Dressed to Impress? Fashion and photographs from the early twentieth century

Karen Ullersperger, Reference Librarian, writes: 

Have you ever looked at old family photographs from before 1940 and wondered what they could tell you?  I found out that they can give a direct connection into the lives of the people portrayed in them through the clothes that people wore.

In an absolutely fascinating presentation at Chelsea Library in late October by the fashion expert and author Jayne Shrimpton, I learnt about history of fashion in ordinary family photographs.

Jayne Shrimpton (www.jayneshrimpton.co.uk/)
Jayne Shrimpton (www.jayneshrimpton.co.uk)

In the nineteenth century photography was a cutting edge technology, but by the early twentieth century photography became more accessible with the advent of the Box Brownie camera. This meant that ordinary families could start to take their own photos and as a result pictures were more informal and can give us more information on the daily lives and fashion preference of our forebears. This eventually began to replace the more formal professional images often printed on postcards done in a studio setting.

Jayne showed us that by reading the fashions in a photograph correctly you can date images, but you can also study the history of fashion by looking at the images.

Fashion  a hundred years ago  was moving away  from the  formal and quite restrictive styles of the late Victorian era.The period between 1910-14  saw the development of a much more practical style with the introduction of shirts and ties for working women,  and the gradual raising of hemlines. That fashion staple the pencil skirt first appeared. It was during this time the lounge suit for men began to appear and moustaches became all the rage.

Women of all classes would dress for formal occasions, and we saw some great images of women in afternoon dress of linen or cotton, wearing extremely large hats and gloves even when taking tea with their neighbours outside the back door.

Children’s clothing began to change: some of the photos we were shown had little boys still dressed as girls until they were of an age to be “ breeched”, when they would start to wear trousers or even shorts. By 1914 girl’s dress was moving towards a more boyish or more practical style, maintaining their femininity by wearing a huge bow on the side of their heads.

Family, 1918(Family Photographs & how to date them by Jayne Shrimpton)
Family, 1918 (Family Photographs & How to Date Them by Jayne Shrimpton)

The development of more active life styles led to the development of sportswear and also influenced the introduction of knitwear for a more casual look. Jayne showed us images of specific clothing for cycling, golf, and tennis and for the more wealthy and intrepid ski-ing and skating outfits

During World War One women’s garments became shorter, they began to cut their hair shorter and the overall look was much looser. Many young women undertook war work whether in factories or in the Women’s Land Army (est. 1917), where for the first time women wore breeches or jodphurs, covered by an overall coat to maintain modesty. Of course after the war it was straight back to wearing skirts.

When dating your family photographs Jayne advise looking not only the rise and fall of hemlines, but also what people are doing and what is in the background, for example the modes of transport, so if there is a car you can often date the image from the make and model.

In the 1920s people still “Dressed to Impress” but studio images were in decline and these would only be taken for special occasions such as weddings, christenings etc. In these images as Jayne explained, you can see a history of fashion through the generations with older women still wearing black floor length gowns and their daughters and granddaughters  in more contemporary clothes and hairstyles.

Family, c. early 1920s (Family Photographs & how to date them by Jayne Shrimpton)
Family, c. early 1920s (Family Photographs & How to Date Them by Jayne Shrimpton)

By the late twenties and early thirties the photos showed another shift  for both men and women. This is particularly true of sport and leisure wear. During this  period  it became increasingly fashionable  to have a suntan and as a result women’s bathing costumes began to change from the modest and concealing fashions of the early 20’s  to the much skimpier versions with cutaway sections  by the 30’s, and other beachwear  clothes  such as  the introduction  of beach  pyjama’s.

Swimwear, 1934 (Family Photographs & how to date them by Jayne Shrimpton)
Swimwear, 1934 (Family Photographs & How to Date Them by Jayne Shrimpton)

Men’s swimwear generated some discussion after the presentation  because  men used to swim in the nude but with the introduction of mixed bathing this was no longer acceptable. By late Victorian times they were wearing  trunks but with a vest section which everyone agreed was to hold the trunks up as they were of a knitted fabric . Most of us may have heard a story from our grandparents about their swimwear being so wet and heavy it fell down when they came out of the water!

During this time men’s began to wear informal styles, flannel trousers, sports jumpers, plus fours, and even on occasion shorts. Three piece suits became more relaxed, and had a boxier style; pinstripes were popular as was the Trilby hat.

Women’s and girl’s hemlines rose even further to knee length and their hair became shorter. Knitwear became an established part of dress and new fabrics such as jersey and rayon enabled more women to look stylish and modern and to keep up with the latest trends.

August 1937 (Family Photographs & how to date them by Jayne Shrimpton)
August 1937 (Family Photographs & How to Date Them by Jayne Shrimpton)

I went home after the talk and dug out some of the family photos and looked at them with renewed interest-  large hats,  hairstyles, hemlines, were all there and as a result of Jayne’s talk I  was able to  get a better idea of the dates.

If you are interested in fashion, or forthcoming fashion related events,  why not join our mailing list by e-mailing your name and contact details to libraries@rbkc.gov.uk. Or, if you follow this blog, you will see regular features on our fashion and costume  collection, and you can look at photographic images from our archives in our local studies Library Time Machine blog.

With thanks to Jayne Shrimpton, who allowed us to use her images here. You can find these photos, and much more, in her book Family Photographs & How to Date Them. 

Shrimpton, Jayne.  Family Photographs & How to Date Them. (Berkshire: Countryside Books, 2008) pp.123, 138, 161 and 163.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.