Identification of Clothing/Textiles in Photographs
(private file image, copyrighted)
Tue, 24 Feb 2004 Women In Photography International wrote: > Trina...
Is there any possibility I could post your e-mail message on the WIPI
Semorile from the Yahoo Groups PhotoHistory Listserv responds
to a posting about an article on dating photographs
you know that old saying that the more you know, the more you realize how
much you don't know. Best anyone can do is pick a small corner and get pretty
good at it while asking the advice and listening to the knowledge of folks
toiling away in another little corner of the field or one related to it."
The article is interesting, but must be viewed as "Clothing History
Lite". (And thanks for posting it, Dave #1, I like to keep such articles
for reference. Much of it is not...uh...wholly accurate, and the recommendations
for "further resources" is quite poor. Anyone wanting to date
photographs through dress needs to do their homework in the history of
clothing and textiles. There are, I assure the list, lots and lots of
resources as various (well, more so, in some ways) as the history of photography.
This is a topic which has been bugging me for some time, but I haven't
had the time to really comment properly. I don't now, either, but I'm
going to do a quick and dirty since it has come up again.
I'll do it right and better later, when I come up for air.
(private file image, copyrighted)
Dressed for the Photographer is a good, contemporary resource (for what
it is), but is not really sufficient as a single source of information
for identification (nor is it inexpensive). This would be like suggesting
that only one history book of 19th c. photography is needed to "know
all". And we know that's not true, right? Also, it starts with the
photograph and works backwards, so to speak. This is fine to a point,
but limiting if one is seeking to identify something specific and an example
isn't included; it's a good brief introduction to the subject and how
to look at it in photographs. (To it's credit, this book is concerned
with "ordinary" people, not only the
fancy and rich. Photography was a great boon in this regard, to historians,
since the poor usually couldn't afford to have their portraits painted,
leaving a sparser visual record of their dress). Real identification of
any sophistication requires visiting the disciplines which study the history
of clothing/textiles. It's just that most of the folks on this list have
no grounding in this history and do not appreciate just what major players
these are in the politics, economics and sociocultural meaning of the
19th c. (and before) and, therefore, in photography. (Do I need to put
up a copy of "Song of the Shirt" on this list?!?)
Before we begin on the specific subject, I recommend to all of you as
a frame of reference in how to think about this topic, the very excellent,
The Unfashionable Human Body, by Bernard Rudofsky, which should
still be available in paperback, or through your friendly public library.
It's not as Eurocentric as most and will give you an excellent sense of
use and meaning not only of clothing, but the body beneath, shaped and
reshaped, adorned, covered or uncovered, all by shifting terms and meaning
across time and (sometimes intersecting) cultures (it's not as long as
I'm making it sound, and Rudofsky has a wicked wit, which I know many
on this list will appreciate).
I also strongly urge you to read Thorstein Veblen's Theory of the Leisure
Class , first published in 1899; it will provide you with important
context in understanding WHY people were dressed as they were and why
the other objects in the photos are present; also why interiors look as
they do--and exteriors, for that matter. Also available in inexpensive
For those with a literary/philosophical bent, try Thomas Carlyle's Sartor
Resartus. It's a metaphysical treatise, but clothing is its metaphor--and
not by accident. Clothing historians, you'll discover, if you read more
deeply in this field, love to use quotes from Sartor Resartus.
OK. You need a GOOD DICTIONARY. Cheap and readily available are those
put out by Fairchild Publications for fashion design/merchandising students.
If there's a program near you, visit the college bookstore; if not, have
your local bookstore order it for you.
Wingate, Dr. Isabel B. Fairchild's Dictionary of Textiles. Fairchild
Publications, NY. (I have the sixth edition, but I'm sure it's quite a
few further editions on, since I bought mine.)
They also put out a dictionary of clothing, the exact title of which I
don't remember and the book itself is hiding somewhere. But it starts
out the same: Fairchild's Dictionary of...
Wilson, Kax. A History of Textiles, Boulder, Colorado: Westview
Press, Inc., 1979.
This is a good basic overview, aimed at "students and researchers";
categories include: [part one: History of materials and methods] Spinning
and raw material; fabric construction; finish and color for textiles.
[part two: world textiles] patterned textiles of the near east; the medieval
textile industry in southern Europe; textiles of the far east; textiles
in northern Europe; textiles and independence in colonial America; industrialization
and textiles in nineteenth century America; fabrics of the American southwest;
fabrics of south and middle America.
The revival of lacemaking (and machine made lace) is very important in
the 19th c., which is why it appears so frequently in photographs. So,
know your lace--it matters as a measure of class and wealth (as it always
did). NOTE: There is LOTS of misinformation around on this topic, so *know
your source* before quoting it. Excellent resources are:
Palliser, Mrs. Bury. History of Lace. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications,
This is a reprint of the 1911 edition. This is the "bible" of
lace history and you may take it as gospel. She also wrote the section
on lace which appears in the Encyclopedia Britannia, and you may also
take that as an accurate, if much briefer, resource. Mrs. Palliser wasn't
above smuggling lace herself, which act you cannot wholly appreciate until
you've read a little bit of the history of this ultimate luxury commodity
in its heyday. To give you a sense of the value of handmade lace, consider
that in "1815, an 18 inch (457 mm) square of droeschel (one type
of lace) cost 15 pounds (English), a bushel of wheat 13s 6d, and factory
workers earned 7s a week." (Earnshaw)
Earnshaw, Pat. A Dictionary of Lace. England: Shire Publications
A newer, smaller, but also excellent dictionary; good photographs, for
doing identification comparisons.
Levey, Santina M. Lace: A History. London: Victoria and Albert
Museum in Association with W. S. Maney & Son Ltd., 1983.
Look at this one in the library; it's lusciously and beautifully illustrated
and, as you might imagine, ungodly expensive, so the casually interested
might not want to buy; but do look.
Ames, Frank. The Kashmir Shawl and its Indo-French Influence. England:
Antique Collector's Club Ltd., 1986.
This is a good introduction to the subject; there are others.
Caulfeild, Sophia Frances Anne, and Blanchce C. Saward. The Dictionary
of Needlework: An Encyclopedia of Artistic, Plain and Fancy Needlework"
(with over 800 illustrations). New York: Arno Press, 1972.
This is a facsimile of the 1882 edition.
A couple of interesting books (I don't know if they are still in print,
but fervently hope so, to give you some background and context) are:
Christina Walkley. The Ghost in the Looking Glass: The Victorian Seamstress.
London: Peter Owen Limited, 1981.
Walkley, Christina and Vanda Foster. Crinolines and Crimping Irons,
Victorian Clothes: How They Were Cleaned and Cared For. London: Peter
Owen Publishers, 1985.
Ginsburg, Madeleine. Victorian Dress in Photographs. New York:
Holmes & Meier Publishers, Inc., 1982.
Smaller, and older than Dressed for the Photographer, but a nice
little book on the subject.
Gernsheim, Alison. Victorian and Edwardian Fashion: A Photographic
Survey (with 235 illustrations). New York: Dover Publications, Inc.,
Mostly photographs. Brief Notes on the Photographs give details
and some general informationon clothing details. Some text on "general
fashion trends" which is very brief.
Some caveats to clothing/textile history newbies:
historians in these topics can be quite chauvinistic/nationalistic with
respect to "invention," origin, whose is "best," so
be skeptical when an author starts claiming everything began in a particular
locality (this can get especially sticky in "encyclopedias"
and "world histories" of fashion written by one person. It takes
a fair amount of reading to sort through what is accurate and what is
hyperbole, so use more than one source.
Get your terms straight, before using them. There is a lot of inaccurate
nomenclature which drives those who know nuts (a problem w/which I'm sure
photohistorians can sympathize). It's just plain ignorance and/or sloppy
use of language/terminology; spare my nerves and use your dictionary,
so that technical terms used are understood and correct. A couple of common
1. Using "paisley" interchangeably with "kashmir shawl"
or instead of it--a VERY important distinction in the 19th c. and w/a
magnifying glass and a clue, you can sometimes tell the difference in
photos--if the edge of the shawl can be seen. (I don't have time for that
whole lecture, but maybe at a later date, if there is interest, I'll do
a miniessay so you know WHY it matters).
2. Using "plaid" and "tartan" interchangeably. They
aren't. Tartan is the fabric/weave. A "plaid" is a blanket,
not a pattern/fabric/weave (i. e., one might have a plaid which is plain
or tartan). Please, use the terms accurately. And, by the by, "clan"
tartans are basically a 19th c. English (not Scottish) invention, which
also codified the dress (and this was a "guys only" thing) into
a "uniform"--replete with faked "histories" of clan
dress (sort of the "piltdown man" of fashion) and rife with
ethnic contempt and politics. Prior to that, one went to the weaver, picked
a pattern one liked, and voila, he wove it up for you and you were dressed;
you wrapped it as comfortable for you, belted it at the waist (maybe,
if you could afford a belt) and tossed the extra yardage over your shoulder.
Some of these weaves are so intricate, their pattern has been lost. There
was a "tartan madness" revival in the 19th c. (France had tartan
madness in the 18th c., when Scottish regiments turned up in "short
kilts" and drove the ladies wild, not only for their cute knees,
but tartan fashions--in silk, instead of wool, of course). ;)
The 19th c. is a period of revivalism, so you need to know your earlier
periods of dress/textiles so you understand the influences on fashion
and what is or is not accurate in theatrical and genre photos. There is
also a revival of "Orientalism"; and all those travel photos
need to be ID'd for whether Joe/Jane Traveler was actually wearing full
local regalia, or if it was a combo or "theatricalized" dress.
I always think of Julia Margaret Cameron and her ilk as "pre-Raphaelite
photographers" (or "photomedievalists") though it's something
of a contradiction in terms (that's the fun of course--the interesting
contradictions which are so much the hallmark of the 19th c.).
Be aware of the reform dress and health movements, which were also very,
very important in the 19th c. and which turn up in photos (and can look
quite odd compared with what everyone else is wearing). George Bernard
Shaw was big on "health clothing" for example, and wore the
Jaeger "health suit", as did many "progressive" people.
These movements were reactions to the uncomfortable and--especially for
women --restrictive and physically damaging clothing.
Sometimes studio photographers kept fashionable dress available so that
those sitting for their portraits could look more fashionable than they
could afford to be in real life. Conversely, some of the "just folks"
photos show people wearing older clothing (because they couldn't afford
newer. Outfits might be a few years older than the actual date of the
photo). Older women sometimes are dressed in earlier fashions either for
economic reasons or because they simply didn't like the new fashions (grandma
didn't want to "get up" in the equivalent of the miniskirt).
So dating should be considered "approximate" given these factors
All of the above applies to children's dress also. Telling the boys from
the girls is easier if you also look at the toys in the photos and, sometimes,
stance. On very young children, hair is not a clue, as suggested by the
newspaper article, because they don't have all that much yet, and some
have a "kewpie doll" which isn't sex differentiated. In handpainted
photos, be careful of assuming pink designates a girl. Until the teens
of the 20th c., pink was considered too "strong" a color for
girls, but not for boys.
Mourning dress is VERY important to understand, as an identifier. Mortality
rates were high and people often spent *years* in mourning. Men quickly
excused themselves from this very ritualistic requirement and expected
the women to do this chore, choosing for themselves a simple black armband
for a short time. There was a large market in second hand mourning dress
to keep up with demand and to lower costs.
file image, copyrighted)
Some of the stereotypes people have of 19th c. dress as "dark"
is due to mourning requirements. Sometimes a second wife was expected
to go from her wedding day directly into mourning dress for the first
wife. There were strict time requirements for how "deep" mourning
was depending on the degree of relation to the deceased. Purple and lavenders
were lighter degrees of mourning and the invention of aniline dyes allowed
for lasting and beautiful shades to be used. Factoid: the first photo
used to file a patent claim was a photo of mourning dress.
The sewing machine and ready-made clothing had a big impact on fashion,
allowing more quantity and lower cost; it also introduced the sweat factory
system (known at the time as "white slavery" because it was
actually cheaper to hire workers this way than keep slaves). Typically,
women were paid half the wages of men; children half the wages of women.
NEVER, never take your clothing history from movies--most especially American
movies, which are particularly appalling in this regard. Even the trailers
for _Cold Mountain_, mentioned in the newspaper article, have me vomiting
on my hush puppies. Inevitably, such movies are anachronistic, since the
real thing would make apparent just how uncomfortable everybody was, not
to mention many periods are visually unappealing to contemporary eyes.
(No self-respecting woman old enough to be in long skirts would have her
hair down and flowing.) So, everyone is made to appeal to current definitions
of sexy, fashionable, etc., while hinting at the period or outright invoking
stereotypes. This is especially noticeable if you watch Westerns or Civil
War Movies from the 1940s or 1950s, etc., because it's far enough away
that the 1940s version of the Civil War looks like the 1940s--hair, shaping
undergarments, what is "sexy" in the men and women--making the
difference more apparent to our eyes, than the seemingly "normal"
(like us) people in _Cold Mountain_.
Clothing controls how the wearer can move, and if you know your clothing,
how the person moves in it is a dead giveaway to accuracy. In fact, an
actor can give a more accurate sense through movement (even w/o the corset,
if she understands this).
In counterpoint, I must say that the British put out dandy, and accurate,
costume dramas, when they put their minds to it (Peter Greenaway's _The
Draughtsman's Contract_ is one of my favorites for its evocation of
all things "landscape"; see it on a big screen if you can--tv
doesn't do its panorama justice).
OK. that's all I can think of off the top of my head and a quick look
at the bookshelf to get you all started down the path of accurate identification.
Go thee forth, sinners, to date and write more accurate captions for your
And before shutting up for the nonce, I'm tossing in a poem (so you won't
think I've left out literature) from the 19th century (quoted in Wilson).
(And let it serve as a warning, also, to historians who do not properly
respect and honor the aspect of the past upon which I have been intoning...).
rights reserved, please contact Trina Semorile Yahoo group PhotoHistory
Listserv for usage of article without photographs)
The Silk-Worm's Will
By Miss H. P. Gould
On a plain rush bundle a silk-worm lay,
When a proud young princess came that way:
The haughty child of a human king,
Threw a sidelong glance at the humble thing,
That took with a silent gratitude,
From the mulberry leaf, her simple food;
And shrunk, half scorn and half disgust,
Away from her sister child of dust--
Declaring she never yet could see
Why a reptile form like this should be,
And that she was not made with nerves so firm,
As calmly to stand by a "crawling worm!"
With mute forbearance the silk-worm took
The taunting words, and the spurning look:
Alike a stranger to self and pride,
She's no disquiet from aught beside--
And lived of a meekness and peace possessed,
Which these debar from the human breast.
She only wished, for the harsh abuse,
To find some way to become of use
To the haughty daughter of lordly man;
To teach her wisdom, and make it plain,
That the humble worm was not made in vain;
A plan so generous, deep and high,
That, to carry it out, she must even die!
"No more," said she, "will I drink or eat!
I'll spin and weave me a winding-sheet,
To wrap me up from the sun's clear light,
And hide my form from her wounded sight.
In secret then, till my end draws nigh,
I'll toil for her; and when I die,
I'll leave behind, as a farewell boon,
The proud young princess, my whole cocoon,
To be reeled and wove to a shining lace
And hung in a veil o'er her scornful face!
And when she can calmly draw her breath
Through the very threads that have caused my death;
When she finds, at length, she has nerves so firm
As to wear the shroud of a crawling worm,
May she bear in mind, that she walks with pride
In the winding-sheet where the silk-worm died.
Images provided to compliment the WIPI article. All are copyrighted and
no permission granted for any other use.