This dignified portrait of an older African American woman comes from the studio of the photographer Michael Francis Blake in Charleston, South Carolina. According to the records at Duke University, most of his customers were black. The studio was apparently a modest affair with a plain backdrop. The wooden chair pictured above is often the only prop.
I’ve changed the color of photo and darkened it a little so you can see more of the detail of this older woman’s clothing. Duke gives the approximate date range for the photo as between 1910 and 1918. Her shirtwaist and skirt combination were standard apparel for American women of all ages and races in 1910. By 1918, it would have been out of fashion.
The skirt appears to have six gores, a common shape. Her white shirt has a high collar and what looks like a lace insert in the front. It’s hard to tell because of imperfections in the photo. It’s also hard to judge whether or not it buttons down the front.
For me, this portrait is an example of the power of “less is more.” She wears the simplest of all outfits. Her accessories are also quite simple, including a beautiful belt buckle, a two stand necklace, and drop earrings. But these minimal details combined together create real elegance.