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Many young adults followed fashion closely, while the more mature might wear a modest, toned-down version of the most extreme styles and the elderly generally dressed much more conservatively than the youth of their day.
Occasionally certain regional differences are apparent in 19th century photographs, for example, in the case of Welsh, Scottish and Irish ancestors.
The succession of distinctive, dateable styles that characterised female dress centred on a changing silhouette formed by the corsets, crinolines, bustles and other under structures worn beneath clothing, along with the complimentary sleeve shapes, dress trimmings and hairstyles of each period.
Men's attire, on the other hand, is often only dateable to about a decade or thereabouts, as male modes reflected more subtle shifts in tailoring and slow-changing features such as styles of neckwear and fashions in facial hair, as well as the occasional appearance of new garments.
Wealthy subjects had many fashionable ensembles to choose from, whereas ordinary working-class ancestors usually donned their best outfit, kept for church on Sundays and special occasions.
Everyone wished to create a good impression in the treasured photographs that would later be shown to family and friends and might be displayed in an album, or hung on the wall.
Sadly, those unwaged or destitute family members who were so impoverished as to own only old-fashioned, ill-fitting or ragged clothing were unlikely to have had their photograph taken very often, if at all.
Dating dress Dress historians and others with a keen eye for detail can accurately pinpoint 19th and early 20th century women's dress to within five or 10 years, by recognising the different components of a particular 'look' - garments, jewellery, accessories and hairstyles – and knowing when it was in vogue.
It was, therefore, the quality of fabric and extravagance of trimmings that distinguished the dress of the affluent from that of the poorer classes – not in general its basic cut or shape.Family historians often wonder whether their poorer forebears would have been able to dress very fashionably.This is a good question but photographic evidence suggests that in many cases even humbler working ancestors followed the latest styles.There may also have been a time lag of a few years between new fashions first being worn in urban areas and their adoption in remoter country districts.Ideally we should consider all these criteria when considering the clothing of family members as seen in old photographs.