Recently I’ve been reading about the history of photography, a topic I should have tackled a long time ago. I’m particularly interested in amateur snapshots, since they are my main source base to find out what older women actual wore (and wear). The portable camera emerged in the early years of the twentieth century, but initially there was no flash feature. That’s why amateur pictures before mid century are almost always outside. When looking through family albums, writes Robert Pols in his fascinating book Family Photographs 1860-1945, “life will seem to be full of trips to the sea with never a Christmas to separate them.”
According to Pols, the house entryway was a favorite site for family snapshots in the pre-flash era. One could document not only family members, but also fix the home itself in the collective family memory. Although it now seems obvious, before I read his book I had never considered why most of the photos I’ve collected feature steps, driveways, and entryways.
This photo from a Chicago thrift store is a common example. Although there is no guarantee that it was actually taken in Chicago, the architecture would certainly fit. In this case, the amateur photographer has over exposed the photo, but we can still see some of the interesting details of the woman’s dress. The bottom is decorated with rows of pleats. Is she wearing a cardigan sweater over the top, or is that long v neck incorporated into the dress? Although she does not have on the stylish strappy shoes of the twenties, she also has not chosen the sensible shoes favored by the older set. Most of all, it is her short hair that shows us that she intended to stay in touch with fashion trends.