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The Costume Detective

How to Date a Photograph Using Costume History

Example 2 - Charlotte

By Pauline Weston Thomas for

The Costume Detective How to Date Photos with Costume History


Dating the Victorian Photograph of Charlotte Emma Pitman

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 costume detective.

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 person posing.  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 little harder. 


Using the Hair Style to Help Date a Photograph

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 that  highlights the hair outlines of some Victorian decades, with the last image in this particular drawing being a hairstyle of 1870.

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.

After 1875 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 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.

Headshot old Mid Victorian photograph of Charlotte Emma Pitman. 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.

Click thumbnails

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.

Waistline area of an old Mid Victorian photograph of Charlotte Emma Pitman.In 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.

If you are interested in researching this further, paste these deep links into your browser is quite similar and is rather too severe and in the final link the cuff is very similar


Hidden Reticule


Reticule position in an old Mid Victorian photograph of Charlotte Emma Pitman. 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.

An old Mid Victorian photograph of Charlotte Emma Pitman.

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 crinoline styles.

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 information.)

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 struck out.  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!!'


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 little differences and hair changes in many paintings here.

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 little out-of-date.>>

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 War.

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 the 1890s.

An old Late Victorian photograph of Charlotte Emma Pitman's daughter Margaret.

Charlotte's Daughter Margaret

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. 

Extra special thanks also to Roger and his site at It is a fantastic site for understanding more about photographs. To for a wonderful selection of online fashion plates and other images much admired in the web community and finally to who obviously loves pretties as much as I do.  All these individuals work hard to help others understand the nuances between costume.

Original Page Added 4 February 2005

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