Essentially here we are aiming to use fashion clues cautiously but positively – to establish a realistic time frame for an undated and/or unidentified image that will help to rule in, or out, certain branches and individual members of the family.
In the following sections are some basic, practical tips for recognising the main stylistic changes in female, male and children's dress, with illustrated examples.
Family historians often wonder whether their poorer forebears would have been able to dress very fashionably.
For more detailed advice and to see further dated images for comparison, it is worth checking back over some of the photographs used to illustrate previous blogs in this series and also consulting some of the books listed in further reading.
Women's dress 1840s-1890s Between the 1840s and late 1860s, essentially the fashionable female silhouette comprised a fitted bodice attached to a bell-shaped skirt, which became even wider in circumference after the introduction of the domed crinoline frame in 1856 (fig.3).
Like today, some of our forebears were more interested in their personal appearance than others, spending proportionately more of their income on new clothes and accessories.
Age was especially significant when it came to dress.
In around 1880, the train was abandoned for day wear and outfits of the early 1880s were narrow and sheath-like: long, tight-fitting bodices formed an unbroken line over the hips, while shoe-length skirts were wrapped closely around the legs (fig.8).
In around 1884 the bustle returned, this time a more severe and extreme version that often projected sharply like a shelf behind the waist, remaining in vogue until around 1889/90 (fig.9).
For dating purposes, however, we can broadly assume that (unless they are wearing an occupational uniform or other specialised forms of dress) their 'Sunday best' garments largely followed, to a recognisable extent, the prevailing style of the era.
Photographs were ultimately designed to show off good taste and a pleasing appearance.
A domestic servant, for example, could appear superficially similar to her more affluent mistress.
Of course, there were exceptions to this general principle.
Dress is a vast and complex subject, but here are some pointers to help with understanding, identifying and dating the clothing styles of those family members from the past who stood before the camera in their 'Sunday best'.