Dating old wedding photographs
Changes in men's fashions have generally been more subtle, and less sensational than women's, and photographs of even the most well-to-do gentlemen are therefore far more difficult to date accurately by dress alone.
In contrast, by the end of the 19th century women's fashions tended to bring in a new detail each season, so the most fashionable ladies' photographs can often be dated to within a year.
These combined factors can usually be combined to allow the dress historian to arrive at a close approximate dating for any given photograph featuring people in clothes.
Group carte-de-visite mid 1880s (c1883-7)There might be a considerable time lag before London fashions reached the provinces, and older people, while picking up on the contemporary silhouette or material in their dress style, might retain some fashion features and hairstyles from their youth.
Looking at fashion plates and paintings, and original Victorian clothing, as well as observing the dress detail in Victorian novels and diaries, is essential background reference for the dress historian when seeking accurate dating for photographic portraits.
Knowledge of tailoring and dressmaking, jewellery styles, trimmings such as furs and feathers, and accessories such as handbags, belts and hats, and of fabrics available and popular at different times, all contribute to making an accurate assessment of date.
The details need to be compared with fashionable dress of a given date, and then subtle judgments may be made, or additional data supplied through knowledge of the family tree, the photographer's name and address, or the nature of other contributory details such as studio props., or buildings and vehicles included.
Knowledge of the history of photography in terms of various processes and their dates of introduction, styles of image produced such as the carte-de-visite, and the size of images most popular at different times, can also be brought to bear.
Certain features are time limited, such as crinoline frames worn only for eleven years from 1856 to 1867, soft bustles gathered up by internal ribbons in the early 1870s, artificial hairpieces from around 1869 to 1874, fishtail trains on dresses c1876-80, stiff angular bustles over steel frames c1881-6, and the introduction of female fringes and hair frizzing in the 1880s.It is worth noting that our view of the Victorians' dress sense may have been somewhat distorted by both a tradition for wearing 'Sunday best' in photographs, and the need - in the first fifty years of photography - for photographic studios to issue instructions on what to wear, to achieve the best contrast and detail in black and white.Hence there seem to be few 'white wedding' photographs as white dresses were difficult to capture well, and dark colours and plain designs therefore predominate.When I was older I plucked up the courage to ask my Dad about his family and to my surprise he didn’t mind talking about it at all! ) We spent an afternoon going through each of the photographs and he told me the name of all those relatives he remembered and I duly wrote them in pencil on the back.
These days of course I use an acid free archival pen! While on the one hand I wanted to celebrate successfully reaching such an advanced age, I was also determined to combine it with a family reunion, concentrating (due to space restrictions) on my maternal family.
It seemed that the only time we all got together was at funerals.