Using fashion for dating old photos?
December 5, 2018 8:39 AM   Subscribe

I have a two part question about using fashion to help date photographs.

The first part is about the ballpark date of a specific photo, the second about available reference sources for getting better at this myself:

1. I am trying to identify the subjects of this cabinet card portrait. A relative that I am in touch with believes the life dates of the mother and child to be 1813-1858 and 1840-1911. For several reasons, I think it may actually be another set of her relatives, whose life dates are 1865-1952 and 1905-1976.

The key reasons are that the studio whose card the portrait is mounted on appears very likely to have been in operation c. 1896-1913, and that the image does not look to be the product of any of the methods of copying older formats (e.g. tintypes, daguerreotypes) available in that era. I may be wrong, however. In both cases, they are Americans and living in Washington, D.C. when the portrait was taken.

So, the first question: What does their clothing tell us about the likely date of this photo? Please note, I'm looking only for input from those with a well-informed background in fashion history.

2. Second question: What reference sources - print or online - are available to help me do this kind of research myself? I am particularly interested in those that focus on American fashion in the 19th century and the early decades of the 20th.
posted by ryanshepard to Society & Culture (23 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
 
So if I understand your question, and guessing the child's age to be 10 or under, you're trying to pin down if this picture was taken around 1850ish or 1915ish?
posted by BlahLaLa at 8:53 AM on December 5


I think this photograph is much more likely to have been taken in the 1840/50s rather than the 1880s. I can't tell based on the little boy's clothing. However, the mother's hairstyle is more fashionable for the 1840s rather than the 1880s -- particularly the covered ears. Her dress has that wide shallow neckline and sloping shoulders. I can't tell if she's in an evening dress, but the 1840s were the last gasp of showing that much decolletage in the day. (She might normally have worn a shawl or kerchief).

If this photo was taken in the 1880s I would expect her to have a more tailored, set-in sleeve type, and for her to have high-piled curly hair, perhaps with bangs. See this link of 1880s hairstyles.

See this 1840s fashion page? You have the spaniel hair covering the ears, floating down rather than piled up high. And you have that same wide neckline. This may also be an 1850s photograph, of course, since there wasn't that much change particularly in the early years.
posted by Hypatia at 9:12 AM on December 5 [9 favorites]


One thing you should note is that fashion histories are showing the newest styles from any given period. Most regular folks would have kept their clothing for sometimes decades after the fashion changed. Your best bet is to look at photographs of similar demographixs (income, location) with known dates to pin it down with more accuracy.
posted by ananci at 9:13 AM on December 5 [5 favorites]


The Fashion Institute of Technology has a timeline (1840s here). The stuff up at the top is very general, but there are a lot more detailed resources at the bottom if you use the drop-down buttons.

I estimate that the portrait must have been taken either in the mid-late forties (given the age of the child and the lifetime of the mother) or in about 1909 (same reasons).

I can't date the photo down to the year (although given that people made over and kept clothes a lot longer in the 19th century that might be extra tricky anyway). But hair I know pretty well, and I just don't think that's a 1909 hairstyle, while it's classic for the early-mid 19th century - center part and ringlets. People are funny and I wouldn't swear on the bible, but around 1909 I would expect most women to wear their hair up in a sort of puffy style, away from the face, and I would not expect ringlets.

To me the relatively high rise of the corset and the abundance of lace also argue for the 1840s, as do the pearls in the hair.
posted by Frowner at 9:15 AM on December 5 [1 favorite]


I have no formal training, my knowledge comes from doing years of research in an effort to have to do a historically accurate representation as a reenactor and teacher. I've studied a lot of images from the Victorian Era, a lot of fashion magazines from the time, and a lot of the clothes that remain in collections around the world, even a few in person.


The dress the woman is wearing places this picture firmly in the middle of the 1800s. Without being able to see the sleeves better I can't really give you a closer date than most likely 1850s. The wide lace on the cuff and the way the waist is darted all scream that time. The braids she's wearing were also very popular around that time, even Queen Victoria wore them then. By the end of the 1800s women's hairstyles had moved to the top of their head, not low like this one.

By the early 20th century women's clothes looked very different. Smaller skirts, bigger hair, large hats, small cuffs.

The little boy's outfit could have fit pretty much anywhere in the Victorian Era, but his mom's dress puts this picture firmly at the beginning of that reign.
posted by TooFewShoes at 9:15 AM on December 5


Am I nuts? That's a mantilla, right?

Looks a good bit like the lady on the right here: https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e0-d1e8-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99
posted by praemunire at 9:17 AM on December 5


As you point out, the Clinedinst Studio was only opened in the early 20th century. So this was either a 20th century reproduction of an old photograph, or the original photograph dates from the early 20th century.

As BlahLaLa suggests, let's assume the child is around 10 years old at the time of the original photograph.

If the original picture was taken in the 19th century, that would put it at 1850 and the woman would have been 37 years old. If the original picture was taken in the 20th century, that would put it at 1915 and the woman would have been 50 years old. To my eye, she seems closer to 37 than 50, so I'm betting that this is the older generation of relatives and that what we're looking at is an early 20th century reproduction by Clinedinst Studio of a mid-19th century photograph.
posted by slkinsey at 9:30 AM on December 5 [2 favorites]


Dressed for the Photographer isn't cheap to buy, but lots of academic libraries should have in their collections.
posted by gyusan at 9:41 AM on December 5


If the original picture was taken in the 20th century, that would put it at 1915 and the woman would have been 50 years old.

Clinedinst appears, based on city directory listings and ads in DC papers, to have been in operation from about 1896 to 1913. If, as I've thought, the mother in the photo lived from 1865-1952, she could have sat for a portrait there at as young as age 31.
posted by ryanshepard at 9:44 AM on December 5


But if that's her child, who was born in 1905, wouldn't the portrait have to be taken some years after 1905? It's hard to tell the exact age of the child in the photo, but he can't possibly be younger than four - so the photo would have had to be taken later than 1909. If we assume a 1910 photo, the mother is 45 - not impossible if she's retained her youth.

Why is she wearing the clothing and hairstyle of the 1840s, though? Was she of a social class which would have dressed up in grandmother's clothing for an amusing portrait?

Could the photo studio have mounted the photo to preserve it at the request of the family? So the photo itself is from the 1840s but the backing is newer?
posted by Frowner at 9:57 AM on December 5 [1 favorite]


This is a copy of an early photo.
The photo itself is typical 1890-1900 but the image looks 1840-1860.
posted by beccaj at 10:06 AM on December 5 [3 favorites]


I’ve only seen boys pictured with hats like that in earlier date range
posted by delezzo at 10:15 AM on December 5


Yeah, I think it's a copy of an older photo also. I'm not a clothing expert but have done extensive research on antebellum Americans and this photo looks like those I've seen of that period
posted by mareli at 10:19 AM on December 5 [2 favorites]


If we assume a 1910 photo, the mother is 45 - not impossible if she's retained her youth.

Age is a bit tricky though because of general norms for retouching in studio portrait photography then and now; her skin is far too smooth and unblemished to be representative of actual-her.
posted by tapir-whorf at 10:24 AM on December 5 [1 favorite]


I wish my mother was still alive as she was an expert on antique photographs. This is based on what I picked up being around her and her specialist shop.

That looks more like a carte de visite than a cabinet. What size is it?
Looks like a sloppy contact copy from an ambrotype to me, based on the hairs and dust and the vignette on the original. That would put the original in the 1850s. The copy could have been made any time from the 1860s to 1910 or so.
posted by w0mbat at 10:47 AM on December 5 [1 favorite]


That looks more like a carte de visite than a cabinet. What size is it?

It's a cabinet - about 4.5 x 6.5".

Looks like a sloppy contact copy from an ambrotype to me, based on the hairs and dust and the vignette on the original.

This is helpful - thanks. Also, I would love to have had a chance to chat with your mom!
posted by ryanshepard at 11:15 AM on December 5


If, as I've thought, the mother in the photo lived from 1865-1952, she could have sat for a portrait there at as young as age 31.

Which would put the original photo at 1896 and that is not 1896 hair. By 1890, the Gibson was the current hairstyle, while the woman in the photo is showing an absolutely typical 1840 - 1860 hairstyle: chignons with locks falling at either side of the face.
posted by DarlingBri at 12:08 PM on December 5


I'm not an expert, but I've done a fair amount of research on this stuff. Nothing about this looks to me like an early 1900s portrait. I'd say late 1840s to early 1860s.

The woman's off-the shoulder dress with pleated bodice, her center-parted (and very slicked-down) hair with ringlets, the small handbag in her lap, plus the child's military-style jacket and cap are all very 1840s-50s, and possibly 1860s.

The style of the portrait, with the subjects very much the focus and no background details, is also of that era.

This looks like a copy of the original portrait. The original looks like it was done in one of the direct image formats, of which daguerreotype, tintype, and ambrotype were the most common in the US. To me, the small blistering marks you see mainly in the upper third of the image look like the sort of deterioration you'd get on a tintype, though also possible on a daguerreotype. The sepia color is more in line with a tintype, but also possible in a daguerreotype. Again - not an expert - but the deterioration in the original image doesn't to me look like what you'd see in an ambrotype, which would have been on a glass base, not metal.

Regardless, the copy would have almost certainly been made by a professional photographer.
posted by theory at 12:13 PM on December 5 [2 favorites]


The boy's jacket is classic 1850's style. They were often worn with a large white bow at the collar. The woman's hairstyle is classic 1840's. The woman's silhouette as far as I can see it through the mantilla goes with the 1840's or 1850's. The corset was a rounded hourglass but by the 1850's the skirts were getting fuller. Prior to 1840 the corset had a more upright and less rounded look.

If you search daguerreotypes you'll see clothes like this pretty soon, but if you search cabinet cards you won't. I think you have spotted a significant anomaly. The clothes do not match the picture format. I concur with the people above who feel the copy you hold is a reproduction of an earlier picture.

If there are a couple of public libraries in your area I would check out what they have in the costume section to begin trying to learn about styles so you can date them. There are a great many books out there that are good to begin your study, as the information you are looking for is well researched and while not mainstream popular in many circles. Also, a book from the nineteen-fifties may not have as much accurate information on construction, but will have had very good sources for later periods. Unless the library collection is small you will find material there that will be helpful.

This site is full of old photographs of many periods, and is an excellent place to browse on line to get the visual experience to spot the differences between dresses and hair and other features you can use to date a picture. The pictures on this site are dated and come with comments so you can make a guess and then check and get your guess confirmed or refuted.
posted by Jane the Brown at 1:26 PM on December 5 [1 favorite]


Based on the kid's age, you're looking at a 65 year difference between the possible dates here. Regular people wouldn't necessarily wear the latest looks but this is a generation level difference. From a fashion history perspective, there is pretty much no way this is the latter set of dates.
posted by noxperpetua at 2:22 PM on December 5 [1 favorite]


It seems likely to me that the photo was taken between the 1840s - 1860s, making "the life dates of the mother and child to be 1813-1858 and 1840-1911." I'm definitely not an expert, but I studied fashion history back in college, so I have some background knowledge.

- For example, women's hairstyles in the 1840s were typically "centrally parted, curving down over the forehead to form clusters of very long ringlets arranged over the ears. The back hair is dress high on the top in a bun or hat." Source: The Evolution of Fashion by Margaret Hamilton Hill and Peter A. Bucknell.
posted by quiet coffee at 4:18 PM on December 5 [1 favorite]


I recently watched a great free webinar called "Clues in the Dress: Dating Photographs from Clothing" presented by Leslie Bellais, Curator of Social History, Wisconsin Historical Society. You can watch a recording of it here (I believe it will ask you to register, but it is otherwise free to watch; note that it takes a couple of minutes to get going when you start the video). There's a useful bibliography and handout that goes along with the webinar, which hopefully you will get when you register. (If you don't get it, memail me if you want me to email you the pdf versions.)
posted by gudrun at 5:07 PM on December 5 [1 favorite]


Other photo history reference books that gyusan suggested by MeMail in case they are useful to anyone:

One really good book on early photo processes is called _The Keepers of Light: A History and Working Guide to Early Photographic Processes_ by William Crawford - it's again fairly rare but a real mine of information.

It's half a history of photographic processes and half a guide to reproducing them (sort of an artist's manual) but it's worth it for the first half alone.

An oldie but goodie is _Archives and Manuscripts: Administration of Photographic Collections_ which you can find for cheap but has a good overview of early/non-fine-art processes. Pg. 28 has a giant chart of most processes and shows what years they were used - really useful.

Finally and I hate to recommend another rare book but the Henischs' _The Photographic Experience, 1839–1914: Images and Attitudes_ is a great history of *how photographs were used socially* rather than _how they were used artistically_ or _how they were made technically_ which might seem like a small difference but it's a whole fascinating side of photo history that the major works of history of photography basically ignore.


I was able to find used copies of all three in good condition for ~$50 total.
posted by ryanshepard at 8:03 AM on December 6 [1 favorite]


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