sections. The reason for this was that his family did not have enough good clothes. So half the family dressed in their best clothes and posed for their picture. Then the second half of the family put on the same clothes and posed for the second picture. The photographer merged the two pictures together for one family group picture. Close examination showed two sets of people wearing the same dresses and suits.

  5. A few years ago my darling teenage granddaughter wrote to the cotton council when they came out with an ad campaign and I have treasured the piece and have it framed. The Fabric of my Life: The warmest place in the world is my grandparents home. In the back of the house is a room which is small and crowded with crates and closets full of colorful yards of fabric. As I sort through the reds, yellows, greens, and purples, I find old swatches of cloth left overfrom some of my favorite summertime dresses as a child. Someday my grandchildren will walk curiously through the same door and find an age old rainbow of colorful hand-me-downs. Shawna Marie Svacina

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.