Those lucky enough to have access to old photos of their family members have a piece of the past through these images. These photos provide a glimpse into the lives their ancestors led. But, with so much temporal distance between past and present, it can be hard to identify people and the years the photos were taken.

MyCanvas has created this blog series to help those trying to identify old photographs! There’s one simple clue in every photo that can narrow down your search: clothing! Clothes give many clues about class and status, trends that point to specific years, and even a general range to help you find who you’re looking for.

Early Photography: 1839-1860

Our first stop is the early decades of photography. Daguerreotypes–the first modern photos–appeared in public in 1839. However, they faded out of the limelight by 1860. So if you’re lucky enough to have one of these treasures, you’ll be looking for ancestors within this 20 year time frame.

Women’s clothing can be more telling than men’s throughout the 19th century. But there are a few subtle clues. Men’s hairstyle and choice of neckties can narrow down your search. Here are the styles and trends for each decade.


Those of you familiar with pioneer history and westward expansion should notice some familiar styles in this decade!

Fashion plate showing coat, muff and bonnets from La Mode 1848

Women’s clothing

Dresses used pleated bodices, low sloping “natural” shoulders, and bell-shaped skirts which widened through the decade. Look for accessories like crochet shawls and frontier-style bonnets. These bonnets were plainer than previous decades, and tied under the chin. Married women often wore linen caps, adorned with lace and ribbons, and bonnets went over them.

Evening dresses came off the shoulder, with elbow-length flounces. Ladies would wear these with sheer shawls and opera gloves. Women’s outerwear also came back into fashion with narrower sleeves. Jackets and coats were cape-like, especially around the collar. Fur muffs for the hands became fashionable to have in winter.

Women parted their hair down the center and often wore it in a knot or a bun at the back of the head. They often wore ringlets (called “spaniel curls” on either side of their hair, which were often irrelevant to the rest of the style. Alternately, hair on the sides of the head might be braided or smoothed and looped over the ears, with the excess tucked into the bun or knot.

Men’s clothing

The upper classes and those attending formal events wore tall collars and neckties, which tapered in at the waist with a rounded chest to give them an hourglass-style figure. Top hats became taller and straighter, beginning to take the shape of the later stovepipe.

Denim pants also appeared during this decade. While it’s not likely that early jeans would have been worn in a formal photo, they might appear in photos of everyday American life, or in photos of the working class.

Children’s clothing

Styles mirrored their parents’. Young boys may have worn long tunics up through age 6, and toddlers of all genders wore cotton dresses with long sleeves. Girls wore very similar styles to their mothers.


The 1850s see the introduction of the ambrotype, a new method of photography that was less expensive than daguerreotypes. James Ambrose Cutting patented them in 1854. These photos were popular between the early 1850s and the mid-1860s. If your photo is an ambrotype, narrow your search down to these years.

Image result for 1850s fashionWomen’s clothing

Women wore very wide skirts full of flounces, accented by crinolines or hoop skirts. Women’s fashion tended to come from Paris, while London held the strongest influence over men’s clothing. Bell-shaped sleeves, appearance of bodices that buttoned in front. Off-the-shoulder evening dresses had shorter sleeves. Outer garments, if they appear in photos, were cape-like jackets worn over their dresses. These too had multiple flounces. Bonnets, still popular in these years, gained heavy lace trim.


Bloomer dress –

You may also see bloomer dresses, which may point to the photo being circa 1851. This isn’t to say women ran around in their underwear! Bloomer dresses were a healthier, more comfortable alternative to the restrictive and sometimes dangerous corsets of the time. The dress consisted of loose trousers and a short skirt worn over them, inspired by Turkish pantaloons. If your ancestor is wearing these, it’s likely she was campaigning for women’s rights. They were also very popular among women living in the West due to their flexibility in frontier work and travel.

Hair, on the other hand, was simpler. Women wore their hair parted down the middle and in a bun or knot at the back of their heads. The sides had volume to cover the ears, whether in a puff or with ringlets.

Men’s clothing

Men wore tall, highly-starched collars and cravats. You may see suits where the coat, waistcoat, and trousers were all of the same fabric, which was a trend in this decade. Top hats became more extreme, leaning toward the “stovepipe” fashion we see from Abraham Lincoln. Bowler hats appear in 1850, but only the working classes wore them.

Facial hair began to be very popular, with a wide variety of styles. They might be any combination of a mustache, beard, and sideburns. Men’s hair had a high part on one side, smoothed down with a bit of volume around the ears.

Children’s clothing

Much like the previous decade, children dressed like their parents. Look for young boys (under 6-8) in belted tunics with longer hair. Boys’ suits may have had a wide, rounded, frilled collar distinguishing them from their fathers. Girls’ skirts were shorter, possibly knee-length, with pantalettes beneath.


Stay tuned to learn more about identifying photos by clothing! Next week, we’ll be exploring the 1860s-1870s: the American Civil War and Reconstruction.