What Historical Fashion Choices Say About Your Ancestors
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Earlier this month, we put the call out to our Facebook community to submit photos for which they needed assistance dating with the help of historical fashion expert and author Betty Shubert. We received hundreds of submissions and Betty selected a few of her favorites.

John Hobart Judson

Photo Credit: Donna Trahan Photo Credit: Donna Trahan


At first glance, we see the bold, self-assured stance of a young boy. The fact that the photo's owner identifies him as John Hobart Judson, confirms this initial observation. I notice the coat is buttoned right over left, which is the time-honored way that girls or women almost always have closed their garments. Men have always buttoned their garments left over right. Something else is amiss. John's hat brim is tilted like a girl's, up on the left, down on the right. His rugged, high-top shoes are like those belonging to a boy. The just below-knee length coat tells me it is the 1920s. The fashion detective in me needs to solve this mystery! In a B. Altman catalog of the 1920s, I found the same style coat and similarly shaped hats for both girls and boys. Apparently, John's mother didn't know or care about the difference and buttoned his coat opposite from the usual, gender-specific way and then rolled his hat brim up, as she would have done for herself. Since these coats were for sale at B. Altman's in 1922 -1923 and the styles may have been offered elsewhere somewhat earlier, we can assume that John, born in 1910 (fact provided by submitter) was about 11, 12, or 13 when the photo was taken. To me, he looks the younger age. What do you think'  

Mystery Woman

Photo Credit: Keith Milligan Photo Credit: Keith Milligan Conversely, this mystery woman has her dress buttoned left over right, like a man would. You mentioned that she resembles members of a family who emigrated from Cuxhaven, Germany in the mid-1880s. Was this common in her hometown in Germany, or an aberration of current fashion' In this case it doesn't matter, we can see she is a woman. Her sleeves are plain, but with a cuff detail that was in fashion in the 1870s, and her princess-line dress, first introduced decades earlier, is worn over a tight corset with a plain, unpleated, princess-line skirt, which stayed in style until the late 1870s.  Primary style clues here, are the big patch pockets on the skirt which were created after the full skirts of the 1860s disappeared. These pockets replaced useful pockets that had previously been hidden inside the pleats of the skirts. The woman's hair shows bangs on the forehead  (instead of fashionable curls commonly worn in the 1870s) and the hat, which sits atop it, is a clumsy version of 1870s hats. Although this woman does not appear to be a high-fashion type (and we do not know how long it took women in a small town in Germany to obtain fashion news), she seems to have made a real effort to be stylish. Based on the styles, I would guess that this picture was taken in the late 1870s. (For more about this era, see pages 140-147 in my book Out of Style.)  

                                   Mitchell & Family

Photo Credit: Scott Mitchell Photo Credit: Scott Mitchell The styles of the gay nineties can be seen in many old family albums,  so this will be  useful information for a lot of genealogists.  I would date the mother's dress as 1896-1898, because the size of her leg o'mutton sleeves are at the most extreme of its popularity. The style began in 1888 as a small vertical sleeve cap, which lowered, became horizontally wider and wider until it resembled its namesake - a leg of mutton. The bodice has a corseted jacket with a v-shaped bodice, much like the beautiful brown bodice made by my grandmother, which I rescued from the floor of a musty garage. (Lesson: Always store heirloom clothes, including the ones you wore and are saving for posterity, in a safe place. See the Family Curator, Denise Levenicks' book, How to Archive Family Keepsakes.) Each inside seam of my grandmother's bodice was stiffened with featherbone, carefully sewn with tiny, perfect cross-stitches. If you are interested in the 1890s, you will find many gems of social history on pages 156-175 in Out of Style, as well as information about clothing for men and children of this era. Women's hairstyles of the 1890s, as seen in vintage photos, are simple and pulled-back without added hairpieces. Often bangs are gone, foreheads clear, except for a few curls at the hairline. A small coil, bun or knot was visible on top of the head.  Worn with the two huge sleeves, a contemporary writer described the look as, A small head between two large melons. For men of the 1890s, the lapels of coats were buttoned low and worn with vests that often showed watch chains. Contrasting color trousers had no crease or cuffs. Some men were slower to adopt these new-fangled styles though. Sometimes the collar was preacher-like with a narrow bow tie, as we see in this photo. Men's hair was short and groomed on the sides and in back. Although some faces were clean-shaven, the walrus moustache (either large or small)  was the look of the decade. The little girl is wearing a jacketed dress with modest puffs on the sleeve cap and a waist-defining, wide belt. Her skirt is lengthening to indicate her approaching maturity. The small boy is still wearing a dress, but his short hair and high-top shoes tell us he is a boy.   Want help dating your old family photographs' Betty Shubert is a historical fashion expert and the author of Out of Style. She is offering to help a handful of community members date their historical family photographs. Email your old family photographs, along with any information you have about the photo and the person(s) in it to social@ancestry.com. Your photograph may be selected to be featured in one of Betty's future blog posts.