Photography Research Tips

How to Use Women’s Clothing to Identify 19th Century Photographs

Clothing styles change over the decades today, just as they have done for centuries. Changing styles is not new. This is good news, because clothing styles can help you identify old photos.

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Clothing styles are always changing. This is as true today as it was centuries ago. Clothing styles even changed every few decades in the Middle Ages as travelers and traders brought back new clothing types from the various different places they had been. You can often identify the approximate age of a portrait painting within a decade or so simply by the style of clothing worn in it. You can do the same with 19th-century photographs. You can even use different clothing styles on women to identify the approximate age of a photo. Men usually wore suits of similar appearance in photographs until the early 20th century.

When you know the approximate place in which a photo was taken, or the family from which it comes, knowing the time period in which it was taken and the approximate age of the people in it can help you identify, or at least make a good educated guess, at the identity of the people in it.

Here’s how to use the clothing styles of women to aid you in identifying people in 19th-century photographs.

The 1840’s

Women in the 1840’s wore heavy, ornate dresses with puffy sleeves, high necklines, and full bell skirts. Waistlines were hourglass shaped thanks to the popularity of whalebone corsets. Women often wore large, elaborate floppy hats, as well.

The 1850’s

Wire hoop skirts started to come into fashion in this decade. They were not extremely wide in most cases but did appear on most fashionable dresses. Decorative ribbons sewn onto sleeves and around the bottoms of the skirts were also popular. Necklines lowered somewhat, with a square neckline that was high enough to cover the bosom but low enough to reveal some skin being the most fashionable.

The 1860’s

This was the era of the hoop skirt. Those wires became larger, wider, and more elaborate in this decade. Women often wore hoops so wide that two or three other women could have stood inside them. To allow the skirts to keep their shape, wooden rings or whalebone frames were often sewn into the fabric.

The 1870’s

This was the decade of the bustle. Wireframes were added to the backs of dresses to make the area of the buttocks stick out considerably more than it would naturally. The fronts of the dresses were flat by comparison, but dress decorations were overall quite elaborate, with bows, ruffles, lace, ribbons, tatting, and other trimmings being added to nearly every conceivable part of the dress.

The 1880’s

The skirts on dresses in the 1880’s became quite narrow as practicality took precedence over appearance. More women were entering the workplace and indulging in outdoor activities in this decade, and the narrower skirts and less padding on the back of the dresses reflected this. Decorations on the dresses were still elaborate, though.

The 1890’s

Plain and practical was the order of the day in fashion in this decade. Women wore either tulip skirts that were snug around the hips and thighs before blooming out into an elaborate and long, wide hem at the bottom, or blouse and skirt combinations. This is the first decade where we see blouses and skirts as separate entities instead of full, one-piece dresses on women.



Will founded Ancestral Findings in 1995 and has been assisting researchers for over 25 years to reunite them with their ancestors.