Although this book addresses a specific time and place—the United States from the 1840s to 1900—it contains a wealth of information useful to anyone who is interested in how photographs can be used to study the history of fashion. The research involved in this thick volume is simply breathtaking. Not only does Severa follow the minute twists and turns in fashion at the time, she and her research assistant also scoured local and state history depositories around the country for interesting photographs and often the stories to go with them.
Severa has a clear thesis: In nineteenth century America, clothes were a way to achieve respectability and social mobility. Since the social hierarchy was fluid, ordinary people dressed as well as they could afford to, following styles to the best of their ability. The right clothes helped them to move up the social scale (or to look as if they had.) As a result, the basic cuts were similar in the wardrobes of the well off and the not so well off, the urban dweller and the pioneer. (Of course, those who looked carefully could see differences in fabric quality and detail.) The outliers were the truly poor, who had no way to stay in style, and the very rich, who had the means to follow the very latest in European fashions.
How did the farm woman in New Mexico know what to wear? Severa argues that fashion magazines, like Godey’s Lady Book, were widely distributed and passed from hand to hand. Even very small towns usually had someone in the sewing trade—either a well trained dressmaker or a lesser skilled seamstress who could add stylish details to basic designs.
This book also teaches how to look more carefully at clothes in photographs. Severa was a curator for the clothing collection of the Wisconsin State Historical Society, so she has detailed knowledge of the kinds of clothes being photographed. Her eye for detail is astonishing—she looks for the cut of a sleeve, the texture of the fabric, the folds and buttons on a bodice.
There are many lessons here for the historian of twentieth century fashion. I learned that the turn toward more relaxed clothing, a hallmark of American style, was well underway in the nineteenth century. And even in the 1840s, fashion made allowance for the older figure. This is a book I will turn to again and again.