Historical Profile  

Identification of Clothing/Textiles in Photographs

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(On Tue, 24 Feb 2004 Women In Photography International wrote: > Trina... Is there any possibility I could post your e-mail message on the WIPI site ?)

Trina Semorile from the Yahoo Groups PhotoHistory Listserv responds to a posting about an article on dating photographs

"Well, 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." Trina Semorile

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.

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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 paperback.

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, 1984.

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 Ltd., 1984.

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., 1981.

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 examples include:

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.
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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 photos.

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...).


(all 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.