Who Were They?

Lost and forgotten photos from the past

These are very general terms to help us date some photos by the fashions ladies are wearing. Keep in mind that just like today, women held onto their favorite fashions, and in America we were generally a year or two behind European fashions. Older women tended to dress in the styles they felt comfortable in as young women, so don’t be surprised to have a firm date of a photo with older fashions displayed. Middle class and above had the more elaborate designs, but each station of life mocked its betters. Clothing was remade when possible to accommodate changing styles, or made into children’s clothing. Finally, the corset was worn through all eras as a foundation garment and clothing was structured to fit over a corseted body. Women in the lower classes had corsets too, but they were probably more like flexible stays. Think about what you do with your worn out undergarments and that will answer your question of “why aren’t there any surviving pieces to study?” The phrase “loose woman” comes from women who did not wear corsets and it is obvious in their appearance once you know what you are looking at. The corset did not truly fall out of fashion until the 1920s, so any historical novel claiming their heroine was progressive or disdained a corset is the result of a lazy author. I welcome all historical fashion comments – professional or amateur – to add to the resources!


All photos (c) 2012 Who Were They? and Martha Gibbons

Civil War Era


1860-1865 – Civil War era. The dress generally provides a “round” look, with dropped shoulder seams, trimmings on the bodice but not generally on the skirts, round neckline with small Peter Pan collars, wide skirts with petticoats and hoop skirts underneath. Hair is parted in the center and pulled back over the ears, gathered into a chignon at the nape of the neck. Bonnets are narrow from side to side and high above the face.




Later 1860s


1866-1869 – post Civil War era.There are many similarities to the Civil War era, but toward 1868 skirts begin trending toward an elliptical shape with more fabric in back. Shoulder seams are creeping higher.





Photo dated to early 1870s


1870-1876 – First Bustle era. The skirt has finally made its way to the back of the body with smooth fronts and padded and fluffed backs, giving women a very provocative form. Bodices feature shoulder seams that are more in line with the natural shoulder and remain there for the rest of the century. As the skirts get bigger the hats get smaller.





Natural Form


1877-1885 – Natural Form era. The body is accented in smooth lines that define the hourglass figure. The body is elongated in height, bodices trend toward longer and longer lengths as the later part of the period approaches. Skirts are straight and asymmetrical designs are popular. Hair is dressed high and hats are bigger.





Allie & Wm Busse 1885


1885-1890 – Second Bustle era. The bustle is back with a vengeance! Bodices are less trimmed and skirts are trimmed like there is no tomorrow. The bustle stands out as the focal point of the dress, with aprons and draperies accenting the smooth front of the skirt. Hair is dressed higher on the head, sausage curls and braids are popular. Hats are small brimmed and sit on top of the head.





Irene Monroe 1894


1890-1900 – Belle Epoch or Gay 90s era. Bodices are trending toward a wide shoulder look again with pouffed sleeves, wide lapels, high necklines, lace trimmings, tiny waists. Skirts are smoothly draped and wide at the bottom, supported with several petticoats but no hoop. Hair is softly gathered on top of the head and hats are getting bigger again.

13 thoughts on “Dating Mid 19th C Ladies Clothing

  1. Thank you, this is very helpful!


  2. This is great ..add some photos!! :)


    1. Mrs Marvel says:

      I’m planning to….in all my spare time. :-)


  3. tyrogers6200 says:

    I just discovered your blog and I can’t tell you how much I have enjoyed looking at all your wonderful pictures! I have been collecting “orphan” photographs for some time now and have been trying to learn how to date these photos so your knowledge of photo dating has been of great help to me. You can only read so much about photo dating, looking at real pictures makes the difference. I just added you as one of my favorite sites on my fledgling blog, Forgotten Faces and Long Ago Places. Can’t wait for more!
    Teresa Wilson Rogers


  4. This is so helpful! I’m going through my collection and trying to approximatly date them, so thanks very much!


  5. Vickie says:

    Very very helpful, I collect tintypes, CDV and cabinet cards and after wondering who the person is, where they came from and how their life went for them, I always wonder when it was taken. I like looking at pictures more than taking them, glad I found your blog !


  6. Lamerica says:

    Excellent information.. thank you!


  7. cil says:

    just found your site – wonderful!


    1. Mrs Marvel says:

      Thank you, I hope you enjoy what we have here!


  8. Jodileen says:

    Thank you, It was very Helpful.


  9. Interesting blog with helpful information for amateur photo daters. One comment I had based on my knowledge of European, particularly Eastern European photographs and those of less wealthy women is that many women did not wear corsets there, particularly in the smaller towns and bergs. While the term, “loose women” may have applied to those women in America who did not wear corsets, it is not an appropriate term for the European women who either by choice or by financial circumstances did not wear corsets. Most of the women who immigrated to American eventually did wear corsets but many older women never did. I would hardly call these older immigrants, “loose women”.


    1. Mrs Marvel says:

      I appreciate your input! Of course, wherever we find a “rule” there is an exception to that rule.


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