For the first in my series on dating photos and paintings, I’ve chosen a family photo. This is my great-grandmother Christine Byrne, who I’m told was known as Teen in the family. She first married Joseph Rowan, my great-grandfather (who, it turns out, was a scoundrel) and secondly John Reilly (who apparently was a sweetheart).

Knowing who it is does help, because I can see she’s grown up but fairly young, which narrows it down. But let’s pretend I don’t know her birth date. The fashion clues I can investigate include her hair style, the shirtwaist (blouse) details (collar, sleeve, general shape), and skirt (we’re lucky it’s full-length, so we get to see the whole silhouette, length, and trim).

The long full skirt tells us it’s before the 1920s–we all know what 1920s flappers look like. And I think that we all know it’s not from the early years of photography: we can all picture mid-1800s styles’ full skirts and the bulky bustle styles of the 1870s and 1880s. So right away we can guess at a date range of about 1890-1920.

1859, 1888, and 1920-21

Look at the 1910s, though, and you see skirts above the ankle starting in 1915. (Well, you get just a peek of ankle in 1914.)

Left to Right: 1915, 1916, and 1918-19

We see more leg 1916-18 than we do in the early Twenties, when skirts go up and down before getting to the flapper look of 1925.

Left to Right: 1918-19; 1920-21; Fall/Winter 1922-3; 1924

Go back to the early 1910s, then. Still a possible date range for Teen?

Left to Right: 1911, 1913, 1914

Long skirts, but much narrower silhouette than hers, and very slender sleeves. (The blue dress of 1914 shows you just that peek of ankle.)

Okay then, we are down to 1890-1910. Can we shave off some years starting in 1890s, or will the 90s be perfect? Christine has a rather Victorian look about her, not so modern as the ladies above. Let’s go back to 1890 and work our way forward.

Left to Right: 1890, 1892, 1894.
Color: Peterson’s Magazine (USA) reprinting Les Modes Parisiennes (France); Black & White, Demorest’s Family magazine (USA)

At 1890, skirts are straight, with a lingering bustle effect. By 1892 (center picture), the skirt is narrow and straight; sleeves have a bit more puff at the shoulder. In 1894, we have the A-line which we think of as typical of the Nineties, which will last for the rest of the decade, and we see the leg-of-mutton sleeves we also think of as typical.

Decades get associated with “a look,” but fashion doesn’t pay attention to decades. The Nineties look starts in 1894. The Twenties look (1920s) starts in 1925. The iconic 1960s culture starts mid-decade and last into the early Seventies (although if you think of 60s fashion, you may think of both the hippie influence and the earlier sheath dress styles). But I digress. Just saying.

Left to Right: 1896, 1896, 1897

In 1895, sleeves are enormous. Whenever a style gets so extreme, it has to retreat or turn in a new direction, and sleeves now start diminishing yearly. 1896: fullness slightly tamed, ending further above the elbow. 1897: a pouf ends at the bicep, with very tight sleeves below. The skirt stays basically the same (this is not the place to go into minor construction novelties).

If you are wondering whether real people wore anything as extreme as these sleeves…

From Carol Kregloh’s collection


DAR Museum dresses, 1894-5 at left, 1896 at right. Accession #s 2011.12.1ab, 2007.6 ab.

Extant garments show similarly fine-tuned changes. I don’t say all women changed their sleeves every single year, but you can definitely date the style, and allow for the possibility that a woman wore it that way for an extra year…or two? With such rapid changes, you’d look out of date awfully quickly.

And generally, women did keep up with these seemingly minor changes. Fashion magazines aimed at middle-class women who wanted to keep up with fashion on a budget, and might be doing some or all of their own sewing, offered instructions on how to alter last year’s skirt or sleeve styles to keep up. (The Delineator, the source of many of these illustrations, was primarily a paper pattern company; the magazine was a selling tool for the patterns, so they assumed a readership of home seamstresses.)

Left, 1898; Right, 1900. The Delineator.

1898: Sleeves barely have any fullness and have smoothed out, instead of having that manic puff. 1900 sees no fullness to speak of at all.

So: we can eliminate the 1890s. The skirts don’t have the right drape or shape, and the sleeves aren’t at all similar. Now let’s work our way back from 1911, where we left off.

1908, Delineator

This 1908 plate shows one dress with a slight train, like Teen’s, but this is now for at-home wear only: the street dress has no train. Teen’s outfit is a casual shirtwaist and skirt, yet has a train. Also, here the skirts are pretty narrow–and the waistline is raised; this so-called Empire Revival doesn’t look very Jane Austen-era-ish to us, but it did to them. Sleeves in 1908 to about 1912 were narrow, often with multiple tucks (like the green dress’s), or a short sleeve of the dress fabric and an undersleeve of lawn, net, or lace (also often tucked), as we see in the pink.

Look closely at Teen’s sleeves: there’s a little gathering at the shoulder, but most of the fullness is above the wrist, in a style called a bishop sleeve. There’s also a blousy effect in front: some extra drape over the center front around the waist. So that’s what we are looking for.

We might also find some vertical trim on skirts like this: long tabs applied to the skirt, with topstitching outlining them near the tabs’ edges.

1905, 1906, 1907, from Ladies’ Home Journal

1905-7: These sleeves still have no fullness near the wrist, but look–we have a blousy drape at the front near the waist! Also, vertical pleats in the 1905 and 1906 styles give the skirts a look somewhat similar to Teen’s. We are getting closer.

1902, 1903, 1904

Going back to just after 1900–we hit pay dirt. All three of the illustrations above have the vertical detailing, the slight train, and the sweep or drape we see in Christine’s skirt–plus the blousy bodice front. The 1902 picture has just a tiny burst of fullness above the wrist while the rest of the sleeve is still tight, so this doesn’t seem quite right. But 1903 and 1904 have truly Bishop sleeves, with soft fullness above cuffs, and vertical emphasis to the skirts.

So the clothes can be narrowed down to 1903-04.

Does the hair align with this date? We have to keep in mind that not everyone’s hair is going to behave perfectly in keeping with fashion’s dictates, but we can see where the fullness is and see how close we get. We know that these bishop sleeves don’t exist in this fullness until 1903. Does anything about the hair date it to later than that?

1902 Ladies’ Home Journal, with Christine

Already in 1902, we see styles similar to Teen’s. The left two ladies’ hair is more bouffant overall, but the other three’s pompadours emphasize the vertical, as Teen’s does. The woman below Teen shows what I think her hair probably looked like in profile: the slightly forward-leaning pouf above the forehead was the look you wanted, but without much pouf on the sides. The two on the right are fairly close to Teen, and suggest the look she’s after–maybe her hair didn’t have enough body to carry off the side poufs.

Hair for the next few years is fairly similar. By 1907-09, it gets noticeably wider. We’ve already ruled out the styles of 1907+ pretty firmly, but should we consider extending the date of Teen’s photo to 1906?

In the above photo (I wish I had a higher resolution), Teen is standing at the back in the white shirtwaist. I’d date its sleeves to 1905-7, but her mother (seated at center) and sister (seated at left) show later, slimmer sleeves. If family lore is to be believed, Teen was captured frowning at my off-stage grandfather, who was misbehaving. He was born in 1907. While lore is not evidence, I could see dating this as late as 1909; and it suggests Teen didn’t mind wearing sleeves that were a little outdated.

I’m still going to go with a date range of 1903-1904 for her portrait, with a possible extension to 1906. Going to the studio, I think you’d wear an updated shirtwaist; a family snapshot might catch you in last year’s.

It’s not always possible to narrow down a three-year date range, but fashion changes really sped up after about 1870. Each skirt and sleeve and bodice shape changed quickly enough that by seeing where the details overlap in time, you can often get down to a couple of years’ time frame–assuming your subject was keeping up with fashion to a reasonable degree, and you can see their clothing details.

I admit I started with an easy example, with plenty of clues to go on, in a period where you can really narrow things down. Next time I’ll have to work with more of a head-scratcher, to walk you through what to do when you have less to go on.

Now I will reveal Great-Granny Christine Byrne’s life dates: she was born in 1884 in Sharon, PA. So in 1904 she would be twenty. Seems approximately right for the photo. In about 1906 she married Joseph Aloysius Rowan. They had two children: Bernardine and my grandfather Paul. There was a bit of a scandal whereby Joseph was kicked out of town by Teen’s brothers for cheating on her; she was later able to marry John Reilly, with whom she had another daughter, Rosemary, and apparently a long and happy marriage. In the 1930s they moved to California, where Teen died in 1972. Sadly, I never got to meet her. We do own two quilts she made, one as a wedding present to my grandparents, and a child’s quilt made for my mother’s birth in 1939. We treasure them.

In later posts, I’ll give some more general guidance on how to look at costume and hair details to date your photographs. Meanwhile, here is a link to a useful timeline of women’s fashion from the 1780s through 1970s, using fashion illustrations of each year. Timelines like this (you can find more by googling) are a very good place to start, looking at the basic silhouette to narrow down your date range to a decade or two. (And yes, I’ll do some men too.)

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