19th Century

Glimpses of the past

Whenever I am down in Nelson I go shopping for old photographs.  I don’t know why I can’t find an antique store near to me that carries them, but for some reason they don’t.

I collect old photographs as costume research, and as visual stories.

Usually I find a lot of sweet late Victorian and early 20th century images, but this time I managed to find a selection of 1860s-1880s photographs, which I’m quite excited about.

I particularly collect images of people in fancy dress, and women in work clothes, but I also have a keen interest in people in unattractive and ill-fitting clothes, as an illustration of the imperfections of the past.  We tend to romanticise past fashions, and old clothes, and think of everyone as being glamorous and beautifully put together, in perfectly fitted clothes, and that simply wasn’t true.

Even taking into account that informal photography was quite rare, and most people would have chosen to be photographed in their best clothes, you get ensembles like this:

Woman by the Ewing Brothers, ca. 1883 thedreamstress.com

It’s terribly unflattering on her, the proportions are all wrong, the fit is terrible, and it’s quite rumpled.  And I adore it!  So much more interesting than a pretty dress.  I almost wonder if she might be pregnant, given what’s happening with her stomach.

I estimate the dress at 1881-3.  The photograph was taken by the Ewing Brothers, of Station Road, somewhere in the UK.

Woman by the Ewing Brothers, ca. 1883 thedreamstress.com

Going back in time a decade and a bit this middle aged woman of the mid 1860s is quite beautifully dressed, but her gown still demonstrates that even in period, unattractive hoopskirt bulge and hem collapse happened.

Woman, by David Gay ca. 1865 thedreamstress.com

She was photographed by David Gay “Photographer to his late Royal Highness the Prince Consort” of 74 Cheapside London EC.  Now that’s a good bit of history just on the back of the photograph!

More unattractive hoopskirt-ness in this lady here – the dress just lacks any sort of elegance.  She seems to have a very tall, lanky build – quite awkward for this style.  The chair is quite fetching though!  And those are some sausage curls!  I’m pretty sure they are a hairpiece, which was the main reason I picked up the photo.

Woman of London 1860s thedreamstress.com

It’s by “City of London Photographic Copying Company, 18 Queen Street, Cheapside”, which I presume means they weren’t the original photographers.  Based on the hoop, I’d say late 1860s?

Woman of London 1860s thedreamstress.com

For more unlovely hoopskirts, I found this fantastic family group.  Despite the petticoats she would have been wearing, there are clear hoop lines on the girl on the far right.  And check out the wrinkles on her bodice, and the other young woman in the light dress.  It’s really comforting to know fit wasn’t always perfect in period.

Unknown family, ca. 1863 thedreamstress.com

The father’s suit really intrigues me.  It’s so dark and rich and almost looks velvet-y.  And what are the knot motifs on his collar?  Most fascinating!

Unknown family, ca. 1863 thedreamstress.com

The best thing about the photo though, is the young man standing at the back.  It’s Heathcliff!  I’ve always imagined him looking exactly like that!

Sadly there is no information on that photo.  I’d date it to ca. 1863.

My final entry in the unattractive hoopskirt hall of fame is one without a hoopskirt at all – or with a very tiny hoop.  It’s really nice to see a reasonably practical, restrained, sensible style captured in a photograph.  And you can just see the line of her corset.

Unidentified woman, late 1860s, thedreamstress.com

I’d date this to the late 1860s or early 1870s, though the ensemble lacks any of the fashionable extremes that help with dating.  Sadly, there is no information at all about the photographer.

In total contrast to the restraint in the photo above is this fabulous frock.  Check out the lace!  Check out the ruffles!  Check out that amazing trim!  And the backdrop!  It’s all so delicious!

Unidentified woman, ca. 1870, by Arthur J Melhuish, thedreamstress.com

I’m also in love with the wrinkles and creases at each seam in the skirt, despite the obvious cost of the outfit.  It really demonstrates how hard ironing was at the time, both as you sewed, and after.

Unidentified woman, ca. 1870, by Arthur J Melhuish, thedreamstress.com

Our beauty was photographed by Arthur J Melhuish “Photographer Royal / By Special Appointment / International Exhibition 1862 / Dublin Exhibition 1865 / Portrait Painter & Photographer / 12 York Place / Portman Square / London W”.  I date her to ca. 1870, and I think she’s just divine!  I wonder, comparing her to photographs like this, if she might not be Princess Alexandra – she was a very popular subject for carte-de-visites at the time.

Another lady who I think is just divine in this late 1880s lass.  Her outfit fits very well and is full of gorgeous details, though it’s not really to my taste (I dislike moire almost as much as I dislike fringe).  I think the gathered/smocked V at the front of her skirt is fascinating.  The crossover effect on the bodice is quite cunning, and the fact that you can see that it doesn’t fit perfectly at the neck where it attaches only makes it better.  The collapse at the top of her corset is a good detail to notice as well.

Unidentified woman, late 1880s, by Simpson & Sons, Cheshire, thedreamstress.comUnidentified woman, late 1880s, by Simpson & Sons, Cheshire, thedreamstress.com

The thing that most jumped out at me with this photo was her waist.  Compare it to the size of her neck and head.  See how her waist is 2x the size of her head?  That’s a standard waist size today.  She’s clearly corseted, but mostly to give her body a nice stiff foundation for the bodice to sit over.  It really isn’t about waist reduction at all.

Unidentified woman, late 1880s, by Simpson & Sons, Cheshire, thedreamstress.com

I do wonder who this woman was.  I can’t quite make out what book she is reading.  She’s got such a frank, interesting face, and strong, beautiful hands.  I wonder if she was a bit  liberal and artistic – the smocking, though seen in standard fashions, was particularly associated with the aesthetic movement.

I’ve got a few more photos to show you, but they are on a different theme, so I’ll leave them for now.  I hope you’ve enjoyed the tour of my photo gallery!


  1. Dear Leimomi,
    A helpful and illuminating post. Thank you both for the pictures and the commentary on them!
    Very best,

  2. Fashionista says

    Thank you for the photos and commentary, extremely interesting as always. I feel a little bit sad when I come across photos in antique shops, sad that no-one treasured them enough to keep them. And ever so curious about the back story. And why didn’t they smile AT ALL? Surely life wasn’t that glum?

    The V shaped smocked bit on the skirt in the last picture is a bit of a worry. I saw that and immediately made up a little story about the subject being quite an alternative young lady for her time and that decoration was a poke at the restrictive dress of the times. But then I have an overactive imagination……

  3. These are so interesting! I always find the history of “regular” people more compelling than the history of the rich and famous.

    It’s my understanding that many 19th century photographers would have a couple of fashionable dresses in their studio that the sitter could wear, and I suspect that explains what’s up with the dress in the first picture. I’ve seen a photo of one of my ancestors whose pose was clearly intended to disguise fitting issues with the borrowed dress.

  4. Hi Leimomi,

    Dollar is in Scotland, in the county of Clackmannanshire, which would tie in with Ewing, which is a Scottish name. There is still a Station Road there but, sadly, no station. I suspect it was on one of the many small rural railway lines which were closed in the 1960s.

    Hazel Grove is in Stockport, which is in the north-west of England, near Manchester.

    I loved reading this post, as I’m developing a bit of an old photograph passion myself. I’ve got a portrait by Arthur J Melhuish which I bought because I loved the costume so much, you can see it here http://blacktulipsewing.blogspot.co.uk/2013/04/by-sea.html.

  5. Interesting fit commentary! It’s nice to know that certain fit issues (corset collapse) are timeless!

  6. I love these! We don’t seem to have a lot of photos like that around where I live either, perhaps old photos like that are rarer in Australia? I would love to collect old photographs like that, and those rather odd ones that other people collect, like the ones in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs. I love the more ‘normal’ ones too, though, it is wonderful to see all the ladies in their fine dresses! The sort of thing I love to wear!

  7. Oooh, this is so interesting and fun! Thanks for sharing. This reminds me that I should take a closer look at a group of old photos I was given a while back. I also occasionally pick them up at antique stores and fairs – when I think to. I do find them so fascinating, wondering who those people were.

  8. Rebecca says

    I was once told by a museum curator that some photographers kept “higher class” clothing on hand for poor people to wear when they had a picture done, so that they could be photographed in a nicer outfit than what they may have actually owned. Of course, that was quite a problem when you didn’t actually fit! And if you wore the wrong undergarments. I think that might be the explanation for some of those. Others are just bad fit and bad thought I think.

  9. Those are great. I find Victorian photo albums irresistible too, if I can afford them. I think I have four of them, two small and two large, not in the best condition, but it’s the contents I love, especially if it’s a whole family. They aren’t always, sometimes people would collect CDVs and sometimes dealers buy them to take out the more saleable ones and maybe dump a few less commercial ones in their place. I must do a blog post on mine 🙂

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