Tag Archives: photographs

Helen’s Photo Album, 1923

This is Helen Ambrose. In 1923 her sister, Emily, made a photo album for her with photos of their family and friends. It’s nice knowing the names of many of the people pictured, and also the places, though I came up empty when searching online for Helen.  Most of the photos that are labeled were taken in Hinsdale, Illinois or Grand Rapids, Michigan.

I bought this album for several reasons, the main one being that it shows Helen in quite a bit of her wardrobe, so that you can get a good sense of her style. We can start with her dark cotton knickers and matching sports shirt. Even better, we get a good look at her canvas shoes and hat.

She must have liked this sport ensemble, as she is wearing it in quite a few of the photos, and seemingly at different times. Here she is shown wearing it with a different hat. The object of her attention is Harold Reynders. He is a regular cast member in this year of Helen’s life.

This photo was taken on the same day at the same location, a golf club in Villa Park, Illinois. It must have been a very informal place to have allowed a woman to play in pants, or maybe they just mistook her for a boy!

There are also photos of Helen wearing her knickers with a middy blouse. Note that she has not yet bobbed her hair, even though she seems comfortable wearing pants in public. In all the photos she is wearing this same hairstyle with the coils at the sides. It gave long hair the look of being short, but it looks a bit old-fashioned for 1923.

Many of the photos are of various members of the extended Ambrose family, including these two little unnamed cousins.

And here’s the middy with a skirt. The skirt does seem a little long for a young woman in 1923, but the year before, skirts lengths did take a move toward the floor. They then began the upward journey to the knee, a length most associated with the 1920s.

Helen is wearing a suit that appears to have been made from jersey, possibly cotton. She’s seen wearing it a lot, and with good reason – she looks great in it. I love the scalloped edge of her collar, and the dark tie around her neck.

Here she is in another suit, this time with a blouse and vest. And note how the hem on this skirt is just a bit shorter than the others. Could Helen have been a teacher? She looks a bit too polished to be a schoolgirl.

The album is quite fragile, and the white ink Emily used to label the photos is fading badly. That’s Helen, Emily, and a friend, Iva. On the right in the wonderful, but unfortunately unflattering, dress is Aunt Em and a possible uncle.

This is Grandmother and Daisy. I’m guessing that Daisy is the child and not the cat, but I could be wrong. I have a strong suspicion that Grandmother never did shorten her skirts.

This photo was not labeled, and I don’t think it is Helen. It does illustrate an interesting tidbit I read in an article in a 1975 American Heritage magazine:

“There was an enormous number of surplus sailor hats at the end of WWI, and soon “Army & Navy” stores were swamped with them. They made good fishing hats, tennis hats, and headgear for general lounging; but pretty girls also discovered that something about a sailor hat, perched atop vagrant curls and hovering over big blue eyes, was irresistible.”

In this case the entire ensemble was appropriated.

Finally, there are some swimming photos, taken at Reed’s Lake, which I think is near Grand Rapids. The bathing suits are great, but it’s their caps that I covet.

And check out the boathouse. A lake near me has one such boathouse remaining from this era, and it is now a historic landmark.

I really don’t want to get into the business of collecting photo albums, but sometimes I come across one that illustrates the times so well that I can’t resist. It’s really a shame that this has been separated from family members who would treasure the contents, but we can honor Helen’s life by letting her teach us about her life and fashions in 1923.


Filed under 1920s fashion, Sportswear, Uncategorized, Vintage Photographs

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

Thoughts on Snapshots

Be sure to click for details.

I think we were all a little hard on photographs yesterday, so I thought I’d do a post in praise of them.  Not modern photos, of course; I’m going to praise the vintage snapshot.

Last week at the Metropolitan Museum of Art there were some small gallerys filled with old snapshots.  I was delighted to read that they were part of the massive collection of Peter J. Cohan, a collector I’ve read about several times over the past year.  Cohan began looking through and buying vintage snapshots at flea markets in 1990.  He did not look for any particular thing, but instead he just wanted to buy what seemed interesting to him.

Twenty-three years and over 35,000 photos later, museums, including the Met,  are starting to acquire parts of the collection.  The display has the photos arranged in quirky categories: kids with cigarettes, women with guns, women boxing.

Edwardian mooners

Just like Mommy

Two variations on a theme

If it is there, they will climb it

What is it that makes vintage photos so much fun?  Sometimes it is the spontaneity, but all these photos were staged.  Perhaps it is that, unlike today where we can snap and re-snap until we like the result, the photographer of yesteryear knew she or he really had only one or two takes to get it right, and there was no way to know if it was right until the photos were returned by the developer.

Then when the photos came, all the exposures were included, mistakes and all.  Today, many people never even print their photos, and when they do, only the best are picked to become hard copies.  I took over 250 photos in New York, but only had 35 of them printed.  And that was after I’d deleted hundreds more.

I think that most vintage photo collectors are like me, that is they do look for specific things in the old photos they acquire.  I may just follow Cohan’s example and be a little more open to the fun and the oddball.



Filed under Collecting, Curiosities, Museums, Vintage Photographs