Age was especially significant when it came to dress.
Many young adults followed fashion closely, while the more mature might wear a modest, toned-down version of the most extreme styles and the elderly generally dressed much more conservatively than the youth of their day.
Of course, there were exceptions to this general principle.
In this series, Jayne Shrimpton, internationally recognised dress historian, portrait specialist, photo detective and regular contributor to Family Tree, Your Family History and Family History Monthly magazines, dates and analyses different types of photographs and helps you to add context to your old family pictures.
Having learned in the previous blog how photograph compositions and studio settings changed over the years, we now look closely at what our forebears are wearing in old photographs.
In any kind of portrait it is often the subject's clothing that engages us most: fashion history is a fascinating topic and recognising the modes of different eras is an invaluable tool when trying to date unlabelled photographs.
Dress is a vast and complex subject, but here are some pointers to help with understanding, identifying and dating the clothing styles of those family members from the past who stood before the camera in their 'Sunday best'.
Everyone wished to create a good impression in the treasured photographs that would later be shown to family and friends and might be displayed in an album, or hung on the wall.
Family historians often wonder whether their poorer forebears would have been able to dress very fashionably.This is a good question but photographic evidence suggests that in many cases even humbler working ancestors followed the latest styles.By the time photography reached a mass market in the 1860s, the concept of fashion was already well-established and was widely understood across the social spectrum.The new, elongated cuirass bodice effectively forced the bustle downwards and in the late 1870s the excess drapery fell into a long train behind (fig.7).In around 1880, the train was abandoned for day wear and outfits of the early 1880s were narrow and sheath-like: long, tight-fitting bodices formed an unbroken line over the hips, while shoe-length skirts were wrapped closely around the legs (fig.8).Men's attire, on the other hand, is often only dateable to about a decade or thereabouts, as male modes reflected more subtle shifts in tailoring and slow-changing features such as styles of neckwear and fashions in facial hair, as well as the occasional appearance of new garments.