Bustles, bodices and broad-brimmed hats

The clothes make the time period

Anyone who has turned their mind to dating photographs knows that there are all sorts of clues that can help with this. The type of photographic print, the paper used, the look of the print, the shape of cars, the presence or absence of buildings, the presence or absence of carts and horses, the types of trees in a landscape, the shape of women’s clothes and so on.

Clothing is an important feature of portraits, so that a general knowledge of changes in fashion can help to establish dates at least in relation to decades. Clothing can also help in dating street scenes and other photographs where people are out and about.

The great thing about women’s clothes is that they changed pretty regularly, and the general features of each change are clearly identifiable along with hair styles and hats. As with the use of cars for dating photographs, you don’t have to become a fashion expert and take account of every small detail (of course you can if your interest moves you to). An awareness of the general shapes of women’s clothing over time, the taxonomic features, is enough to enable a possible date to be given to a photograph.

Building a taxonomy of fashion

What I’ve found is that knowledge of the taxonomy of women’s clothes is a pretty good general aid to dating photographs. The following collection of photographs is designed to help recognise the characteristics and changes in women’s clothes from 1860 to 1914. As such it’s an ideal structure. Also, most of the portraits show mainly middle class women dressed in their Sunday best. Even so the photographs provide a place to start from.

The full crinoline, 1856 to 1865

Woman in a tight upper garment, bell-shaped dress, and snood.Unidentified woman, 1870-1889. Ref: 1/4-007066-G

Things to note are the hair style, the tight fitting upper garment with a broadly V shaped braid pattern from shoulders to waist, fairly full sleeves, and of course the full bell shape of the dress. The hair has a central parting, and framed the face looping down behind, often held in a hair net (or snood).

Detail of a woman standing for a formal portrait.Detail of an unidentified woman, ca 1870-1889. Ref: 1/4-006906-G.

The young woman’s hair and upper garment are generally similar to the previous illustration. Cloth is folded from shoulders to waist forming a V shape. Sleeves here are wide and loose. This is an example of a pagoda sleeve.

Women’s dress, 1866 to 1869

Woman standing for a portrait, not wearing crinoline.Detail of an unidentified woman, ca 1870-1889. Ref: 1/4-006974-G.

Most notable thing at this time is the absence of a crinoline. Other features are similar to the preceding period such as the tight upper garment and the V shaped arrangement of the over-garment from shoulders to waist which, in this case is part of an over skirt worn with the dress proper.

Detail of woman with ornamented hair and a fringed dress.Detail of an unidentified woman, ca 1870-1889. Ref: 1/4-006831-G.

In this case the young woman’s hair shows a move away from the style of the previous period, though a central parting is still visible. The elaboration of the hair with the addition of ornaments prefigures styles of the 1870s.

The advent of the bustle, 1869 to 1877

Two unidentified young women, wearing matching full length skirts and elaborate overdresses, with identical hairstyles, featuring ringlets and padded upswept hair.Detail of two unidentified young women, ca 1870-1889. Ref: 1/4-008029-G.

Two young women dressed in outdoor daywear. Features to note are the elaborate build up of hair, Overskirt gathered at the back, and braid ornament on sleeves and overskirt.

Woman in full bustle, overskirt, and tiny hat.Detail of an unidentified woman, ca 1870-1889. Ref: 1/4-006992-G.

The full monty. This be-bustled dress illustrates the full development of bustles in the 1870s, with overskirt edged with lace. High, elaborate hair style with a tiny hat worn attached to the front of the hair.

Detail of a woman, showing her fully developed hairstyle.Detail of an unidentified woman, ca 1870-1889. Ref: 1/4-007026-G.

Close up view of a fully developed hairstyle of the 1870s woman.

The corseted bodice, 1878 to 1885

Three women without bustles, but with broad-brimmed hats.Detail of three unidentified women, ca 1856-1889. Ref: 1/4-007456-G.

Things to note in this period of dress is the very tight, shaped, upper garment with tight sleeves. The bustle has gone (except occasionally for evening ware) but overskirts remain, swaged and pleated to give an elaborate look to the dress where the upper garment is often free of ornament. These broad-brimmed hats are typical of the period.

Detail of a woman, showing her plain and fitted upper garment.Detail of an unidentified woman holding small woven handbag, ca 1870-1880. Ref: 1/4-007134-G.

Note the hair style. Like that of the 1856 to 1865 period the parting is strictly in the middle of the head. Unlike the earlier period the hair does not frame the oval of the face, but is pulled tightly back away from the lower face. The upper garment is unadorned and fits the upper body very tightly.

The return of the bustle, 1885 to 1889

Stereograph of a woman in a small-bustled dress and a top hat, holding a dog.Lydia Williams holding a puppy, ca 1880s. Ref: 1/1-025645-G.

Clothing basically the same as the earlier 1880s. What is new is the small bustle seen here, also a change in hair style and hats.

Stereograph of women having tea.Their upper garments are very tightly fitting, and their hats are a wonder to behold Women having tea outside the house of William and Lydia Williams, ca 1888-1899. Ref: 1/1-025634-G.

The ladies in the foreground are sitting cushioned by their bustles. Their upper garments are still very tightly fitting, and their hats are a wonder to behold.

Detail of a woman, showing her frizzed and crested hair.Detail of an unidentified woman, ca 1870-1889. Ref: 1/4-007318-G.

The hair no longer has a central parting, nor is it pulled back from the face. Instead it is frizzed on the forehead and crest, and appears to be cut short on the sides. This hair style survived into the 1890s.

The featured sleeve, 1890 to 1899

Studio portrait of a woman with very large sleeves and a small boater-like hat.Portrait of Effie Newbigging Richardson, ca 1884-1889. Ref: 1/2-199127-F.

In the 1890s emphasis moved from the dress to garments for the upper body. This portrait is of a woman dressed to the nines in the new style in about 1893. frizzed hair (no parting), small boater-like hat worn more or less on the top of the head, great inflated “leg of mutton sleeves,” and (except for the weave) a plain unadorned skirt.

Young woman on a bicycle, with large sleeves and a boater-like hat.Young woman on a bicycle, ca 1890.

Young woman on bicycle. Another feature of the 1890s was the emergence of a simple everyday dress for women consisting of a white blouse and simple skirt, usually of darker material. This combination went on right into the 1920s. Here the young woman wears a typical boater-like hat on the top of her head, and her blouse has large “leg of mutton” sleeves. The safety bicycle became common in the 1890s, and long before the coming of the model T Ford, gave women greater freedom of movement.

The new century, 1900 to 1914

An unidentified woman in dark lace top dress, large hat, gloves and hip bag standing with cane chair.Outdoors portrait with false backdrop, an unidentified woman, ca 1905-1926. Ref: 1/2-163715-G.

Simple example of women’s dress from 1900 to about 1906. Boater-like hats are generally out of fashion, and though this hat is richly decorated it is very moderate in relation to hats that were to come. Note the upper garment loose (or pouched) at the front, and the large lace collar. Dress simple in outline, but often ornamented with applied braid, lace or frills.

Three young women dressed in lace and hats. Big, feathery hats.Three young women, probably of the Riley family, dressed in lace and hats, 1908. Ref: 1/1-014698-G.

From 1907 hats expanded in size and ornamentation. Hair (not clearly seen here) was greatly built up, not only as a look, but also to take the large hat pins required to keep the hats fixed on the head. Large hats lost a lot of ornamentation from about 1912, and did not entirely die out until about 1916. The three women here were photographed in 1908. The rest of their dress is a richer variation on the outfit in the previous slide. The plain white blouse and skirt style continued as everyday wear for many women. From 1912, as with hats, garments lost a lot of their ornament and fru fru quality.

Women’s dress, 1913-1916

Studio unidentified portrait of a young woman in a cotton blouse and dark skirt with a pearl necklace and pin brooch.Studio unidentified portrait of a young woman, ca 1905-1926. Ref: 1/2-185024-G.

Women’s day wear from about 1913 into the 1920s. The white blouse and skirt look that became common in the 1890s is seen here in its later manifestation. The skirt is not all that different, but the blouse lacks the swollen sleeves of 20 years before, the hair is simpler than six years before, and by this time hats were not always worn with every day wear.

Studio unidentified portrait of a young woman with high neck lace blouse, portrait necklace and large collar jacket.Studio unidentified portrait of a young woman, ca 1905-1926. Ref: 1/2-185002-G.

This photograph could be as early as 1912. Her large hat certainly suggests that. Her smart outfit is also an example of a type of women’s clothing that began in the 1880s – the tailored suit. Here it is in a manifestation that persisted until at least the end of the First World War. The severe, simple lines are in character with those of the clothes worn in the previous photograph.

I’m a man of wealth and taste

Men’s fashions are more difficult to pin down than those worn by women. The ubiquitous sports coat and trousers look came in at the beginning of the 1860s, and remained the same except for minor changes until the early 1890s. Features of men’s clothing such as high starched or winged collars came in during the mid 1890s and were in use until the mid 1920s. After that they survived as items of evening ware, but for everyday use, generally gave way to soft, turned down collars.

A few exceptions

A solid understanding of women’s fashion gives you a fairly precise tool for dating photographs. Of course there are exceptions. Older women (and men) often continued wearing clothes long after they were out of fashion. Cast off clothes could be handed down to the poor, and so still be in use long after affluent middle class women had moved on to the next thing. Servants wore uniforms that on their own may be hard to date with certainty and lots of people wore clothes for work that often looked like grandma’s or mother’s cast offs. And then there is the issue of the time lag in changes in fashion reaching distant places like New Zealand.

This last I think is a red herring. In 1850 a sailing ship could take from 75 to 120 days to reach New Zealand. By the 1890s this had been reduced to 40 days with fast steam ships and the short cut through the Suez Canal. Thus for women, the fashions current in a British and European Summer could easily reach this country in time for the following New Zealand summer. As well as imported clothes, fashion magazines and patterns allowed New Zealand women to have the new looks made up by dressmakers, or make them themselves. By the 1850s the first workable domestic sewing machine had been invented in the USA, and such modern inventions did not take long to reach New Zealand.

By Walter Cook

Currently skived off into permanent retirement, Walter spent 25 years working with the Alexander Turnbull Library's Photograph Archive before moving to the Turnbull's Arrangement and Description team.

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charlotte macdonald February 5th at 4:25PM

What a wonderful valedictory Walter. Thank you for this tribute to fashion, and to all your work in the ATL over the years.
'Unidentified woman' joins 'Anon was a woman' as one of the great library categories of all time. Readers and viewers may like to compare Walter's reading of time through women's dress with artist Louise Menzies' current work at the Auckland Art Gallery in which female clotheslessness 'removes any historic context'. See Louise Menzies, 'Peloha', in the exhibition 'Freedom Farmers' (www.aucklandartgallery.com).

Natasha Barrett February 10th at 7:58AM

Many thanks for the inspiration, the fashion taxonomy really works - just tried it out using the heritage collections from Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries. Here at the results! http://ow.ly/trh6X

Linda Evans February 12th at 3:58PM

As keeper of the family photographs & histories, I found this most interesting, especially the hints for 1850 to the 1880s. Thankyou.

Alison Scott February 13th at 10:06AM

I remember working with Walter in the Photographic Archive and being even more impressed by his ability to date photographs from the height of non-native trees. I am honoured to have worked with him!

Brian Smith September 7th at 7:47PM

Hi Walter - One of your former colleagues directed me to this site. I have an old (and damaged) photograph I'm keen to date. It's a portrait of an older woman, and from the above, I reckon it's 1900-1914. Would you be interested to comment on it? Thanks.