Discussions on the history and historiography of Australia's New England

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Dating old photos by fashion

My last post, Archives Outside, dealt with the dating of photographs and attracted a very nice comment from  Fiona Sullivan.

Looking at some of the comments on this and other posts attempting to identify date and location of photos, I stand somewhat in awe of the detailed knowledge of the commentators!

One of the reference sites referred to, Fashion Era, has a quite remarkable section -The Costume Detective: How to Date Old Photographs by the Costume: A Fashion-era Special, is really worth a browse.

Now the focus in the discussion is on photo dating. However, to date photos people have to understand what happened and when. This raises a far broader issue and one that excites me as a historian. You see, most of these techniques are actually a study in social and cultural history.

Take fashion. Yes, you can see how fashions changed. But those changes tell us not just about changing trends and social structures, but also something of the detail of domestic life. For example, how long did it take to get dressed? How much time was taken just to keep clothes clean and somewhat tidy?

One of the things that puzzled me as child with old photos lay in the fact that people might be dressed up, coats and ties for example, but everything was crumpled. This simply goes to the question of ironing.

In Australia, we take pressed clothes as a given. We also take electric irons as a given. They are just part of the fabric of current life. Yet electricity itself is very new.

The mining town of Hillgrove near Armidale may have had electric power in 1895, but it would be many years yet before Armidale gained electricity. No power, and you have to iron using irons heated on stove tops. I remember those old irons, for I have actually seen them used. They were bloody heavy and took time to heat. Then they had to be re-heated.

All this took time, quite a lot of time. It was also heavier work. Mind you, you also had to have a stove. For a fair bit of at least the first part of the nineteenth century, the majority of Australians cooked over open fires.

All this explains the rumpled appearance in photos. However, it also explains something else. I suspect that the later rise of women's liberation would not have been possible, or at least not in its advanced form, without the invention of all the devices that now make house work so much easier.   

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