I’ve been preparing at work for a program discussing women’s fashion 1830 – 1930 for International Women’s Day/Women’s History month. For me it has been an excuse to pull some pieces out of storage and get them new photographs and update their records, as well as just working on something I find interesting. I’ve spent quite a bit of time over the past decade getting conversant on the changing women’s silhouette during that century of time (which is our primary interpretive period) and honestly – if I was going to volunteer to deliver digital programs, I’m going to try to keep it to topics that I want to talk about since I really don’t enjoy being on camera.
That doesn’t mean I didn’t need to go back to some of the resources and refresh myself (and get some additional images to share). First up is a book which really doesn’t have an equivalent in my experience, Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans and Fashion, 1840-1900. Joan Severa spent years funded by an NEH grant compiling and studying early photography to unpack the visual evidence for what it can tell us about fashion history, and what fashion history can tell us about the larger social trends in place. Severa examines the material culture, expectations, and socioeconomic conditions that affected the clothing choices depicted in the photographs from across the country. Her depth of knowledge regarding attire allows her to date the images with a high degree of accuracy – which in turn helps others turn around and date their own images – and to point out significant details that would elude most observers, including me on what is probably my third or fourth trip through this book.
This work, weighing in at over 300 pages, is a deep dive into visual history and provides extensive information for understanding the social history and material culture of this period. There are hundreds of reproduced photographs and Severa unpacks what can be seen in each. What I appreciate most is that not only are there so many images, but that the images feature people of all ages, sizes, wealth levels, and a variety of racial backgrounds. Severa avoids falling into the trap of whitewashing history by including black, Hispanic, and indigenous peoples in her examples. While I was primarily focused on women’s fashions this go through it is also an indispensable resource for children’s and men’s fashions. (5 grateful stars)
The second book I’ve been working with is Vintage Fashion: Collecting and Wearing Designer Classics, 1900-1990 by Emma Baxter-Wright. While I was primarily working with this one for its first third, it is a useful look at fashion in the 20th century. While Dressed for the Photographer is interested in telling a more middle-class story Vintage Fashion aims for a higher socio-economic level. This one is only a three star read for me not for choosing design houses over popular fashion, but for not providing more examples of the trends being discussed. Each section has a round-up of what to look for in a given timeframe, but there just wasn’t enough variety in the images for me. Also, this is a book about women’s fashion, menswear is almost entirely absent. But, as a primer for large trends it does a commendable job. (3 appreciative stars)