The Costume Detective How to Date Photos with Costume History
The old photograph below is one I examined with
the understanding that the date estimated was likely to be 5 years either
side of the actual photograph. Lindsay the owner agreed with me that if I
could help him come to a satisfactory conclusion about who exactly this women
was in his genealogy timeline research of family photographs, then maybe it would help
others dating a similar photo and so I show it here.
There are photographs that
it might be possible to give more or even less information on, but this is just the
type of photograph that places family history enthusiasts in a dilemma. Suddenly they are curious and wonder who was she? When did she live?
What social class was she? These are all questions that spring to mind
when such an old photograph is found in an attic or a shoebox or estate effects.
Analysing a photograph like this with a view to dating it and finding information on the web or
with books can take several hours. These pages will eventually show
you one method of achieving a deduction to help you become your own
It is never as easy to date a picture where a person is sat
down as one where the person is standing, or placed within a group of people with
whom one can make comparisons about dress and deportment. This analysis of the
photograph is an outline of the facts related to costume as I see them and more
or less as I told
the photograph owner.
I wrote to Lindsay - We are faced with a photograph that is
harder to date because the young woman in it is sitting down. Any picture
where the model is sitting down is generally less easy to date because her dress
is difficult to see properly in silhouette. It is the silhouette that
gives the complete answer. Elements like the width of the skirt, the
position of the waist, the length of the skirt, the width of the shoulders, the
style of the sleeve all give dating clues.
So what I usually do is try to eliminate some dates by looking
at specific aspects of the dress and from there estimate the date of the
photograph using other facts that shout out evidence.
At first glance this picture tells us a little about the
Overall the picture says a young woman of refinement and great deportment and bearing. The quality of clothing and grooming is very high.
Some knowledge is useful to give a starting point for further
research and without hesitation I can say this is quite obviously a portrait of
a Mid Victorian woman. But narrowing it down to a nearer year is a
In this case we begin by using her hairstyle as it gives us the most assessable
information about her. On my website I have some simple outline hairstyles
and hat line drawings to show how the hair changed over the century. You'll see
the hair outlines of some Victorian decades, with the last image in this
particular drawing being a hairstyle of
These quick line drawings researched and done by me some time
ago show clearly the similarity of styling circa 1870. I also have some
links for you below, so you can see how the hair style fits with some other
pictures on other sites.
more and more frizzettes appear in the hairstyling and at Roger's excellent and
comprehensive photographic web site, we can see in the image
for 1870 within the page links at
http://www.cartes.fsnet.co.uk/date/main.htm a selection of similar hairstyles. There is a hint of the start of a
natural frizzed fringe on your
picture which would probably place it prior to 1875. Lots of false hair was also
used in the 1870s and the bun on the top may or may not be a switch, but I
suspect it is her own hair. Using the hair is not a perfect way to date as
some women stick to one style all their life (which can work in reverse and
give clues to their teen years when they adopted it), or her mother may have
liked her to wear her hair in a more old fashioned way. But generally people
follow one of half a dozen style images of the day.
||Firstly we are in luck in that she is
a young and probably quite
fashion conscious woman and so her hairstyle is possibly the most up to date
fact about her.
This hairstyle is circa 1867 to about 1872. This very much
ties in with my first initial impression of the photograph which is that it
is at the tail end of the very late crinoline skirt style post 1867 that has
merged here into the early stages of the first bustle period.
Clear evidence of the gathered bustle effect can be seen at the back of the
skirt although it is not clear if the skirt front has a tablier apron as the
picture is chopped off at knee level, so it may be there, but rather long.
fact a closer look suggests it is the beginning of the first bustle style
because we need to realise that all skirt styles in the late crinoline stages
were flat fronted and this has some gathers at the centre front so I would think
this about 1869 when coupled with the hairstyle.
Combine this with the seated pose at the table
and the book there to imply literacy and a date of 1869-1871 seems to fit.
The sleeve is also interesting
and is deep cuffed and slimline like later styles.
you are interested in researching this further, paste these deep links into
http://www.marquise.de/en/themes/hut/h1869_1.shtml is quite similar and
http://www.marquise.de/en/themes/hut/h1866_1.shtml is rather too severe
and in the final link the cuff is very similar http://www.marquise.de/en/1800/pics/1865_1.shtml
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||Hidden within the skirt fold, just
below her elbow, is the outline of a reticule. A
reticule is a small
bag and she would have used it for her personal pieces like a handkerchief, smelling salts etc.
Reticules were used throughout the century, but what is interesting about
this reticule is that it matches the rich plush velvet. And this is high quality
plush velvet not some cheaper substitute such as velveteen. So the matching
reticule suggests a custom made dress and some available wealth.
The close fitting button up front waisted bodice is typical of styles to mid
1870s. But second bustle bodice styles are like corsets and a bit longer and
more armour like - they are super fitted. The sleeve heads of this bodice are slightly
off the shoulder suggesting the cut being nearer Victorian sleeves worn with
The beads may well
have been borrowed from her mother and add a very sophisticated tasteful
decorative touch, so they also make her look 'older'. They may also be
some form of mourning bead as they are dark, so a death in the family in the
previous year might also be worth checking too. The beads also have a handmade tribal
quality to them which might be connected to their being a gift from a member of the family
and travels abroad.
This is some of the response I received from
Charlotte's living relative Lindsay.
'Thank you very much for your detailed assessment of the date of the photograph
based upon the clothing and the hairstyle. 1869/71 definitely makes this my
great grandmother, Miss Charlotte Emma Pitman and not her mother.
However Charlotte was born in 1855 (date taken from Census information so
conceivably inaccurate) and the dates given would place her between 14 and 16
years of age whereas I would say the photograph is of a woman of at least 18 to
21 years of age (I have no idea in those days when girls were allowed to "put
their hair up" and become an adult) which means I would have preferred dates of
between 1873 and 1876. It does occur to me that if this does represent Charlotte
first "grown-up" photographic portrait then she would have been heavily
influenced by her mother as to the style of clothes worn/hair-do and this may
have caused her to appear a little out-of-date.
I have spent some time re-looking at the back
of the photo, along with some of the sites you visited as part of your research
for the front and have come across a match. The front of the photo was of a
vicar circa 1878. (The photo back is a poor quality image so I've not
included it here, but this highlights how you can use photo backs, print
thickness, card thickness and decorative effects on cards for extra dating
What is interesting is that my
photograph was clearly taken at TC Turner's Cheapside Studio, which by 1878 (if
the dating of the vicar photo is accurate) had closed - the address has been
So Pauline, based upon your detailed research I am inclined to "feel
comfortable" that this photo was taken in the early 1870's and no later than the
mid-1870's, which has got to be good enough to confirm it as Charlotte and THANK
YOU VERY MUCH!!'
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Second Letter to
Lindsay the Photograph Owner
Yes Roger’s site is brilliant and I thought as you have a very personal interest
in it you would like to become acquainted with it. I knew after some searching
you would possibly locate a similar card back and that old photos with rounded
edges are after 1870 and is a
good indication of post 1870. But as you can see it is a huge
site to search through. Roger's site has more information on the various
card types and I'll leave that to his expert knowledge.
The date you prefer is fine. When dating a photo it is usual to date within 5
years either way so you can add or subtract 5 years from my suggested late 1860's
date. I am afraid the picture just does not reveal enough information as she is
sat. I don’t think she looks much older than 18 – she is just rather composed.
To my eye I think she could be anything from 14 to 18.
Stand back from the computer a bit and notice how it is very much a girl’s body rather
than a woman’s fully developed body. She has very little bust. So compare her to
family females – are they busty or not, early or late in their personal
maturation. She also has a small waist even though it is covered by her arm.
Hair would be up by 18, but may have been put up much earlier
from 14 dependant on all sorts of reasons and the family wanting to keep their
young daughter a girl for longer, or marry her off fast.
I have just remembered about this site with some
great hair pages from paintings and other illustrations. You can see the
and hair changes in many
Personally I don’t think this picture is later than 1873 and I still think the
hair is your best bet for making it late 60s early 70s. The jewellery is very
interesting and it may be worth a trawl around antique jewellery sites for
similar pieces for comparison. But of
course mum could have loaned it!!! I've since also found an 1860s photo on
Roger's site showing a woman wearing similar heavy, but longer beads.
<<It does occur to me that if this does represent
Charlotte's first "grown-up"
photographic portrait then she would have been heavily influenced by her mother
as to the style of clothes worn/hair-do and this may have caused her to appear a
Yes and of course we must bear this fact in mind that girls dressed to look
older until the 1960s and emulated their mothers. The mature woman was the one to be seen to look like. So
it is all ifs and buts.
Fashions also have a five year time lag when fairly classic clothes. It is the
cuffs and slimness or fatness of sleeves that dictates when a garment existed. Today I am at home and wearing a linen blouse and a pair of summer trousers I
have had several years which I could easily have been wearing 5 or more years
ago. But my new blouses and sweaters bought in the past 12 months almost all
have three quarter sleeves or lopping over the hand extra long sleeves, so you see my
point. Yes standard wrist blouses are in the shops too, but we tend to buy the
latest little fashion touches especially on classic garments when that's all
there is to differentiate them.
I wonder if Charlotte in this old photograph could have
envisaged that she would be studied with such interest so far ahead in time.
Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could find out if she was as interested in the
trends of her day as we are in ours.
Lindsay later told me
that this photograph of a woman sitting, is of his relative Charlotte Emma
Pitman, who was born in 1855 and, sadly, died young aged 34 in 1889, having had
three children. Her husband, who adored her, did not marry again, dying in
1936 and their eldest son died of his wounds in the last few days of the Great
Here is a picture of Charlotte's daughter Margaret and I hope
to examine the styling of her clothes at a later date when I look at the
changing leg of mutton sleeves of
Photographed here with her favourite dog Laddie
To persons reading this - from a genealogical point of view I
am able to put you in contact with the owner of this picture if necessary.
And thank you Lindsay for allowing me to use such lovely
examples as these beautiful old photographs on my fashion-era web site.
thanks also to Roger and his site at
is a fantastic site for understanding more about photographs. To
http://www.marquise.de/ for a wonderful
selection of online fashion plates and other images much admired in the web
community and finally to
http://www.demodecouture.com/ who obviously loves pretties as much as I do.
All these individuals work hard to help others understand the nuances between
Original Page Added 4 February 2005
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