Friday, December 2, 2011

Dating Fashion?

Reading the Fashion Clues
Q: Could this be Mary Martha Morris (Bird Gross) Gudger?

There’s nothing more thrilling to me than researching historical subjects. But when it comes to dating ancestral photos, I cringe. Not because of the detail, but because the haute-couture for the thin, metropolitan, rich European type as usually demonstrated is not the same couture for the rather round, plump wife of small town Kansas.  So you can only imagine the gnashing of teeth that occurred when I had to determine who this woman was in the unidentified photo.

What I Knew
I knew this rather round woman was one of the Morris women from central Kansas.  But which one would be determined by the location and the year this photo was taken. The house I easily placed in Iola, Kansas. But the woman was a mystery. Who was she?

Tobe Morris had 6 daughters and 2 sisters that fit the bill. All of them had round bodies, same facial features and as soon as they were able, they dressed out of Lane Bryant.  I even have early letters where they traveled from Nebraska and Kansas by train to California just for shopping sprees at the Lane Bryant. Sure they visited the California cousins, but their letters were filled with their shopping finds.

So what I really knew was this woman was between 65-80 years of age, and that the Morris family moved to Iola (the setting of photo) as early as 1885. 

The Fashion Era Costume Characteristics
Nola Morris Wells Jackson
Edwardian Fashion, 1910
This allowed me to eliminate, on location alone, the Jacksonian Era, 1830-1840’s, the Antebellum Period, 1850-1860’s, and the high full pleated sleeve costumes of the early Gilden Age. I have a checklist of “Costume Characteristics” for each era.  For example, the Gilden Age had high collars and high pleated sleeves; whereas the Edwardian era, 1900-1910, began to show necks and shoulders. The Edwardian sleeves were tailored but not puffed high as a rule.  By the late Ragtime and WWI era, 1910-1919 the collars and lapels were wide and often sported interesting necklines. This looked like my era!

Nola Bell Smith, Albert Bell and
Jessica Gordon Wright, 1922
Using my checklist, I began analyzing from late 1910 forward.  I figured with this photo I could bypass the flapper cloak styles, however I have photos of those early Morris cousins wearing the era styled wraps and hats. Oh, how fashionable they were!

The Details
Back to my photo. The screen door, mailbox, and house structure did not give me a hint. So it was time to go through my dating fashion texts. The problem is that all of the graphics show small built women with small waist and often 5’8 or taller to illustrate the fashion of the day.  So, I decided to just jot down a few key words:
  • wide round neckline collar (not high collar)
  • low waist (not high waist, even if the coat fit her)
  • raglan sleeves (at least not a set in high sleeve)
  • may be an overcoat?
  • decorative buttons (not subdued on belt or top)
  • overlap front (hidden closure to coat)
Other things I noticed: no bra. Yes the undergarment movement must be taken into account here. Oh, and let's not forget the short hair for a family of women that could usually sit on their mops of hair. That has to be taken into account. 

I had to also consider that the Morris women were quite well traveled and were possibly donning fashionable clothing not common to small town Kansas yet. But still, how fashionable could my almost 80 year old subject be?

Analysis
Starting with undergarments, bras were not that popular until after 1930. They probably weren’t introduced in the Midwest until about 1915 and even then, I wouldn’t expect an elderly woman to incorporate it in her wardrobe. But she was also going in public without a corset, and without the short-lived mono-bosom look of earlier years.

The sleeves and the waist were my biggest clues.  Between 1910 - 1914 the fashion still bore the high waistlines, usually with a soft ribbon belt or pleat just under the bust – mocking the earlier Empire styles of the 1800’s.  But, it was the 1920’s that had the drop waist. Even as late as 1914-1919, fashion designers were emphasizing a softer, but still pronounced set-in sleeve. But this coat in the photo was definitely patterned as an unfitted sleeve, and may have been raglan. This definitely moved my photo date to at least the early 1920’s.  By the late 1920’s the style became shapeless for women. Some called it “manly”. The raglan sleeve was popular and the round neck and cowl neck was preferred, but the belt on this coat would have been completely out of style. This narrowed my years from 1920-1924

Remember the hair? Women began wearing it short as after the war. Most would argue this was a more functional style of dress for the women who met the job demands of war time (WWI). So this is totally in line with my 1920ish timeframe.

Summary
I would love to tell you that I was able to pinpoint the date of this photo. After several hours of analysis, I chose to post the photo on Google+ and send it to various relatives for some sort of consensus. Within an hour I received an email from Cousin Jane of Colorado:
I don't know who this person could be…[In 2005] I sent you 3 photos taken at Thanksgiving, 1922…[This] same person is in the background of [another] photo looking over my mom… The 3 photos were taken on the same day.  Jane 29 Nov 2011
Did I just spend several hours analyzing this photo to find that it was taken Nov. 1922? Yes. But the exercise was good.  And I didn’t do too bad since I narrowed it between 1920-1924!

From here, I can check my database.  Which Morris woman was living in 1922 and would had been between 65 - 80 years old? The only possible Morris woman would have been Tobe’s sister, Mary Martha from North Carolina. Was she visiting that Thanksgiving?  Well, that’s a whole new search!


Other Resources
One of my favorite books is The 20th Century Fashion Sourcebook  by John Peacock.

A good article written by Halvor Moorshead: 
Old Photos: When Was It Taken

My favorite online site: Fashion-Era by Pauline Weston Thomas and Guy Thomas.

Uncovering Your Ancestry Through Family Photographs
 
by Maureen Taylor, Photo Detective 

Kathleen Brandt

a3genealogy@gmail.com
Accurate, accessible answers.

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