Currently Reading – Dressed for the Photographer by Joan Severa

I’d had this book on my wishlist for a very long time after reading Lynn at AmericanAgeFashion’s review of it.  I kept putting off buying it frankly, because the book, even second-hand, is expensive.  But as the old saying goes, “You get what you pay for.”  I did finally find this at a great price, but now that I have it in my hands and have read most of it, I realize this is one book I should have just gone ahead and purchased at any price.

Yes, it is that great.  I will be the first to admit that my knowledge of nineteenth century clothing is really lacking.  If it is not sports clothing, chances are I can’t tell an 1848 frock from an 1862 one.  But now, with the help of Joan Severa, I’m beginning to be able to look at antique photos and clothing with much more confidence.

I want you to pay attention to the subtitle: Ordinary Americans & Fashion, 1840-1900.  So many times we tend to look at nineteenth century fashion through the drawings of fashion plates in magazines.  One of the first lessons of this book is that while American women read and used the ideas and suggestions in women’s magazines of the time, the clothes they actually wore had practical adaptations to fit their lifestyles.

By “ordinary ” Severa means the bulk of Americans of all races, ages, and genders.  She purposely excludes the very rich who were more likely to wear clothes from Paris, and the very poor, who had little chance to follow fashion at all.  But what she reveals is that most people, even the working poor, were able to make fashionable adjustments to their clothing.

The book is divided into chapters that follow decade lines.  Severa is quick to mention the overlap of fashion across decade lines though.  She begins each decade with an overview of what was fashionable, and the changes that occurred.  This is followed up with photographs that illustrate all the trends she mentions in the text.  Each photo has a careful analysis of the clothing being worn.  I’m finding it fun to look at each photo before reading the accompanying analysis to see if I can see the things that reveal the age of the photo.

The photographs in the book were chosen from a large variety of sources.  Each is clearly labeled with the source institution or private collection, and the access number if there is one.  I can only imagine the work it took to actually find such a selection of photos, as the book was published in 1995, long before collections were digitized.

The earliest photographs are studio daguerreotypes.  Note that Severa uses not just the clothing Etta is wearing to place a date on her photo, but also her hairstyle.

Most of the later photographs were taken outside of a studio setting, many taken by a professional photographer.  This photo was taken in 1885-86 in California and while the setting is casual, the subjects are carefully posed for the camera.

I love this circa 1892 photo of Mrs. Van Schaick in her camp clothes.

As cameras became more portable, photos became more casually posed.

This photograph is part of the Atlanta History Center collection.  Taken in 1895, during the height of the bicycle craze.  I doubt that she actually wore this long skirted, tightly corseted dress while riding!

I love all the photos of workers that are in the book.  Many were taken on the job site, but this photograph of a textile mill worker was taken in a studio.

Dressed for the Photographer is a whopping 591 pages, including a wonderfully functional index, a glossary of clothing terms, and a comprehensive bibliography.  What more could one ask of a fashion history book?


Filed under Currently Reading

17 responses to “Currently Reading – Dressed for the Photographer by Joan Severa

  1. This just scratches the itchy spot!
    Oh, my library doesn’t have it. But the University of Washington library has it, and they are a ten minute walk away!
    High fives all around! You are a pearl above price!


  2. allwaysinfashion

    Sounds like a fabulous wallow of a good read! I’ll keep my eyes out for it.


  3. allwaysinfashion

    Just checked, and it’s at my local library. Hurrah!


  4. S

    Fascinating. Thanks for sharing this.


  5. One of these photos is from my local historical society…and I know people with that last name! Going to look for the book through my library system. Thanks!


  6. Jewell Roesler

    Thank you Lizzie! I ordered this from Amazon the moment I finished reading your review. A fabulous addition to my collection!


  7. interesting book-I have never seen “portrait Photography assembled for fashion reference. I have several family/ancestor daguerreotype portraits- I can see a small change in sleeve treatments. My G Great Grand Parents (earliest one before Civil War-has almost same sleeve treatment as her mother. daughter (1863) fuller sleeves and smocked bodice and much fancier -both in shiny fabric-looks like taffeta. I have a original 1860’s Godet print if you want it for your collection. Send me/or call with mailing info .


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