Thursday, August 11, 2011

Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans and Fashion, 1840-1900

Many costume books show the fashions of royalty and the upper classes, but few show the fashion of people of more modest means. Joan Severa’s Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans and fashion, 1840-1900 looks at historical photographs to acquaint the reader with the everyday fashion of those times.

The book is divided into chapters by decade. In the first part of each chapter, Severa describes the trends for the span of ten years in general terms, giving the historical context and quoting from the foremost fashion arbiter of the time -- the 19th century "queen of the monthlies" Godey's Lady's Book and Magazine. Though the United States class system was quite fluid, it was necessary to dress in the prescribed manner to achieve upward mobility.

The author points out that a new invention such as the home sewing machine also figured into fashion assimilation. what could take several days sewn by hand, might only take several hours to sew with a sewing machine. After the sewing machine was patented in 1851 it took less than a decade for this invention to become a part of many households.

After generalities about each decade, the author focuses on fashion, broken down into areas for women of dress, undergarment, accessories, headgear and wraps. There are also briefer parallel sections for men.

The second part of each chapter is devoted to photographs and accompanying explanatory text. Each photograph is given a half page, with the text making up the other half. The type of photography, if known, is labeled in the top left hand corner with a range of dates within which the picture was taken. The owning institution is also noted.

In a daguerreotype listed as having been created between 1850-1853 an African American woman holds a partially open book while gazing into the camera. The woman’s hairstyle is more current than the dress and is the element that dates the picture. The dress looks to be constructed of fine wool which could be worn in the North during winter. The author conjectures that it was probably made for a larger woman and altered for the sitter. Reconstructing a fitted garment for a smaller woman is difficult, especially if one leaves the bodice on the dress. Here the back, front and midsections have been altered separately with the results that the seams are off center and darts look to be at odd angels. The dress should have fit snugly over the shoulders but, since it was not altered in this area, puffs up. Despite these alterations it is clear that the dress was of high quality.

In another example from the 1850s, a man sits one hand on hip, holding his outer shirt open so that a gun is exposed. The other hand holds a pick axe. The portrait is labeled “Joseph Sharp of Sharp’s Flats,” most probably indicating that he would be overseeing a plot of land to be mined for gold. Since his clothing is clean, and the equipment looks new, the author surmises that the picture was taken soon after these items were purchased, dating the period at the beginning of the California Gold Rush. The manner in which the necktie has been pulled out is at one end is consistent with many pictures of men from the early 1850s. Taking into consideration these two elements - the beginning of the Gold Rush and the idiosyncratic necktie, Severa arrives at the date for the photograph as between 1850-1852.

source: Bancroft Library (hosted at Calisphere)

We look at these photographs, taken 150 years ago, and though the clothing is from another era, we are tied by the commonality of fashion, and the wish to keep a record of oneself. It is also gratifying that the author pays attention to our country's diversity including images of African Americans, Chinese immigrants and Native Americans are included here. Through her scholarship and knowledge we gain insight into the lives of these people. Her ability to read the photographs reveal details that might have been lost to us – one different detail on a dress that would’ve been dated earlier pulls the year that the photograph was taken into the next decade.
Severa sums up her outlook in her preface with an epigraph written by a woman portrayed in a photograph:

Look upon this face, and know
That I was a person, here, in this time and place,
And I was happy.

Dressed for the Photographer also includes a glossary, contacts for the photographic sources, an index, and an extensive bibliography.

Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans and Fashion, 1840-1900 by Joan L. Severa (Kent State University Press, 1995).

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