Monday, April 28, 2008

Dressed for the Photographer

Dressed for the Photographer
Severa, Joan L. Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans and Fashions, 1840s-1900. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1995.

In March, I attended a Society of American Archivists workshop on the preservation of 20th visual materials. One of the instructors suggested Joan Severa's Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans and Fashions, 1840s-1900 as a guide for dating costumes and photographs, which explores 19th century social history and material culture.

Severa, Curator Emeritus of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin Museum, begins her study as the daguerreotype becomes inexpensive and available to everyday Americans, including the poor. Each decade covered has an extensive gallery where Severa uses the minutiae of the photographs to convey a sense of the time and customs of the sitters, through a variety of clothing styles like best, work, and play. Browsing through the photographs was an engaging way to spend a quiet Sunday afternoon.

From the Introduction:

In Dressed for the Photographer I have addressed the problem of how ordinary Americans of this period handled the often conflicting dictates of fashion, hard work, and economy in their clothing choices. In so doing, I have used a modified material culture approach; this method of study seeks to define a culture through its artifacts, and not the reverse. The precept is that, given a thorough background in the type of artifact, information about both the creators and the users of selected artifacts can be brought out through a series of investigative steps. This is what [Kenneth] Ames calls "informed intuition." This, I am able to judge the caliber of a woman's dress by the skillfulness of her alterations or the fit or the taste (not to mention the relative expense) involved in selecting her dress material, style, and trimmings by comparison with the going standards. Then, based on these observations, I can make certain judgments about her position in life....

I will be the first to say, as well, that women's fashion information forms the basis for this study and that men's and children's styles, for which there is much less information, are for the most part peripherally identified. I justify this by repeating two well-known facts: women's fashions are more easily tracked and identified, and many group photographs showing women in datable costumes contain men and children. The same is true with older men and women in group photographs; the "fashion lag" so often discussed is highly visible in the outdated garments worn by older people, when seen in conjunction with fashionable women....

There is one aspect of these photographs that I was not able to discuss to my satisfaction, as it had not actual bearing on the clothing analysis: the emotional impact of these faces from the past. I wanted to say that a certain sitter was extremely proud of her appearance in this costume or that another face bore the ravages of grief or that a handsome old man showed great dignity. It was my very strong attachment to the people shown in this book that has been my chief joy. And, of course, the images do speak for themselves. What they show is that is was important to these people to have their pictures taken; it was an opportunity to leave for prosperity an image of themselves at their very best. A camera portrait had somewhat the same momentous significance in the early years as a painted portrait and was undertaken with the same sense of destiny. A few lines I discovered beside an early-twentieth-century woman's photograph are poignant evidence of this:

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


Read more about Dressed for the Photographer

Further reading:

Photographs from the 19th Century: A Process Identification Guide
19th Century Photography
Dating Photos

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