Date this photo

by Meredith McGovern, Art and Culture Collections Manager

I don’t know about you, but my family has several photo albums filled with beautiful, old photographs. Unfortunately, in many cases, the images are undated and the subjects are unidentified. However, a little knowledge of costume history can help you narrow the date range and possibly learn more about your photo. Two books that I have found really helpful are Joan Severa’s Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans & Fashion, 1840–1900 and My Likeness Taken. Severa points out identifying characteristics, such as hairstyle, the shape of a subject’s sleeves or the length or shape of a woman’s skirt, that can help date an old photo. Let’s put Severa’s methods to the test and try to learn more about an unmarked image from the Indiana State Museum collection.

In this cabinet card, two young women pose against a painted backdrop. The woman on the left is seated; the second woman stands at her side. What does their clothing tell us about when this image was made? Look at it this way, if the subjects were wearing acid-washed jeans and zippered jackets, we’d presume their likenesses were taken in the 1980s. Bell-bottom pants and a tie-dyed shirt? Probably the 1960s. However, the two women each wear dark, wool dresses with short, close-fitting bodices that close with small buttons. Their collars are high and round and trimmed with white linen bands. The woman on the left wears a floor-length, pleated skirt; her full bustle puffs out on the seat behind her. Her friend or relative on the right wears an ankle-length skirt that allowed her better mobility; the apron front drapes from hip to hip. Both women wear their hair in a roll on top of their head with frizzed bangs.

We can immediately determine that this photo was taken between 1870 and 1890. The women do not wear the 1860s crinoline or hoops that would have pushed their skirts out in huge bell shapes ala Gone with the Wind. The bodices lack the 1890s puff shoulder; trust me, some 1890s shoulders are as round as balloons — the wearer might float into the air! Based on the frizzed bangs (consider this style “The Rachel” of the 19th century), we can narrow the gap even further and date this photo 1875-1890. The tight, tight sleeves set high on the shoulder coupled with the draped overskirt pushes the date back even further. I think we can safely say that these two women curled, combed, primped, buttoned, and styled themselves for a studio photograph sometime in the 1880s.

Are you ready to try to date some of your old photographs? Let me know how it goes!