How Women's Fashion Can Help Date Old Photographs

Updated on March 6, 2019
Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores's interest in fashion history dates from her teenage years when vintage apparel was widely available in thrift stores.

Black skirts and white blouses without the huge puffs of the 1890s as well as the white dress with layers lace places this in the early 1900s.
Black skirts and white blouses without the huge puffs of the 1890s as well as the white dress with layers lace places this in the early 1900s. | Source

Trying to identify ancestors while looking at old photographs can be a bit of a challenge, especially if you have one of those families where the same face reappears every generation or so. One method is to study what kind of clothing a subject is wearing in a portrait. This is easiest if the subject is female as women's fashions change more quickly than for men.

In general, old photos of family members were posed and often taken by professional photographers. Even when people began to use their own cameras, subjects were often posed. People dressed their best for these portraits in new, fashionable garments. Pictures of younger women typically show contemporary style trends. Older women often stick to older styles. You may see this stereotype portrayed in older movies and TV shows where the old woman wore outdated costumes that were a generation outdated.

If the subject of your picture lived in a city, clothing style will better reflect the style of the day than if she lived in a rural area. People on the higher end of the economic spectrum also appear more fashionable than the less well off.

That is not to say that all older, rural, or lower class people were way behind the time. Sometimes the lag was only a few years. And less well off women with good sewing skills could copy high-end fashion using inexpensive fabrics.

Background and Other Clues

It helps to have some reference points and some knowledge of your family tree. Name and dates of your ancestors will help you figure out who a particular person is by looking at their clothing.

One exception is when people dressed in period costumes for parties. I have a lovely picture of a great aunt dressed like Marie Antoinette. Well, of course, they didn't have photography in those days so the picture could not have been from the 1790s.

Women's garments often made significant changes within a five-year span so you may be able to pinpoint a photograph into a small range of time. That does not mean that you can look at all your old photographs and pinpoint the exact date. You are looking for clues.

Look at the background for clues. I found a wonderful old photo of a young woman dressed in like a cabaret entertainer. Lucky for me there is a calendar in the background!

Snapshots that show a house can help if you know when your family lived in that house.

Military uniforms change over the years. The same can be true for nurses. If your family member is wearing a World War I uniform, you can guess the picture was taken between 1915–1918.

Full Body or Head Shot

When trying to identify clothing styles, it is easier if you have a full body shot. That way, you can study hemlines, skirt draping, sleeve length, and waistlines.

Closer shots that only show the subject's head and upper torso will be more challenging. In this case, you must study details like collars and collar decoration, hair, hats, upper bodice (or blouse), shoulders, and the tops of the sleeves. While this will take some attention, you may note a significant detail.

Shoes and footwear may not be helpful in very old photos. Long skirts often covered footwear. Also, shoe and boot styles could be worn over long periods of time. High button boots, for instance, were popular for over thirty years.

1860s

Pagoda sleeves, low set shoulder line,  flounced hoop skirt, and central part in her hair suggest this picture was taken in the 1860s
Pagoda sleeves, low set shoulder line, flounced hoop skirt, and central part in her hair suggest this picture was taken in the 1860s | Source

1860s

Skirts

In the early 1860s, women wore wide skirts with flounces. Crinolines or hoops often created very large skirts. By the mid-decade, the skirt appears flatter in the front with most of the volume toward the rear. Skirts were often decorated with frills, trim, or heavy flounces.

In the mid-1860s, walking skirts featured cords to pull up the hem so the fabric would not drag on the ground.

Bodices

Pagoda sleeves of the early part of the decade were narrow at the shoulder and wide at the wrist, worn with white undersleeves which peeked out above the wrist.

Later in the decade, Bishop's sleeves were full, long sleeves gathered at the wrist. Bell sleeves fit tightly at the upper arm and widened at the elbow, open at the wrist. The bell sleeves of the late 1860s were cut so they curved up on the underside of the forearm.

Yolked bodices show horizontal seams that extend from the upper arms across the chest. Yokes were edged with small ruffles. The shoulder line, in general, was low with shoulder seams appearing at the upper arm instead of at the natural shoulder line.

Outfits appear somewhat high waisted. The lower edge of the bodice ended in two points just below the waist.

In the late 1860s, the bolero jacket ended above the waist, was worn open, and was decorated with braiding.

Hair was parted in the middle. Earrings often dangled and were ornate. Wide belts accentuated tiny waists. Brooches were worn on high collars.

1870s

The flounced high set bustle with train and hanging sausage curls at the back of her head suggest this photo was taken in the 1870s.
The flounced high set bustle with train and hanging sausage curls at the back of her head suggest this photo was taken in the 1870s. | Source

1870s

Skirts

Skirts gathered toward the rear forming a soft bustle. Early 1870s bustles set high, then lowered toward the end of the decade featuring layers decorated with ruffles or edging. The bustle fashion ended by 1877 though skirts were still gathered toward the rear.

Skirts became more narrow at the end of the decade. A layered look featured an underskirt as well as copious ruffles, flounces, and lace.

The princess line was a dress without waist definition. The slim line extended below the hips where the dress was elaborately decorated with ruffles, ribbons, bows, and puffs.

Skirts featured trains.

Bodice

Women wore a long, tight bodice or a flat front type shirt. The bodice flared out over the hips. The late 70s saw a longer waistline and a very long bodice that fell below the hips and could reach the knees. Necklines were low and square for evening. Day-time necklines could be V-shaped with an insert. High necks worn for daytime featured lace and ruffles. Many necklines showed low in front and very high at the back of the neck.

The shoulder line returned to a natural position.

Sleeves fit tightly at 3/4 length or to the wrist.

Bows were everywhere, on skirts and bodices, and were often very large.

Hair was gathered tightly at the sides of the head and piled into elaborate coils on the top and toward the back. Loose curls hung down at the back. Bangs appeared in the mid-70s and were often crimped.

1880s

Note the horizontal draping of the skirt. Bodice flares below the waist and fits the hips. Also note bangs indicating early 1880s.
Note the horizontal draping of the skirt. Bodice flares below the waist and fits the hips. Also note bangs indicating early 1880s. | Source

1880s

Skirts

Women's clothes were ornate and highly decorated with embellishments. Skirts draped toward the back. The mid-1880s saw an extreme bustle, a horizontal projection at the rear. Bustles disappeared by the end of the decade.

Late 1880s narrow skirts featured horizontal, drooped, or slightly diagonal draping created by tucked up over skirts.

Polonaise-style meant that the front of the skirt was pulled up and toward the back exposing an underskirt.

Bodice

Bodices flared out some below the waist and were highly decorated. High necks often featured white lace or small white ruffles at the upper edge.

Sleeves were tight, stopping just short of the wrist. Later in the decade, sleeves loosened and featured light vertical puffs above the shoulder and were gathered at the wrist.

Bangs were still worn in the 80s. As the style faded, women could be seen with longer, parted bangs. Hair was drawn up into a loose bun.

1890s

Note large sleeves; light blouse tucked in dark skirt, ties, and straw boater hats suggest the 1890s.
Note large sleeves; light blouse tucked in dark skirt, ties, and straw boater hats suggest the 1890s. | Source

1890s

During the 1890s, women's clothing simplified and appeared quite conservative compared to the ornate styles of the previous decade. Tailored suits introduced a slightly masculine look.

Loose blouses replaced tight bodices. Women often wore light-colored blouses tucked into dark skirts. Bell-shaped skirts fit tightly over the hips, flaring wide at the hem in the early part of the decade.

Sleeve details are the best way to date photos from this time.

1890 featured tight sleeves with a slight puff above the shoulder.

By 1892 the upper arm and shoulder were encased in a huge puff called leg-o-mutton sleeves.

In 1896 the huge sleeves deflated some. By 1897, though the puff remained, it was greatly diminished. Bows decorated a high neck now topped with a ruffle.

Sleeves in 1898 were tight with a high puff ball at the top of the arm.

Long ties and bow ties were plain or frilly. Wide belts were popular. Straw boater hats were worn in warm weather. Hair was worn in a soft puff, topped with a loose bun.

1900–1910

The huge hat on puffed hair, the loose fronted blouse decorated by tons of lace date this photo to the early 1900s.
The huge hat on puffed hair, the loose fronted blouse decorated by tons of lace date this photo to the early 1900s. | Source

1900–1910

A pigeon fronted S-shaped profile dominated the turn of the last century. Skirts hugged the hips and widened near the hemline. Though the shirt waist and dark skirt remained popular, new new, soft femininity returned but with looser corseting.

The look was somewhat broad shouldered and top heavy with a puffy look and undefined bosom. Blouses were highly embellished with layers of lace, ruffles, and ribbons. The loose blouse tucked into a wide belt or cummerbund.

High necklines were often adorned with a small ruffle as well as lace. V necks were popular. Mid-decade featured a yolk fronted blouse decorated with lace. Bolero jackets and higher waistlines created by wide belting were popular mid-decade.

1908 saw a new slimming style paired with gigantic hats often decorated with feathers.

1910–1920

Simple collars and above the ankle hemlines date this picture to the 1910s. Note longer tunic type blouse.
Simple collars and above the ankle hemlines date this picture to the 1910s. Note longer tunic type blouse. | Source

1910–1920

Though the blouse and dark skirt remained popular, fashions loosened up into a more comfortable style. Sheath-style dresses showed more ankle. Waistlines were less restricted. Tunic tops hung below the hips.

Sleeves were wide at the top and tapered toward the wrist.

The huge hats of the previous decade continued on for some years but grow smaller and more simple mid-decade.

By 1915, with the onset of WWI, a military look influenced women's clothing. Look for trench coats and military cut jackets. Hemlines rose to mid-calf and skirts widened in the War crinoline style.

The end of the decade saw a return to the looser sheath type dresses that would continue into the 1920s. Women often wore their hair in a low, loose bun. The sides often appear to be bobbed,

1920s

The crimped, bobbed hair; horizontal headbands; and jaunty air date this photo to the 1920s.
The crimped, bobbed hair; horizontal headbands; and jaunty air date this photo to the 1920s. | Source

1920s

The loose style emerged into a look that de-emphasized the bust, waist, and rear. Tubular dresses featured a drop waistline with a low set belt. Early in the decade, hemlines fell below the calf. Hair was often bobbed and permed.

By the mid-1920s hemlines rose to the knees. While we associate the time with flappers, more conservative women still wore shorter hemlines. Long necklaces and bangle bracelets were popular. Wide headbands were worn across the forehead and even appeared on brides. Cloche hats were without brims.

A casual new look featured jersey knits, sportswear, pleated skirts and sweater sets with long, loose, pocketed cardigans. V-necks were often decorated with a bow. Suits, coats, and sweater often sported a long, low slung lapel.

1930s

The Great Depression introduced a new conservative style. Hemlines could be just below the knee or mid-calf. Bobbed hair was simple with less perming but gentle waves.

Dressy clothes featured a sleek look and often included diagonal lines. A bias cutting technique created a smooth, swinging, graceful silhouette. The waistline rose to more natural lines. Dresses and skirts were often belted. Small collars and Peter Pan collars were simple and undecorated on plain cotton blouses.

Silky or chiffon blouses often featured soft bows at the neck and often featured short sleeves.

Prints came in geometric Art Deco styles, dots, floral, and novelty prints.

Sportswear became prevalent. Wide-legged lounge pants showed up at home or at the beach. A naval look cropped up in wide-collared, V-neck blouses with loose bows.

At the end of the decade, hemlines rose to just below the knee. Dresses and suits began to feature small shoulder pads.

1940s

Knee length hems, simple design, shoulder pads and longer hair date this one to the 1940s.
Knee length hems, simple design, shoulder pads and longer hair date this one to the 1940s. | Source

1940s

Restrictions on the use of materials used to make clothing (due to WWII) resulted in knee-length hemlines and simple, classic lines. Shoulder pads and a slightly military look became popular.

Hair was worn longer than the previous decade in soft, low slung rolls. Hair nets and snoods appeared. As in World War I, women often appeared in uniform for work or volunteer service.

The trim look emphasized the bust, hips, and waistline.

Popular prints included polka dots and tropical flora.

In the late 1940s, post-war fashions introduced an hourglass silhouette with a tiny waistline and wide, crinoline skirts worn below the knee. Suits featured tight pencil skirts.

1950s

Short hair; longer and wider skirts date this pic to the 1950s.
Short hair; longer and wider skirts date this pic to the 1950s. | Source

1950s

Casual clothing became more prevalent in the 1950s. Snapshots show women wearing pedal pushers, slacks, or shorts.

An hourglass silhouette featured tiny waists, an ample bustline, and hips, all highlighted by swing skirts (like Dior's New Look).

Suits and sweater sets often featured pencil, or tight skirts and short sweaters or jackets.

Hair was cut shorter than in the 1940s.

Topper coats were large and loose, worn over slacks or slim skirts.

Young women often wore jeans that were sometimes rolled into a cuff. Saddle oxfords or tennis shoes were worn with jeans. Some young ones wore short socks with a wide, circular skirt.

1960s

A wide variety of mid 60s styles including bouffant hair, short skirts, go-go boots, middriff top, and Bermuda shorts.
A wide variety of mid 60s styles including bouffant hair, short skirts, go-go boots, middriff top, and Bermuda shorts. | Source

1960s

Early 1960s fashions looked much like the 50s but quickly loosened up. The mature look gave way to a youthful and playful style. Shift dresses and shirt-waisted dresses came in floral or geometric prints. Hems grew shorter.

Early 60s hair puffed large. The new casual showed women in photographs wearing very casual clothes like Bermuda shorts (plain or plaid) and mid-midriff tops.

As the decade progressed hemlines shortened to mini skirts. Sheaths loosened into tent dresses in bright colors and bold prints. Pale lipstick is obvious even in black and white photos. Makeup emphasized the eyes. Jewelry was cheap and chunky.

Late in the decade, casual style offered blue jeans, tee shirts, chunky boots, and sandals. Bell bottom pants flared out below the knee. Ethnic and historic influences featured Dashiki shirts, fringed cowboy jackets, and long necklaces.

1970s

Loose, carefree hair, denim jacket and pants, short waistline, and natural look suggest the 1970s. All you really need to see is the weird yellow tint.
Loose, carefree hair, denim jacket and pants, short waistline, and natural look suggest the 1970s. All you really need to see is the weird yellow tint. | Source

1970s

It's easy to identify a photograph from the 1970s because they all (almost) turned orangey/yellow. It's your biggest clue if you're looking at a snapshot.

The hippie look of the past decade continued on for some. Denim was king. Edwardian style prairie dresses featured flounces and small floral prints. Peasant skirts, dresses, and skirts featured embroidery and loose, wide sleeves. Western-style was popular with Western cut shirts, leather vests, wide-brimmed hats, and fringed jackets.

Waistlines rose, sometimes above the natural waist.

Bright, bold colors gave way at the end of the decade to earth tones in orange, brown, tan, and avocado green.

Pantsuits were worn with blouses with bows.

Later in the decade jersey wrap dresses hung below the knee. The bell bottoms reduced to a flare, becoming straight legged. Slogan tee shirts were worn with jeans.

Chunky heeled and high platform shoes were popular.

Long hair was worn straight or feathered. The shag haircut was a choppy, layered style. Large sunglasses were worn by everyone.

The late decade saw kaftan style dresses in bold prints. Punk and disco were popular.

The 1970s offered a wild, mishmash of looks that depended on individual style.

Dating Clues in Old Photographs - Resources

Fashion trends can only offer clues to the age of a picture. Styles bleed over into the next decade, and some women embrace the styles of youth even after those fashions become passe.

Research old photographs by studying pictures from various decades to begin to understand the look of each period.

Check out Wikimedia commons and look for "fashion by decade."

Find copies or online reprints of old catalogs to see the types of clothing worn by regular people.

Old Life Magazines are full of pictures of people.

Most libraries offer books about clothing. Start with an encyclopedia type book that presents clothing from an extended period of time.

Remember that old fashion plates and high style magazines are an early introduction to details of styles. Normal people would have worn the styles a bit later than the publication date of the plate.

Look at books as well. Some helpful books include:

Out of Style - An Illustrated Guide to Vintage Fashions by Betty Kreisel Shubert

Dressed for the Photographer - Ordinary Americans and Fashion 1840 - 1900 by Joan L. Severa

Questions & Answers

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      • Dolores Monet profile imageAUTHOR

        Dolores Monet 

        2 weeks ago from East Coast, United States

        Hi Peggy - thanks to the people who in the 1970s rejected limitations on fashions, your mother's opinion was on target. I guess you can date men's clothing by ties, lapels, and other changes, I think it's a lot harder than dating women's fashions. The people who love clothing trends are the ones who help us date those old pix! Thanks, Peggy.

      • Peggy W profile image

        Peggy Woods 

        3 weeks ago from Houston, Texas

        Hi Dolores,

        My mother used to say that if you hang onto things long enough, sooner or later, most everything comes back into vogue. In the case of men's clothing, especially items like ties, they can only do so much to change them. Ties get thinner, then wider, then thinner, and so on. The same with their suit lapels. A good middle of the road classic style most often stays in fashion much longer than choosing the latest fad.

      • Dolores Monet profile imageAUTHOR

        Dolores Monet 

        3 weeks ago from East Coast, United States

        Hi Peggy - thanks for stopping by. Looking at pictures of fashion and reading about it - certain ideas are constantly recycled. I had one pic I posted in one article of a woman in 1918 or so. I loved it because she was wearing something that closely resembled one of my favorite outfits including the shoes. She could have walked into a party today and fit in perfectly!

      • Peggy W profile image

        Peggy Woods 

        3 weeks ago from Houston, Texas

        This was so interesting to read, particularly looking at the photographs which you included. I well remember the eclectic array of clothing styles in the 1970s as well as prior to that, and obviously, after. Just about anything was worn back in the 70s. I love looking at old photos of my family members several generations ago. Styles certainly do change over the years. Some of them seem to recycle now and again.

      • Dolores Monet profile imageAUTHOR

        Dolores Monet 

        3 weeks ago from East Coast, United States

        Hi Glen - I was thinking that myself. Once your get to the 1970s, there is such a huge variety of styles. In the old days, fashion was less diverse. But I think when we step away from our picture of the present, the images may be clearer. If that makes any sense. Thanks!

      • Dolores Monet profile imageAUTHOR

        Dolores Monet 

        3 weeks ago from East Coast, United States

        Hi Nancy - thanks! Glad you enjoyed. There must be so much research involved in writing historical memoirs and historical fiction! The things they wore, used, the furniture, and surroundings! You must really have to dive in to that past world.

      • Dolores Monet profile imageAUTHOR

        Dolores Monet 

        3 weeks ago from East Coast, United States

        Hi Heidi - it can be quite complicated especially when certain styles just stay with us for a long time, and when certain people don't keep up with trends. Thanks!

      • Dolores Monet profile imageAUTHOR

        Dolores Monet 

        3 weeks ago from East Coast, United States

        Hi Flourish - yes it is a fun mystery. It helps if you have some information about your ancestors such as cencus data so that when you figure an approximate date you actually have a name to plug in. Thanks!

      • Dolores Monet profile imageAUTHOR

        Dolores Monet 

        3 weeks ago from East Coast, United States

        Hi Virginia - I got a lot of questions asking me to help date old photos (from another article) so I thought this would be a good idea. Also, I found an old photo that looks exactly like my Great Aunt Florine but the clothes were way off, so I knew that it was someone else. Being able to date the clothing told me that it was probably not her mother, because the clothing she wore indicated an older relative. Those old pix are great. Thanks!

      • Dolores Monet profile imageAUTHOR

        Dolores Monet 

        3 weeks ago from East Coast, United States

        Hi Maren - hmmm, I need to check and see if I included make up which was not used often until the 1920s. Glad you enjoyed!

      • Dolores Monet profile imageAUTHOR

        Dolores Monet 

        3 weeks ago from East Coast, United States

        Hi Peg- one of my problems with these historic fashion hubs is that I become obsessed with looking at the old pictures. They are so fascinating!

        The 70s was certainly a diverse decade with so many different styles to choose from. Lucky that because there was a lot of rubbish too - all that polyester and some of those awful colors! Thank you for stopping by!

      • Glenis Rix profile image

        GlenR 

        3 weeks ago from UK

        Very useful tips, Dolores, for anyone who is interested in family history. I wonder how easy it will be for future generations to pinpoint the youth of today in time, as cheap fashion changes almost on a weekly basis.

      • profile image

        Nancy Hinchliff 

        4 weeks ago

        Dolores, I really liked this article and all the pictures you added. I am writing a historical memoir and your presentation was very helpful. Thanks.

      • heidithorne profile image

        Heidi Thorne 

        4 weeks ago from Chicago Area

        Truth! What people wear can be very helpful in dating photos. It's hard to believe how much change occurs within just 10 years! Thanks for sharing the trip down fashion memory lane.

      • FlourishAnyway profile image

        FlourishAnyway 

        4 weeks ago from USA

        This is great advice for dating old photos when you don’t have anything else to go from. I like your examples. It’s like a mystery and you’re Sherlock.

      • Virginia Allain profile image

        Virginia Allain 

        4 weeks ago from Central Florida

        Wonderful analysis of the fashion for each decade. I'm working on an article about saving old photos even if you don't know who the people are. Using clues like you provide here can help people narrow down the possible names that might fit.

      • Maren Morgan M-T profile image

        Maren Elizabeth Morgan 

        4 weeks ago from Pennsylvania

        Fantastic, encyclopedic treatment! And once respectable women started using make-up, those styles can further help with dating a photo. I really enjoyed this article!

      • PegCole17 profile image

        Peg Cole 

        4 weeks ago from Northeast of Dallas, Texas

        Loved this stylish trip back in time. Some of these styles are still familiar to me, the hair styles, shoes and accessories. I remember those huge zippers, bell bottom pants, jump suits, in lime green, orange and paisley colors from the seventies.

        The forties have always been among my favorite eras of clothing with the tailored suits, capes and hats. And the fifties with white gloves and shirt waist dresses.

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