Fashion history through photographs, part I

Today’s post was written by Christina Johnson, FIDM Museum Collections Manager. Part II will be posted on Wednesday, December 9. Enjoy!
Gift of Stephen Porterfield

Photographic portraits are valuable resources for understanding fashion history. Knowing the dates certain photo techniques were used can help date extant objects. These images also reveal a great deal about how clothing was accessorized and styled. They present a less-idealized version of dress than fashion plates or painted portraits. The FIDM Museum actively collects historic photographs for these reasons.

FIDM Museum Purchase

The first viable form of portrait photography in the United States was the daguerreotype– a silver-plated sheet of copper, sensitized with iodine. The process was used for portraiture from 1839 through the late 1850s. This young woman sat for her daguerreotype portrait in about 1854. She wears a light-colored cotton gown, perhaps muslin, with a dark lace jacket. A gold chain, likely affixed to a watch or pencil, is looped around her neck, passed under a portion of her scalloped whitework collar, and secured at her wide checked belt with central round buckle. Her bonnet is set fashionably back on the head and is decorated with ribbons and flowers-probably pinned in place by the woman herself.

c. 1858
Gift of Stephen Porterfield

The ambrotype was produced from 1854 to about 1870. In this process, a glass plate is coated with collodion and exposed to light in the camera. Ambrotypes were less expensive than daguerreotypes — making this type of portrait available to a wide socio-economic section of the population. The girl who sits for this hand-tinted ambrotype wears a day dress of silk taffeta printed with vertical stripes. The ridge of her corset is visible just below the bust. She wears a red bead necklace, probably of coral, which was thought to have protective qualities for children. A metal mesh belt with round buckle encircles her waist. Her hair is arranged in the youthful fashion of corkscrew curls.

c. 1860
Gift of Stephen Porterfield

The tintype process was widely used from 1854 to the 1890s. The word “tintype” to describe these images is a misnomer as they are not tin–they are lacquered squares of iron. They can be understood as a cheaper version of the ambrotype and were often slipped into decorative paper frames. This tintype shows a man from the working class and dates from about 1860. Appearing without a jacket creates a more informal portrait. The man’s vest and trousers, of pin-striped wool, may be an early example of the emerging ready-to-wear menswear market. Fashion imperfections are readily apparent in photography. Here, the man’s shirt gaps between buttons, exposing his skin. He has chosen to wear his cap jauntily to one side.

4 responses to “Fashion history through photographs, part I

  1. patty says:

    This is a wonderful article to see the importance of the fashion world history.
    The fact that a coral necklace for Children to be worn for protected is such an important detail.
    Cannot wait to read more of these article by the author Ms. Johnson.
    thank you
    jewelry design

  2. Sarah says:

    Brilliant stuff! Just a minor point – tintypes were still available right up to the 1920s because I have a few in my collection.

    Also, is the FIDM digitising its photograph collection? I’d love to see more of your images – perhaps on Flickr Commons?!

  3. Christina says:

    Yes, very true. Tintypes were produced in small numbers well into the twentieth century. I’ve seen a number of 1930s tintypes. Have you seen any dating later? From what I can tell, most of these later pieces were done as inexpensive novelties, generally as a souvenir. For example, I’ve seen many of these later tintypes taken at Fairs, or other outdoor events. We are indeed digitizing the entire collection and our goal is to have it online in the near future!

  4. Vered says:

    I found it really interesting, the way you examine the fashion world through the lens of the camera. Although, as you write, painted portraits are not as accurate for that purpose as photographs, I guess they’re the only evidence of fashion prior to photographs’ period in history.
    Thank you for this interesting post, looking forward to read and see more,

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