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Genealogy research: Dating vintage photographs by clothing & hairstyles

Nancy Price co-founded in 1999, and now serves as the site's Executive Editor. In the midst of growing several award-winning websites over the past decade, she also served as the editor-in-chief of two national print magazin...

Style clues & cues in antique photos

It's as true now as it was 150 years ago: the fashions people wear are indicators of their times. In fact, styles of clothing and accessories -- as well as hairstyles and makeup -- can be used to help you assign a decade or even a specific year to your family's vintage photographs, which can be invaluable to your genealogy research! Here are several sites that can help you put your aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents on the right branches of your family tree.

Vintage fashions - dating photographs - genealogy

Here are some places where you can pick up a few style cues to help you ID your own vintage family photographs!

fashion & style

The University of Vermont
The site for the university's Landscape Change program offers a wealth of information about dating vintage/antique photographs using cues such as women's clothing, hats, hairstyles, fashion accessories & mens fashions. Broken down by decade: 1850s | 1860s | 1870s | 1880s | 1890s | 1900s | 1910s | 1920s | 1930s | 1940s | 1950s

The collaborative encyclopedia Wikipedia provides a nicely detailed collection of articles about the many eras of clothing fashion. Here are direct links to the sections dedicated to the time since photography was possible: 1830s | 1840s | 1850s | 1860s | 1870s | 1880s | 1890s |1900s | 1910s | 1920s | 1930–1945| 1945–1959 | 1960s

Flickr collections by era
These contributed photographs are grouped by decade, and the multitude of images will provide you with a helpful frame of reference to compare your vintage photos.
100 years old | 1900-1910 | 1910-1920 | 1920s | 1930s | 1940s | 1950s | 1960s

Period Fashions Reference Library
Cabinet card womanWith descriptions, antique sketches and photos, offers clues on clothing styles from the 1850s through the 1910s. Topics include evening attire, fashion accessories and even bathing costumes and undergarments.

Fashion Columbia Study Collection
Columbia College in Chicago has a great collection of women's clothing which document historic styles, revival fashions and period details of what was in vogue during the 20th century.

Victoria and Albert Museum
The London's museum's helpful section on dating clothes and photographs uses items from the V&A's collection to illustrate the dominant trends of the decades between 1840 and 1960, and is helpful even when investigating photos taken outside Great Britain.

Vintage hairstyles
A look at how women wore their hair in eras past, illustrated with photos of modern recreations. Also see some sketches of vintage hairstyles here.

It's all in the (style) details demonstrates how to decipher the little details in photographs — such as the sleeve type and kinds of neckties.

More resource sites:

Knowledge in action

Vintage photograph - 1880s - 1890s style

Even if you think you're on the right track, identifying fashions can help you confirm information. For instance, the portraits at right were labeled, so I know them to be my grandmother's two grandmothers -- and the photo albums they came from suggested that the photographs were taken in the 1880s or 1890s.

Despite the womens' different cultural backgrounds and individual tastes in fashion, the similar type of high, standing collars suggest that they're on the earlier end of that time frame, most likely the mid-1880s.

If I needed more data points, other style cues I could research would be the fit of the dresses, the hairstyles, and their jewelry.

Approximations, not absolutes

While all the clues you gather from appearance can be very helpful, they're not always precise. By way of example, your relative might have been a trendsetter... or perhaps she cared little about fashion and was always a few years behind. Location (city or country, US or abroad) and income level can also impact a woman's style choices.

By combining various modes of research, however, you should be able to discover the essence of the era -- and your family's place within it.



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