In her monthly column, Jayne Shrimpton uses clues in your old family photos to reveal their hidden secrets. Jayne is a trained dress historian and portrait specialist. A former archivist at the National Portrait Gallery, she has been a freelance picture consultant, writer and lecturer for over 25 years.
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Q: The attached photo appears to be a family gathering which looks like it took place in the 1920s. I wonder, though, if it could be slightly earlier, judging by a couple of the gents’ suits, or even later. I would like to try and establish what the occasion was, so I need a more accurate date if at all possible. Thank you for your time.
The birth of amateur photography
A: Here is a lovely outdoor photograph taken probably by an amateur photographer using a personal camera. Amateur photography advanced significantly in Britain between the wars, with many individuals and families acquiring their first camera and snapping all manner of everyday and special occasions. Snapshots were generally set outdoors where there was a natural source of light and, since photographers learned to stand with their backs to the sun, often their subjects were captured squinting directly into the glare, as we see here. Many early snapshots were imperfect, often over-exposed and frequently cutting off peoples’ feet! However, they show our forebears in a more relaxed mode than formal studio portraits and portray them in real settings, so they provide a wonderful pictorial record of our families’ past.
Reading twenties fashion
In mixed group scenes like this, it is invariably the appearance of the ladies that offers the most reliable date range, for female fashions were more distinctive than men’s styles in the past and can usually be pinpointed to within a fairly close time frame. Here we see summer daytime frock, blouse and skirt and hat styles characteristic of the early-mid 1920s. Key fashion dating features include the loose-fitting dresses with round or scooped necklines, relaxed belted waistlines, and hems set well below the knee, at mid-low calf-length in some cases. The ladies’ various hats are also typical of this period, the wide-brimmed styles especially popular for summer and the closer-fitting helmet shapes early versions of the cloche hat that would dominate headwear from c.1925 onwards. Considering all of the female dress evidence, I believe this photograph dates to between 1920 and 1924, with 1925 the latest possible year.
Men’s dress cannot be dated quite so closely but the male figures here look fine for our early-mid 1920s time frame. They all wear three-piece suits, the waistcoat still de rigeur during the 1920s. Their shirt collars range from traditional starched standing or winged styles to the more modern turned-down collars. Unusually for an outdoor scene, only a few male figures wear hats, the cloth cap at the back and felt hat on the left both typical of this era, but the straw boater on the right now rather old-fashioned, for the boater was rapidly superseded between the wars by the straw Panama hat.
Dressing for the occasion
Several group members wear floral buttonholes or corsages, signifying a special occasion, although we should not assume that this was a wedding, for flowers were popular accessories whenever our ancestors celebrated a special event or went on some kind of outing. Their ages range from young to middle-aged and all the figures are adults: to me this suggests not so much a family occasion (for children would generally have been present) but quite possibly a work-related or social club outing. It seems logical to assume that at least one of the people in this group was a member of your family, so hopefully the firm date range will help you to establish the correct generation, even who he or she was and what they may have been doing when they posed for this photograph with friends or work colleagues in the early-mid 1920s.