Clothing Clues in Family History

January 28, 2020 Deborah Wilbrink

Clothing clues in family history from old photographs can be read with a little research. Sometimes, the clothing can locate a region; sometimes it can pinpoint a smaller date range for those wearers’ lives. While attending the annual conference of the Federation of Genealogical Societies annual conference, I heard Maureen Taylor, The Photo Detective, lecture about clothing in family history. Taylor adds to understanding of our ancestors through their clothing. Here are a few things I learned from her FGS presentation.

Heads, Hats and Hair

Older family photos can be dated by style, not only of clothing and hats, but of hair. For example, men used curling irons in the 1840s. Longer hairstyles of women were due to the influence of circus troupes!  And in the 1920s, a man could ask for divorce if his wife cut her hair without permission. You may get a clothing clue in family history when there is netting on hats. That style was more popular in the South. If you suspect a certain era due to clothing in your mystery family photo, try looking at the ads for clothing in online historic newspapers to match styles. Date your photograph by examining the styles of the youngest people. Old people will keep wearing the same styles. Does that surprise anyone?

Little Women

I’ve always been a lover of clothing, historic and otherwise. If you saw the revival of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women at the movies, you probably noticed the costumes! The novel and movie are set in the New England area during the Civil War and the years just after. Here’s an article about how costume designer got clothing clues to design historically accurate styles for each character: here. Meanwhile, you have your own wardrobe to examine in those family photographs! [Photo from Columbia Pictures, Little Women, c.2019]

Money and Means

You may also be able to divine social or economic standing from a photograph. Before the Civil War, photos of the wealthy were for amusement as well as the formal portraits, but for the lower and middle classes, a photograph was a significant event. Cost was the factor, of course; prices for photos after the Civil War fell to 10 cents for a paper photograph. More fabric equaled more money in many styles, like those with bustles.

Private Eye

If you want to learn more about historic photographs, visit Her private eye for hire as the Photo Detective yields results! If you suspect there are clothing clues in your family history, get some advice from Taylor’s website. I especially enjoyed the videos about her exploration of a photograph to learn more about an historic person. If you need help writing your own family story or memoir, my blog at Perfect Memoirs, Best Book Ever (Is Your Own Story) is a good place to start.

Deborah Wilbrink is a personal historian and ghostwriter who spoke at the 2019 Federation of Genealogical Societies about Writing Your Family History.

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