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Dressed for the Photographer – Dating Photographs

Have you ever found an older photograph with ladies in hats and long dresses, or men with beards but no mustaches?  Did you wonder when that picture was taken?  Joan L. Severa’s “Dressed for the Photographer Ordinary Americans and Fashion 1840-1900” was purchased with funds from the Jo White Linn Endowment.  The Edith M. Clark History Room has a number of books that might help with dating that photograph.

A young woman dressed for the photographer.
Portrait photograph of a young woman

Severa “brings to the study of photographic portraiture…the depth of knowledge about clothing that historians generally lack, a knowledge that provides the context in which many otherwise anonymous photographic portraits can begin to acquire meaning.”  Severa was the costume curator of the State Historic Society of Wisconsin; the collection with which she worked differs from most similar collections which typically look at “special occasion dress.”  The collection she worked with had the practical and useful clothing that most people would have included in their wardrobes. 

Just as portraits are staged today – think of a toddler’s daycare picture with pumpkins, haystack and a wheelbarrow – photographers of earlier times also staged their pictures in the conventions of the day.  For instance, a photograph with a backdrop of a snowy scene and ladies with muffs and furs supplied by the photographer could easily have been created for effect and not reflect the reality of the folks in the picture.  People had an idea of what they should wear to get a picture taken.  Often the prevailing conventions create a standardization of pictures during particular eras.   

For instance, high school graduation picture conventions have for years specified a young woman wear a velvet dress and pearls.  In fact, the girls are not wearing a velvet dress but have only a drapery around their shoulders and a borrowed skein of pearls.  Noting the specific differences and unusual parts of the clothing of the subjects of the portraits can help identify the period and possibly the people who deliberately dressed for the photographer. 

Learn to Analyze and Date Family Photographs

An example in the book shows a daguerreotype of three gentlemen that can be dated due in part to the larger buttons on one gentleman’s coat as well as the hats and neckties of all three men.  Another daguerreotype of a school age boy can be dated due to the combination of clothing; a jacket often worn in an earlier decade but combined with certain trouser and hair styles will place it more solidly in the 1849-51 timeframe.  The book is fascinating with its photographic and historic details.