Tips for Researching 19th Century Fashion

Photo from the mid 1880s.

– Collection of the author.

One of the best ways to identify when a photo was taken is to look at the fashion clues! Think about it. If you were shown several high school yearbook photos from the 1940s, 1960s, 1980s and 2000, you’d probably be able to identify which belongs to which decade, right? The clothing, makeup, hairstyles and even jewelry of each era are distinct.

So it was also in earlier decades–like in the early decades of photography. If you can identify the hairstyles, headgear and apparel you see in an antique photo, you can narrow down the time period in which it was taken. So here are some tips for researching 19th century fashion:

  • Look for drama. Does the overall silhouette or shape of any piece of clothing, accessory or a hairstyle grab your attention? What about the print on a piece of fabric? The more dramatic, the more likely the trend can be more easily associated with a time period–and the more likely you’ll spot a similar item in a historical fashion book (see the list below).
  • Look for detail. Does a fussy detail catch your eye? The way a collar is tied, a brooch pin, or the way the sideburns are trimmed? Again, these can often be tied to a season of popularity–which you’ll find illustrated in books.
  • Pay attention to texture. Just like 1970s polyester or 1950s taffeta, you’ll find trends in 19th century fabrics, too. The same goes for accessories: are the buttons shiny metal or do they appear to be fabric-covered? Of course, it’s tougher to identify specific materials from old photos unless you know something about them and you’re looking closely. But you can distinguish some. Think of the difference in sheen between wool and silk. Bone and metal. A velvet ribbon compared to a cotton one.

Once you’ve started noticing these details, look for corresponding fashions in historical costume books. Here are a few I recommend: