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Dressed for the Photographer

Ordinary Americans and Fashion, 1840–1900

Clothing & Costume

DescriptionFashion has always been a cultivating force.  And during the 19th century—a time of great change—fashion was a powerful component in the development of American society.  Through dress, average individuals could step beyond class divisions and venture into the world of the elite and privileged.  Beginning in 1840, with the advent of the daguerreotype, that moment could be captured for a lifetime.

In Dressed for the Photographer, Joan Severa gives a visual analysis of the dress of middle-class Americans from the mid-to-late 19th century.  Using images and writings, she shows how even economically disadvantaged Americans could wear styles within a year or so of current fashion.  This desire for fashion equality demonstrates that the possession of culture was more important than wealth or position in the community.

Arranging the photographs by decades, Severa examines the material culture, expectations, and socioeconomic conditions that affected the clothing choices depicted.  Her depth of knowledge regarding apparel allows her to date the images with a high degree of accuracy and to point out significant details that would elude most observers.  The 272 photographs included in this volume show nearly the full range of stylistic details introduced during this period.  Each photograph is accompanied with a commentary in which these details are fully explored.  In presenting a broad overview of common fashion, Severa gathers letters and diaries as well as photographs from various sources across the United States.  She provides graphic evidence that ordinary Americans, when dressed in their finest attire, appeared very much the same as their wealthier neighbors.  But upon closer examination, these photographs often reveal inconsistencies that betray the actual economic status of the sitter.

These fascinating photographs coupled with Severa’s insights offer an added dimension to our understanding of 19th century Americans.  Intended as an aid in dating costumes and photographs and as a guide for period costume replication, Dressed for the Photographer provides extensive information for understanding the social history and material culture of this period.  It will be of interest to general readers as well as to social historians and those interested in fashion, costume, and material culture studies.

AuthorJoan L. Severa, age 89, passed away on March 5, 2015. She was born on August 7, 1925, in Spring Green, Wisconsin. Her career started at the Wisconsin State Historical Society in 1958, and by 1979 she had worked her way up to Curator of Costume and Textiles, which included Decorative Arts. During her tenure, Joan published many articles on historic costume for living history centers and created the Patterns of History. Among her many achievements is her book, Dressed for the Photographer 1840-1900. The book won the CSA Millia Davenport Award in 1996, and prizes from the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, the Victorian Society in America, Wisconsin Library Association and the Golden Pen Writing Award from the United States Institute for Theater Technicians. She followed up with another book, My Likeness Taken.