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Photo Dating by Fashion History

Contents of this page :


Opening Comments

How To Date Your Photo

No Other Time In History - is a list of clothing items or fashion fads,  that are seen "only in" a or "only after" a specific  time.

Samples Of Photographs From Each Decade For Men, Women And Children to help date photographs on your own.


Book References and review.

Fashion Samples In Photographs by Decade


Always a work in progress, please visit often. We apologist for any long periods between entries some times medical issues prevail.

Last up date 05/04/2017




Opening Comments

Goal and Focus. To gather historic and fashion information to determine a period in which a photo was taken and boil it down to as little reading as possible by creating tables and timelines. The historic information helps us to remember the fashions that are effected by those events. Well, I did that and it was too complex to put into tables so I decided to remove the table timelines and collect photos from each decade and list the clothing items. With this method, the decade that has the most clothing matching your photograph is the decade your photo was taken. You will see that each decade has some terms from the last and some new terms and as more decades pass, you will see the change in clothes, I like the word morph for these gradual changes.

Photographic Predicaments. You may have inherited old photographs in perfect condition or maybe a photograph of a photograph or Xerox copy and want to know the date.  The very first place to research should be to read the History of Photographic Methods or processes.  This will narrow down the era of your photo immediately or at the very minimum, be an important fact in building your case for one era over another. Also learning new terminology, to aid in your search for items in your photograph.  

In the case of copies of an original photograph, the clues to what the photographic process was or what the photograph was made of, may be lost, maybe not. Sometimes it's still obvious what it is made of, if you know what to look for. If it is lost, we only have and  must turn to the contents of the photograph. The photographic style of the photographer, the fashions, fashion accessories and objects in the photograph. As we said in the History of Photographic Methods, photo dating begins in 1839 when the first photograph was taken. The Daguerreotype camera was the first commercially-manufactured camera. Photos at this time (early 40s are rare, so more than likely your research could begin in the mid forties early 50s). 


Credentials. What qualifies us to determine the date of photographs?  First reason is, since we have been restoring photographs since 1999, we have seen thousands of photos of our clients with known dates, and developed a sense for the time period by exposure.  We don't claim to be authorities on the topic and haven't written books about fashion, which is why we can see the dilemmas your facing easier, researching and clarifying what we find here. After researching the topic of photo dating and fashions for nine years we are slowly becoming experts by osmosis. As we said, our goal is to simply information found about the subject in one place for  our clients. We create tables when they work, with this information to help you in your efforts to determine the date of your photos.  


Having this date, you can now match it to a known relative on the family tree. Any information here on this subject is found on the World Wide Web and books we have read and observations of our client photos.  We give credits where it's due at the end of this page with commentary on each book and website, if we had any comment.  As we learn and gather more, we add on to this section of our site (always a work in progress).  This is just a really good place to start your search, it may save you from buying books, that after reading it, it didn't apply to your photo. If you belong to a genealogy society suggest to the society to buy the books and have a photo dating meeting. I would think that would be great fun! Try and find a minimum of three sources for proof, that back up your conclusions on why you think your photograph is from a particular era.  Too many sites have contradictions, from people who earnestly think they know what they are talking about like e-bay and esty. If you find information that is seriously wrong here, please let us know.



How To Date Your Photo



  1. Create a photo dating file and work sheet per photo
  2. Make a copy of your photo so that you are not handling the original. You will need it for conversations about photo dating in your research, also a digital copy to share online.
  3. Start by recording the obvious, establishing and estimating a date range in columns of two decades.
  4. Analyze and record physical properties estimating a date range and add to one column
  5. List the fashion terms you see and add to the date range established and add to either one or both columns. This will establish were in the decade your photo falls. In the beginning in the middle or peak or the ending of a decade.
  6. Compare, analyze photos with known dates to your photograph, Xerox a copy and attach to file as proof.
  7. Research objects in photo, jewelry, spectacles, props and hairdos etc. write down finding in either of the columns and record information of where the information was found as proof.
  8. Find and  record resources of a minimum of three agreeing on the same fashion era and record in corresponding column.
  9. Write down questions you have for future conversations and research in the file.
  10. The column with the most arguments for an era is the decade your image was taken in.



More detail reading on this outline.....

To determine a date, create a file folder and with a clean sheet of paper, and draw two columns with the two decades you mostly believe to be the date of your photo. Just like a lawyer, argue a case for each decade. Scan, enlarge and copy the photo in question and staple it to the folder, as you learn about fashion you can draw arrows with quick notes so you don't have to dig through articles. Then research the fashion terms (such as wide sleeves) in the photo and add them to one or the other column until you can determine which decade has the most items in it. Match it with the information you have on the relative, that you suspect it is.  Always stay focused on facts, backed up by photos to your claims to a specific date when dating a photograph and list them as short sentences not a history lesson. Attach photos of proof and keep a record of where the information was found. 

Your folder should have, your photo copy, your argument worksheet, list of resources where each item of proof was found. You may think you'll find it again and maybe you will, but don't take the chance that the page is no longer in service or the site is now charging for information. One way to capture the information is to take a photo of the computer screen with your phone and print that out. Another options is to copy and paste it to Word program and print it from there. This practice is okay if it's only for your personal use. Be mindful of copyright restrictions. 

Note physical properties first, that's the easiest. What is your photo made of? Cooper, glass, tin or paper? etc. See "History of Photographic Processes" for detailed descriptions of how to tell what you have.

Trends. Remember that trends in fashions, hairstyles and facial hair, often overlapped. Some individuals find a hair style that works for them and never change it, in their entire life. I know, I can think of a few in my life and some clients have confirmed this with many photos of one an ancestor through-out their life, never changed the hairstyle in seventy years. Magazine covers exaggerate styles just like today and were circulated very slowly, particularly if one lived in rural area. Take note of decades in which wars took place, fashions were influenced by war uniforms. Be mindful of repeating styles. The style says one decade but the physical properties of the photograph say another decade. I have seen copies of 1840 daguerreotype photos on 1870 card mounts. Note where the relative lived, town versus country fashions and rich versus poor.  American lag behind European fashions about a year.

On your worksheet estimate, note, the sitters age, estimating their birth year by recognizing facial features that are clues to what decade of life their in, like jowls, deep laugh lines and crows feet.  List objects in the image, like what type of flooring, describe the background, what objects are they holding or leaning on. These are all words to search for. This sounds easy enough if you know what you are looking at to describe it. You have to train yourself, what to look for, to determine a date range. On this page you will find sewing/fashion terms table. We found a website about vintage sewing, re-enacting, and costuming. All eager to learn, teach and experience the joy of sewing something period and wearing it to a era themed event, and they were key to putting a name to what you are looking at. Make note if they are pregnant, a clue to the next generation and the jewelry present too can be dated..

Describe the clothes. Sounds simple but if you are not aware of fashion terms, you will look at it and say obvious general terms. Example, a sleeve, can be described as having many parts, what kind of sleeve or what kind of skirt, what is the hair doing, is there a part and are the ears covered? So reading here was your first step, if you can't find it here then it's time to search for whatever it is that I don't have here. You may want to let us now about your particular photo so we can post it and describe it here for others to see.  You will come across sites that show you in detail the type of sleeves that were popular from 1860 through 1880s.  The bustle period was1880-1889, search for bustle. If your search is for men's fashion the same applies, search for men's fashions like top hat, "jacket lapels wiki" etc.   Keep in mind, that as in today's photos for example, you could have a photo of someone in the 1970s that is wearing clothes from the 1950's or be in theater with a costume on. You may want to simply look for photos in the time period you suspect your photo is in and see if the clothes, objects or style look like your photo.  

There are a million places to find conversations/blogs, articles, and books about fashion history and most of them are focused on a specific time period or type of clothing.  


Fashion Terms and Eras

It was my experience that when reading articles, blog's and books that may hint at explaining clothes of specific eras, and fashion terms, that in the author's efforts to avoid being repetitive or not wanting to commit to a specific era, chose broad terms to describe a period and many ways of describing the same era. This was very confusing for me. Below is a table that I hope will be helpful to relieve some of the confusion when you search. This could be a handy place to return to or put a table like this in your photo dating file. 


By researching some of these personalities and social movements, you can see samples of clothing. If you have a photo of a nurse for example, think of nursing personalities or events that may show photos of a nurses uniform of that time period. If it's not the same uniform then at least you know what decade it's not!


Knowing the names of the parts of a dress will help you identify a decade. I started creating tables with the definitions of fashion terms and then realized that particular names of fashion items would change from one decade to the next. I remember in the 60's for women, narrow pants below the knee were called "peddle pushers" and now the are called "capri's". In my mother's hay day strapless shoes were called mules, I asked her why and she said because you could kick them off. Look at your photograph and describe the parts and assign one term for it, for less confusions. When discussing your photo with someone remember they may have a different name for what you a describing, that's why you need a copy of your photo in your file (not the original).  Find the photograph with the most fashion terms matching your photograph and you have the decade of your photo. 



U.S. Eras, commonly used in conversations about fashion  (copy this and stick it in your file if it helps you)

Victorian Era -


 1837 - 1901, much of world, same time period

Antebellum -

 1812 - 1861 pre-civil war years

Civil War -


Edwardian -

 1901 -1910

WWI (Great War) -

 1914 - 1918

Roaring Twenties -

 1920 – 1929

Great Depression - 

 1929 - 1939

World War II -

 1939 – 1945



U.S. Historic Events and Personalities Effecting Fashions  

1837 - 1901 Victorian Era Prince Albert mourned 1861

1838 - 1881 Rational Dress Reform

1861 - 1865 Civil war, economy falls, Suffragettes 1865-1928

1863 - 1877 Reconstruction Era

1900 - 1910 Edwardian Era 1912, Titanic Sinks

1914 - 1918 WWI - Influenza Pandemic, Jazz Age 

1935 - 1945 WWII - Amelia Earhart


Research, Historical Personalities to study and compare their clothes

Inventors – Alexander Graham Bell

Presidents and Politicians – Lincoln, Grant, etc.

Trend setters - Amelia Bloomer,  Coco Channel

Photographers – Mathew Brady

Women’s Right Activist - Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton

Artist - Charles Dana Gibson

Celebrities - Anne Oakley, Wild Bill (Western wear)

Outlaws – Wyatt Earp, Jessie James, Bonny and Clyde

Military History – General  George Custer

Rational Dress Reform - Amelia Bloomer


No Other Time In History is a list of clothing items or fashion fads,  that are seen "only in" a or "only after" a specific  time. So if you have photographs with any of these items it will help you narrow down or dismiss any decade you had in mind or you can research the item further.

After 1840, pants with drop front button  flaps are never seen again with the exception of sailors.

After 1840 lapels on men's jackets with the "M" notch are rarely seen.

After 1850 pagoda sleeves were out of fashion.

After 1860 Round floor length hoop skirts were out of fashion. 

After 1865 (Civil War) and not so much after the late 1880's, veterans and freed slaves headed West looking for work and found it driving cattle, they became the first American cowboys. They work bandana's for the dust, leather chaps on their legs, dungarees and cowboy hats. 

In May 20, 1873 Levi Strauss patented blue jeans, (denim, dungarees) mostly worn by gold miners, farmers and cowboys. 

After 1913  President Theodore Roosevelt, an avowed Audubon Society sympathizer, and a widespread letter-writing campaign driven by church associations, many of whom distributed the Audubon message in their various newsletters, the plume trade was halted by such laws as the New York State Audubon Plumage Law (May 1910), which banned the sales of plumes of all native birds in the state. By 1920, similar laws were enacted in about 12 other states. Audubon Society activities are responsible for many laws for the establishment of game commissions and game warden forces, or prohibiting the sale of game. In conclusion between the periods of 1910 and 1920 the use of birds in ladies fashion  that date it was likely a re-worked updated hat.

After 1918 (WWI) names of ships on sailor hats were no longer used. They switched to just "US NAVY"

After 1918 (WWI) beards became unpopular due to health/sanitary concerns in the trenches with lice. 

After 1933 cars lost that square look early cars had.



Fashion Samples In Photographs By Decade

Movies Just Men Just Children Just Women




Return to "My Activities in Period Clothing"




Civil War Fashion Glossary/Images/Events

Shooting Star Enterprises- Early Bustle Era Dresses 1868-1876's's_Lady's_Book

Collier’s Cyclopedia 1901 “Victorian Mourning Customs”


Book References and Review:  I have read the following books for my research in creating a new work, here at Photos Made Perfect.  Here you can find the topics of Photo Dating 101 which are the physical properties of determining the age of a photograph, History of Photographic Processes". Then a pages of photo dating by fashions and other miscellaneous photo dating  items.  

My reviews for the following books are focused on the photo dating for the genealogist, not necessarily on the history of fashions, cultural influence of fashions or value of the fashions or the value photograph itself.  The thought behind these reviews is to help the genealogist sift through the best books that will aid in photo dating. They are all good and each has a slant on topics with specific interest. So why promote the books you ask? Well, you can pretty much date any photograph with the information here on my site to begin that's my whole point. However, these books offer more by going into more detail about a specific topic that pertains to what your looking for. These books offer amusing insights to why clothes morphed which helps to retain what you learned easily. Also buying these books you have access to the photographs to do as you wish with them, some people cut them out and frame them or use them as book marks. My site is less yak with the emphasis on visual samples with to the point sentences.  

If you would like me to read and comment on your book (only as the pertain to photos ), just mail it to us free of charge and we will add it to this column after we have had a chance to read it. Top of column, most recently reviews. If you want more information on a particular book, click or call, I don't mind sharing more, I could only say so much here. 619-397-7600.


Last Update was on 10/21/2016

Victorian Fashions for Women and Children Society's Impact on Dress by Linda Setnik. 

At first glance, without reading it, the images used, makes for a nice coffee table book. Through out the book were glossy pages with large images, some in color, most in sepia tones of the era so you could see details, which is the point of dating clothes that other books have lack. I really liked that the children's chapter more in-depth, which I find other books to be weak in. Also there were more fashion terms used not found in other books which is always good to know more. She includes price guide for collectors of vintage clothing and images of clothing construction. 

Victorian Costume 1860-1900 for Ladies, revised and expanded 2nd edition. Also by Linda Setnik. 

This book was in black in white (harder to see detail), a treasure trove of historic research and more beautiful photographs. Both books emphasize fashion history. Information about the physical properties of photo dating is included. Her credentials are excellent. Author is a consultant for a museum and graduated with honors in history.

American Victorian Costume in Early Photographs by Priscilla Harris Dalrymple. 

Unique photos to possible find the fashion your looking for. Author is a collector of photographs. Excellent source for finding that one garment your looking for and a back up as a second source to what you already know. Copyright 1991.

Out of Style by Betty Kreisel Shubert

Best book for fashion terms.

Easy light reading and amusing stories.

I particularly like her credentials and excellent illustrations by her, she is a customer designer for Hollywood.


Old Jewelry 1840-1950 by C. Jeanenne Bell. 

If the photo your trying to date has a really good close up of jewelry, you will want to look at what I have here on my sight and if not you will want this book. 

How to Buy Photographs by Stuart Bennett


wish list to read

Dressed for the Photographer by Joan Severa

Good because of images of everyday people fashions instead of famous, rich people in formal portraits or magazines that really does not reflect reality, just like the magazines today. 

Fashions and Costumes from Godey's Lady's Book by Stella Blum.

Mostly black and white fashion plate drawings and 8 glossy fashion plates in color. I like it again for a secondary source for the period of 1837-1869 including children.



More good reading:

  1. Harpers Bazaar April 17, 1886 “Mourning and Funeral Usages”, Death in the Victorian Family” by Pat Jalland.  

  2. Daily life in Victorian England” by Sally Mitchell "Victorian America" Transformations in everyday life 1876-1915” by Thomas J. Schlereth

  3. You may recognize morning clothes in your photo and want to read about “Death, Grief and Mourning” by Geoffrey Gorer. 1965 Doubleday.

  4. Other Miscellaneous photo dating items here.



Bonnets and Hats by Maureen A. Taylor

Beautiful collection of women's hats that you won't find in the internet. Many photos from the Library of Congress.

I would like to have seen more photo dating remarks with each sample.

Mr. Godey's Ladies edited by Robert Kunciov

I like Godey's books because he was there! It's great that people like this author published it again. Mostly drawings and fashion plates.

Good for photo dating but best for costumers and seamstresses.

The Way They Were: Dressed in 1860-1865 Volume 2 by Donna J. Abraham

I like this author because she gave a lengthily description on how she came to be a teacher of civil war fashions, so I felt it was very credible. The personal collection of her photos was staggering, nicely done so you can see details she spoke about. Too bad it was only 2 decades.

An Illustrated History of Hairstyles 1830-1930 by Marian I Doyle

I haven't read this one, the title explains itself.

You need this book, when all you have is a very tiny bust shot with no real detail of the clothes.

Harper's Bazar 1867-1898 by Edited and with Introduction by Stella Blum. 1000 Illustrations

This book measures 9 1/2 x 12 so the illustrations were huge! Dates and description of the dresses not a lot of yak, perfect for photo dating.  All drawings black and white.

Dating Old Photographs, second edition by Robert Pols.

I liked this book because it confirmed my findings in the internet and touched on a little bit of all the topics of photo dating that found most helpful, like the physical properties in the section here at this site "History of Photography Methods" and photographer style and props. There weren't very many photo samples and they were small but it was loaded with information in charts that were hard to read. I read this book many years ago and still reference it today. Emphasis was on technical photography style and processes. No credentials stated, sound very much like a photography buff.

Smithsonian, Fashion, the definitive history of costume and style.


I love this book because it is over the top, for the attention deficit reader, an encyclopedia of fashion designers and timelines, for the professional interested in fashion history. The images will blow you away. It reads like a magazine with short paragraphs. It covers daywear, evening wear, sports wear, and FYI, nothing about children. two years of shoes and purses. It started with ancient world which takes up half the book, then to include timelines and designers up to the present. It's impossible to do any era justice in 2 pages.  Photo dating for the genealogist just trying to get a date from 1840 to 1950, not so much. A good resource for secondary confirmation if you find what applies to you.  





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