Dating Your Vintage Photographs (1840 – 1900) Part 2: Women’s Clothing Styles

Many people inherit photographs of ancestors from generations past and often struggle with the frustrations of identifying the age of each picture. An earlier article focused on dating image formats (Dating Your Vintage Photographs (1840 – 1900) Part 1: Image Formats). This article will help identify the probable time frame by the clothing and hairstyles. It’s surprisingly easy.

Knowing the styles of a particular period can go a long way in identifying the date range for a photograph. Women’s fashions changed more often than men’s did, so their clothing styles are much better for dating pictures. Even if a young woman could not afford a new dress, she would often remake her old one in the newer style. (But remember that this method of dating is done with a broad brush; fashion trends overlapped quite a bit and older women might not have changed styles as readily.)

1840s fashion with side ringlets, full bonnets, bare shoulders, tight forearm sleeves and long pointed bodices. “Graham’s Magazine,” 1841

1840s fashion with side ringlets, full bonnets, bare shoulders, tight forearm sleeves and long pointed bodices. “Graham’s Magazine,” 1841

1840s: Hair in this period was often parted down the middle and worn in bouncy ringlets on each side. Dresses were worn in a soft dome shape that was created by a large number of stiff petticoats. Bodices were often long and pointed. Shawls and elaborate full bonnets were common. Upper arm material was loose but long sleeves were very tight on the forearms. Often, shoulders were bare. (When dating your daguerreotypes, keep in mind that photographic images from the 1840s are rare.)

A three-part hair style of the 1840s.

A three-part hair style of the 1840s.

1850s: Hair was often divided into three sections, with the back section pulled into a high bun or knot and the two side sections curved under in puffs. Hoops appeared for the first time in dresses, giving dresses a more crisply defined dome shape. Flounces (wide strips of fabric attached by one edge) were fashionable and most dresses had several. Bodices were not as elongated and sometimes had a matching cape. Sleeves became much wider, often in flared tiers with lace under-trim. Full bonnets festooned with ribbons continued to be popular.

1850s dress with flounces, wide sleeves, lace under-trim and full bonnet. “Peterson’s” Magazine, 1851.

1850s dress with flounces, wide sleeves, lace under-trim and full bonnet. “Peterson’s” Magazine, 1851.

1860s: In the early 1860s, hoop skirts became much wider and much rounder (rather than bell-shaped). This lasted until the end of the Civil War. In fact, the huge skirt style is one of the easiest ways to identify a photograph from the early 1860s. Sleeves were still full but now with tight cuffs. In deference to the war, flounces were no longer in style and the short-waist dresses were plainer, often with tiny white collars and buttons down the front. Hair was parted severely down the middle and often gathered at the nape of the neck in a looped or braided chignon.

Early 1860s plain dress with large, round hoop, buttons down the front, tight cuffs and a tiny white collar.

Early 1860s plain dress with large, round hoop, buttons down the front, tight cuffs and a tiny white collar.

After the war, in the latter years of the 1860s, ruffles, pleats, fringe, trim and ribbons again began to be added to the costumes, and the hoop was flattened in the front. Overskirts also began to appear. Bonnets became much smaller, losing their sides, and were not tied under the chin but were pinned to the top of the head (or tied in the back) as decoration only. Photography became extremely popular and affordable during this decade.

1870s dress with low bustle, train, elaborate trim and a side-less bonnet set on the back of the head.

1870s dress with low bustle, train, elaborate trim and a side-less bonnet set on the back of the head.

1870s: As the hoops flattened in front, they soon became gathered at the back of the dress and the bustle was born, with fullness below the hips. The style was characterized by a slim look, high necks, draped overskirts, frilly trains and endless embellishments. And for the first time, hairstyles radically changed when a fringe of short, tightly curled (or frizzy) bangs began to appear.

High bustle and crimped waist of the 1880s.

High bustle and crimped waist of the 1880s.

1880s: This period most epitomizes the “Victorian” look. Bodices were closely fitted with rigid whalebone corsets and tightly squeezed waists. Sleeves lost their fullness and again became tight. Fabrics became heavier, almost like upholstery. But the biggest change was the bustle, which rose to high hip level and jutted out dramatically from the back. Bangs continued to be popular and forehead spit curls were now the rage.

1891 skirt and man-tailored blouse from “Harper’s Bazaar.”

1891 skirt and man-tailored blouse from “Harper’s Bazaar.”

1896 “leg of mutton” sleeves from a French fashion magazine.

1896 “leg of mutton” sleeves from a French fashion magazine.

1890s: Inevitably, the uncomfortable bustle, tight sleeves, heavy material and restricting corset gave way to more sensible clothing. By the mid 1890s, sleeves were enormous and very puffy at the top (sometimes called “leg of mutton” sleeves). Instead of single dresses, separate slim skirts and tailored shirtwaists were in vogue (now available ready-made). The bonnets were gone and replaced by regular hats. Women were entering the workforce in increasing numbers and their outfits reflected the change.

Liz Holderman is a Worthologist who specializes in collectible books.

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