• How to date your family photographs from fashion in the 1900s

    It’s the dawn of a new century in our blog series on dating old photographs from fashion: the 1900s, also known as the Edwardian era.  

    This decade saw the arrival of the first mass-marketed camera, known as ‘the Brownie’, which enabled the taking of less formal, more relaxed family photographs. This one from my family’s collection, which was taken at Christmas 1901, is a good example.

    Christmas at Balham, 1901

    You might also have come across some picture postcards of family members from this era – thanks to Kodak introducing, in 1903, a camera designed for postcard-size film. This meant anyone could take photographs and have them printed on postcards.

    But colour photographs will still be rare, despite the first practical colour photography process (‘autochrome’) being developed in this decade. It produced colour transparencies, but these could only be viewed by reflected light, so were not very useful. Research into other processes continued.

    As for fashion, clothing began to be consumed at a higher pace, and this is the decade in which the transition from purchasing tailored clothes to buying them ready-made in shops began.

    Women’s fashion

    As seen in the photograph above, separates were popular with women in the 1900s, with skirts fitted over the hip and fluted towards the hem. The S-bend corset was fashionable: it thrust the hips backwards and forced the chest forward, emphasised with puffed, frilly blouses that were often embellished with decorations such as lace collars, buttons and broad ribbon ties.

    The colours were either pastels or the traditional set of a white blouse and a black skirt. (It was around this time, in line with the fight for women’s rights, that some women also began to wear more masculine clothes, such as shirts and ties and darker colours more associated with men and serious work.)

    Fashionable women wore their hair in a centre parting, often looped around pads and false hair to create a wide 'brim' of hair around the hairline. This hairstyle was worn under vast, broad-brim hats with low crowns, and adorned all over with flowers, lace, ribbons and feathers.

    Women wore tea gowns for social events at home, but also for dinner parties, as it was now considered socially acceptable to wear them outside the house. They had a high collar, though lower neckline for the evening, with ruffles and lace on the sleeves and bust, and often a mini-trail.

    1900s female fashion



    Men wore three-piece lounge suits with bowler hats or cloth caps, depending on their social standing. Jackets were narrow with small, high lapels. Most collars were starched and upstanding, with the corners pointing downwards. Some men wore their collars turned down, with rounded edges and modern knotted ties.

    Beards were now reserved for mainly older men, and most young men sported neat moustaches and short hair.

    Girls and boys

    Girls wore knee-length dresses with trimmings at the hem such as lace and embroidery. In the spring and summer, they wore white cotton dresses in soft pastel colours in basic stripes or tiny florals.

    They usually wore black shoes or button-up boots, and woollen stockings, and kidskin or crochet gloves. Hair was generally worn long and curly, with decorations of ribbon. For play, bloomers and woollen jerseys were acceptable.

    Fashionable clothing for boys included sailor suits, consisting of a shirt with a sailor collar, and trousers or knickerbockers. They also wore tunics or “Russian blouses” which allowed them to move freely. Like young girls, boys often wore long stockings to cover up the rest of their legs.

    Next decade

    Look out for our next blog on dating fashion from photographs in the 1910s – a decade of two halves: the first, characterised by a rich and exotic opulence; contrasting with the second, which was marked by the sombre practicality of garments worn during WW1.

  • Photography and fashion in the ‘Naughty Nineties’

    We have now reached the 1890s in our blog series which aims to help you date photographs from fashion. Known as the ‘Naughty Nineties’, this was the decade that saw the witty plays and trial of Oscar Wilde; the formation of the French Cancan dancers; and the beginning of the suffragette movement.

    Unsurprisingly, women’s fashion in this decade evolved radically to reflect the new era. More women were working and enjoying new freedoms. Young women, in particular, needed clothes that enabled them to cycle and play sports. This coincided with the introduction of electricity into clothing manufacturing, creating a boom in the ready-to-wear market.

    Women in dresses, on bicycles​​.

    Women in dresses, on bicycles. V&A Museum

    In the same decade, technological advances also led to the advent of consumer photography – thanks to the introduction of the affordable, portable Kodak camera and flexible roll film. That’s why so many family historians possess images of their ancestors from that era.

    Fashion magazines also became more widely available in the 1890s as advances in printing processes allowed photographs to be printed on the same page as text for the first time. This means we have plenty of resources to help us date those photographs!

    1890s Women’s fashion

    In the first years of the 1890s, the silhouette was a continuation of the late 1880s style, with the notable development of a small vertical puff at the shoulder. Skirts were bell-shaped, gored to fit smoothly over the hips, while bodices were marked by the large leg-o-mutton or gigot sleeves. The early shoulder puff grew greatly in size, reaching an apex in 1895. The width at the top and bottom of the silhouette was balanced by a nipped waist, to create an hourglass effect. Around 1897, the silhouette began to slowly shift with the introduction of the straight-front corset. This forced a woman’s chest forward and hips backwards into an “S” shape, and that became the dominant silhouette by 1900.

    The general delineations of morning, afternoon, and evening wear held throughout the decade. Morning wear featured high necklines and long sleeves, while afternoon clothing opened at the neck and featured shortened sleeves, and finally, evening wear bared the chest and arms.


    For working women, in particular, the shirtwaist ensemble was popular. This comprised a simple skirt, and a shirtwaist (blouse), that was tailored similar to a man’s shirt but could feature tucks, frills, and lace trimmings. The look was often completed with a jacket and straw boater hat. Shirtwaists could also be worn as part of a suit, often referred to as tailor-mades.

    Women generally arranged their hair in high, neat chignons with soft curls at the front. Hats were an all-important accessory and were available in a variety of styles. Usually, 1890s hats were wide and heavily trimmed with tall upwardly curling feathers, ribbons, and flowers.

    Outerwear evolved to accommodate the large and puffed sleeve, with jackets and coats also featuring the gigot. However, capes became the most fashionable choice as they fell gracefully over the expansive sleeve. A commenter noted in 1895 that cashmere shawls (previously women’s most prized possessions) were being used to cover pianos!

    Sporting women

    Female participation in sports – including basketball, gymnastics, golf, tennis, croquet and sea-bathing – expanded greatly in the 1890s. They wore either the standard shirtwaist suit or more specialised clothing.

    Women, in particular, adopted the bicycle as a common form of transportation and needed appropriate clothing for this. The “bicycle suit” was created which consisted of a jacket and bifurcated bloomers, but most women opted for a shortened simple skirt worn over their bloomers, or a long skirt with a deep pleat in the back which allowed them to sit on the bicycle while still appearing to be wearing a skirt.

    Men 1890-1900

    1890s Menswear

    Menswear in the 1890s maintained an overall narrow silhouette; however, trousers became slightly more relaxed in cut. The frock coat remained fashionable for formal daywear until the turn of the century, as the morning coat slowly supplanted it. The latter featured a waistline seam and cutting away in the front, and it could be quite formal when paired with contrasting dark trousers and a top hat, or more casual as a three-piece tweed suit perhaps worn by a businessman.

    The lounge or sack suit, featuring a single-breasted jacket without a waist seam, became the most common choice for working men and was increasingly worn by upper-class men as a relaxed alternative day suit. White tie and tailcoats remained the correct dress for evening events, worn with heavily starched, and sometimes pleated, white dress shirts. The dinner jacket or tuxedo introduced in the previous decade became an acceptable choice for evenings at home or in a gentlemen’s club throughout the 1890s.

    Shirts were heavily starched and frequently featured stiff stand collars; although collars with turned-down wingtips were increasingly worn. As jackets were more frequently left open, shirts and waistcoats were sometimes made in vibrant colours. The top hat and bowler remained the most common forms of headwear, the former paired with more formal ensembles. During the 1890s, the bowler hat could be exaggeratedly tall, emphasising the narrow, tailored look. The Prince of Wales also popularised a variant of the fedora (a low, soft hat with a crease from front to back), called a Homburg.

    1890s menswear also featured a great deal of sportswear, comprising light-coloured, often striped flannel, lounge suits paired with a straw boater hat. The reefer jacket, square and double-breasted, could be worn without a waistcoat for sporting and seaside activities. For shooting, a tweed Norfolk jacket, with its forgiving vertical pleats and characteristic belt, loose knee-breeches, and gaiters were most appropriate.

    In our next blog, we look forward to taking you into a new century, as we explore the advances in fashion and photography in the first decade of the 1900s.

  • 1880s fashion: the decline of the bustle

    Lillie Langtry was born as Emily Charlotte Le Breton (13th October 1853), on the island of Jersey. She moved to London in 1876, after marrying Edward Langtry. By 1881 she had become a well-known and respected actress, going on to become a successful producer. But what influence did she have on British fashion? And how might this knowledge help you to date your old photographs?

    Lillie Langtry by Sarony


    1880s Women’s Fashion

    Rigid style with decorations

    In this decade there were two distinct fashions that had a number of features in common:

    • the focus on the design of the clothing was at the back of the body
    • designs heavily restricted a woman’s body and her ability to move
    • there was heavy use of trims and decoration in both day and evening wear.

    The first line of fashion was the continuation of the “princess line”, discussed in our article on the 1870s. This style almost caused the bustle to disappear from the fashion scene, but it re-emerged in 1883. This time it was a much sturdier protrusion from the lower back and became the second style of the 1880s, the “Lillie Langtry” bustle, which remained popular until the 1890s. 

    1880s women's fashions. Lillie Langtry bustle


    The Lillie Langtry Bustle

    This bustle was probably very uncomfortable to wear! It was made from a series of metal bands, giving it a very rigid shape. The saving grace of this style was that these bands were designed to fold up so that the wearer could sit down

    Bodices and dresses were designed to have tight sleeves and stiff collars (often boned, with whale bones), and became narrower at the shoulders. The tight sleeves developed small puffs at the top, which went on to become the ‘leg-of-mutton’ sleeves of the 1890s. Hemlines were usually only just above the floor and designs often imitated men’s fashion with panels designed to look like jackets and vests.

    To make the distinctive shape of the bustle more obvious, jackets and coats were more often worn, as opposed to cloaks and capes. High-necked (knitted) jerseys also became popular. All of these garments were very heavily embellished. There was a particular liking for dark, sumptuous colours and materials, reminiscent of furniture fabrics. When dating photographs of your ancestors, the colours will be difficult to distinguish, but the silhouette and embellishment should help you to pin this decade down.

    Hairstyles became more elegant, with hair tied up as opposed to falling loose, and hats were worn on top of the head. Millinery became very decadent, using vast numbers of birds' feathers and causing some species to become endangered. This led to the formation of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) in 1889!


    The Aesthetic Movement

    As a response to the tight-fitting, extremely uncomfortable bustles and corsets, the tea gown became popular. Tea gowns were looser, with no corset, and much more comfortable to wear. The name comes from being the garment of choice for women to wear at home or when they invited friends for tea.

    This style was developed by the Aesthetic Movement – a movement ridiculed by the press – who wanted to design more humane clothing for women that gave them a simpler beauty based on craftsmanship and styles that had been popular historically. The designs were developed by the Pre-Raphaelite artists for their models.

    1880s Men’s Fashion

    Dinner Jackets, Frock Coats and Morning Coats

    In the 1880s, men’s style aimed to create a slim line that emphasised the height of the man. For formal occasions, a frock coat, with a seam around the waist and a full skirt, was worn. In the evening, this became a tailcoat and double-breasted waistcoat, with a white bow tie.
    A new style for the 1880s was the dinner jacket. This was a less formal version of a lounge jacket and was worn with a black bow tie. It became known as a tuxedo in the USA.

    Two men posing for a portrait, 1880-1890

    Two men posing for a portrait, 1880-1890

    A more casual, adaptable choice was the morning coat. These also had a seam at the waist but were cut away at the front. On formal occasions, a black coat could be worn and on less formal ones, a shorter, tweed version could be worn.

    The most informal choice was still the good old sack coat. By the 1880s, it had become a lounge suit.

    In our next blog, we help you date your photos from the ‘naughty nineties’!

  • 1870s Fashion: The popularity of the bustle

    Following on from theprevious post in our series on dating old photographs from fashions, we have now reached the 1870s. This decade saw an increase in material spending, with mass production in the Industrial Revolution in full swing. Department store displays, advertising and fashion magazines were now consumed more readily and fashion trends became easier to follow, although the style still reflected social standing.

    1870s Women’s Fashion

    The early 1870s saw the popularity of the bustle continue. These were set high and attached to crinolines, but lowered as the decade progressed. Bustles were often elaborate items of clothing, with ruffles, gathers and embroidery.

    They began to lose their popularity in the mid-late 1870s with the advent of the ‘princess line’. A new style named after Alexandra, Princess of Wales. This favoured an incredibly slim and body-conscious look, with severe corsetry. Skirts became narrower, hoops were out and bustles were smaller. Embellished trains became the new trend. 

    For upper-class women, the top of the body was stiff and tight. Stiff bodices and huge bustles gave the wearer limited mobility. Upper-class and elite women did not work, so their rigid clothing would separate them from the more practical clothing of the lower classes. A long, slim silhouette was replacing the hourglass figure of decades past. Bodices could be just as decorated as the skirts, but necklines changed into v-necks or a square neckline. With a more revealing neckline, pendants and velvet chokers became fashionable. 

    In the privacy of homes, tea gowns were introduced. These allowed the wearer to go without the stricter clothing worn outside, although these were only worn in the house and in the company of other females. As the decade progressed, they became more elaborate in style, with frills and lace.

    Continuing on from the previous decade, hair continued to be parted in the centre with an emphasis on height and elaborate coiling. The back of the head usually mirrored the back of the skirt, with some women wearing false hairpieces to gather more height. In the mid-1870s, fringes began to make an appearance. These hairstyles brought attention to the face, along with bows and lacy collars on the necklines of clothing.  

    Shoes and boots had high heels and pointed toes, with stockings to match. These stockings could sometimes be little works of art in themselves, with embroidery or tiny designs.

    Capes and cloaks were replaced by coats and jackets, with some coats designed to accommodate the bustle skirts.


    1870s Men’s Fashion

    The 1870s saw a move to simpler and more sober styles for men with an aim to look respectable and industrious. 

    Mens Coats 1872 Fashion Plate


    The silhouette became slimmer and shirts plainer. Cropped frock coats were popular in the first half of the decade. The popularity of the lounge (sack) suit continued to increase, especially amongst the lower classes. Usually paired with matching trousers and a waistcoat, it's believed that this style formed the beginnings of the three-piece suit. This style was often topped with a bowler hat.

    Hair was cropped and parted neatly. Facial hair was still the norm but was tidied up. Think trimmed moustaches and tidy ‘muttonchops’. 

    We will be exploring the fashion of the 1880s in our next post.