Blog22 Feb 2012
Our photo expert, Jayne Shrimpton, analyses your family photos.
Corrinne Ryan sent us her photo and asked:
‘This mysterious photograph was in my grandmother’s photo album, along with the name ‘Aunty Olive’. That is all I know.
To date I have been unable to find an Aunty Olive, but if I could have some idea of her age, date of birth, place, status, and reason for the photograph… anything at all… I may find a starting place in my search to find out who she is.’
‘This is a stunning photograph, a very clear and intimate portrait – fantastic from a fashion point of view! The high image quality suggests that it was taken in a professional photographer’s studio, although no photographer or studio details are visible here. If this is a card-mounted photograph, usually a studio name and address would be printed on the bottom and/or the back of the mount. Perhaps the original photograph bears these details: if so, the town or city named will confirm whereabouts the photograph was taken. The studio location is also likely to be where this ancestor lived at the time, as clients usually visited a photographer close to home.
Accurate dating is essential for positively identifying past family members represented in old photos and dating this portrait should help you to find out more about your enigmatic ‘Aunty Olive’. Here we only have the visual image to go on, but fortunately female photographs can usually be dated fairly closely from dress clues as ladies’ fashions changed regularly in the past and are generally recognisable as belonging to a specific era. Younger women in particular would have been keen to show off their most up-to-date garments, accessories and hairstyle in a photograph.
This young woman wears a very fine and formal dress made of perhaps a light woollen fabric, the bodice incorporating a central panel of silk satin and edged with sequins or similar dark, shimmering passementerie and delicate white lace at the cuffs and collar. The most prominent feature, however, is her sleeves, which demonstrate the full gigot or ‘leg-o’-mutton’ shape fashionable during the 1890s.
With this distinctive style, the sleeve puff above the elbow gradually expanded during the early-1890s, reaching its greatest width in 1895 and 1896, before beginning to diminish and retreat higher up the arm. The extreme sleeve width of the mid-1890s sleeve was often accentuated by broad shoulder epaulettes, as we see here, although the fairly high placing of the puff on the arm here could possibly suggest a year or two later. To include all possible years, therefore, I would date this photograph to c.1895-98.
Evidently this young lady is wearing a very special and probably rather expensive outfit, while the floral spray or corsage on her bodice implies a festive occasion. In fact photographic evidence confirms that many formal studio portraits in family collections were taken to mark an important event in our ancestors’ lives. Here ‘Aunty Olive’ prominently displays rings on her ring finger, this deliberate pose usually signifying betrothal or marriage. Since women sometimes wore several rings at once, it can be difficult to single out an engagement or wedding ring, but I am fairly certain that this young lady has just become engaged, or possibly married.
This event may also be suggested by the heart-shaped locket and chain pinned to her bodice – possibly a love token from her fiancé or new husband. Hopefully the close time frame and the likely occasion will help you to identify this intriguing lady from your past.’
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