What Real People Wore- A Few 1920’s Photos and Some Thoughts

I have not posted in the “What Real People Wore” series for some time, and there have been two reasons. I don’t often write really personal thoughts on the blog here because I know there are lots of different opinions out there on many different subjects and the purpose of this blog is not necessarily for me to pronounce my views, but to share vintage finds, images, and my sewing projects and other ventures.  But bear with me a moment, while I share these 1920s photos and share a few of my personal thoughts on using vintage photos for style inspiration or studying how average people wore clothing.

I intentionally took a break from posting these photos for a few reasons. The first is that time got away from me and I honestly forgot. See, we organized my desk here, and if I can’t see something, I forget it… so the momentous pile/envelope of photos got sorted into a file cabinet and “out of sight, out of mind”.  Yes, I really am distracted THAT easily ;)

Secondly, I got a bit of critisism a while back for posting undated photos, on the basis that we cannot use them for studying fashion history since they are undated, and it is unprofessional to do so.  I tell you, readers, that this totally bummed me out for a long time.  First of all, because I really have a passion for studying fashion history and sharing my finds.  I have been independently studying vintage and historic fashion and collecting information and ephemera for coming on 18 years now, and the thought that I could be sending out faulty or inaccurate information out there really made me not only disappointed in myself, but somehow feel guilty.  I am by no means an “expert”, if by expert you mean someone with a college degree in museum studies or something of the kind.  I’m really just a big nerd who likes old stuff.  But I have a passion for it.  It thrills me to find out new information I didn’t know.  I love reading old articles from the actual time period I’m researching.  And if by putting undated images out there with just a general “hey, these are from the 1920s, or 1930s, or 1910’s” is not good enough, I was disappointed in myself for doing that.  I mean, YES, of course, dated photographs are the most ideal, but what are we going to do with all these ones which are undated and, surely, they must be of more use than just saying “oh, look, a picture of someone I never knew.”  Maybe that’s how they all get abandoned in antique shops, etc.

But then I had a second thought.  This thought is “Fashion” vs. “Clothing.”  If we want to study the history of FASHION, then of course, we go first to the place fashion originates.  In most cases, that would mean high fashion magazines and fashion couturiers.   Fashion, in my opinion, could also include dated photographs of high fashion or society photographers.  Where the fashions came from can often be pinned down to not only the year, but the season if we follow fashion history in that way.  If you’ve studied fashion at all you’re probably aware that there are two theories= the “trickle down” effect- meaning that the high fashion and wealthy people who wore the latest fashions, and in time they trickle down the ladder, in some form or another, to the masses.  Then we have the “trickle up” effect, which is the opposite.  It starts with the masses and heads on up the ladder.  This was not quite as common in the past as it is today, but it’s worth noting nonetheless.  “Clothing” is what I term as things that people put on their bodies in order to dress themselves.  Yes, we get more fashion forward, but we also get just the regular outfit, which may have been worn for five, ten, heck even fifteen years by the same person.  These are not high fashion photographs at all and were never meant to be, they’re just images taken of PEOPLE.  Sure, sometimes they got dressed up nice for the camera, or if it was a special event or trip, but thank goodness for Kodak and their Brownie, because after the turn of the century we get more photos of people doing everday things than we had before when photographs were mostly in posed studio settings. I don’t think this look through everyday photographs of the people of America (or other countries’) should be discounted when looking at how the average person created their look (or didn’t create a look, but just put clothes on their body), just because someone unfortunately forgot to put a date on the back.

So, after much thought, I’m still going to be posting these images on the blog.  Most of them are undated.  Most of them are not high fashion.  I’m not really doing this to try to teach the history of the progression of fashion, but merely show how average people of any given decade dressed themselves or their family.  To show people going about and living their lives, and how they looked while doing it.  Feel free to use for research or style inspiration, or not, at your will, but since I like them and I have them I’m going to keep on sharing them.  And since I like clothing the most, of course, that’s generally why I have collected them, but others may find them interesting for other reasons.  Classic cars, architecture, household interiors, street scenes, or clothing and hairstyles.  I think they’re lots of fun and I hope you do, too.  But we’ll take them with a grain of salt, because, in essence, if you want to learn about the history of fashion it’s best to start with going back to your basics of where fashions and styles originated. But if you want to see everyday clothing and everyday people, these old photographs are great fun.

I know I’m being exceedingly long winded in this post, so please forgive me, but I also want to ask your opinion.

When I started posting these a while ago I called the series “What Real People Wore.”  But since then I have wrestled with that title.  I don’t want to say that movie stars and fashion icons, or those with larger incomes or smaller incomes than those pictures in most home photographs were not “Real People.”  Real people come from all different backgrounds: financial backgrounds, social backgrounds, and have all different careers.  What I meant with the title was simply how the average person would dress.  If anyone has any suggestions for a better little title for this series of photos, I’d love to hear.  I’m the worst and coming up with catchy little names ever, so if any of you are creative types in that way I’d love to hear what you think or your ideas.

Many thanks for listening to the ramblings, and I’d love to hear your thoughts!

42 Comments on What Real People Wore- A Few 1920’s Photos and Some Thoughts

  1. Beth
    January 4, 2012 at 2:36 pm (5 years ago)

    yay for bringing this feature back! I’m not one to collect old photos that aren’t of my family, but I love looking at them. Thanks for spending the time to scan and share them with us!

    Good thoughts on Clothing vs. Fashion. That’s a good way of thinking about it, I think. You’re highly knowledgeable and have a deep respect for history, so don’t second guess yourself based on a few stray comments!

    Love the first and last photos in this post. Good hair inspiration!

  2. Andrea
    January 4, 2012 at 2:38 pm (5 years ago)

    Thanks for posting these undated photographs. While they may not show the history of high fashion, they show the common history of America (or wherever they come from). I love seeing people in more casual settings.

  3. ReadyThreadSew
    January 4, 2012 at 2:46 pm (5 years ago)

    I love seeing these photos. The one with twelve children is amazing. It has made me realise that I have a load of photos of my husband’s family from the 20s, 30s and 40s and a few from even earlier and I should at least get them up online somewhere so that the images aren’t lost forever, even if the physical photos get destroyed at some point.

    How about simply removing “Real” and calling it “What People Wore” – I’m not very creative with words .

  4. PepperReed
    January 4, 2012 at 2:47 pm (5 years ago)

    Wow! You were ‘scolded’ because of undated photos? That’s odd, and unfortunate. I don’t look at your photo displays as coming from a professional archivist, but someone with a passion for fashion (Yay for Fashion Nerds!) and I think you should post them (and comment) as you see fit. You do a fine job and are pretty accurate with the timelines.

    I think its quite important for us to see what average people wore on a daily basis; that’s definitely my area of interest. Glamourous gowns are lovely, but most of us that (try to) wear vintage don’t really go swanning around in bias cut silk as often as we’d like. Seeing what folks wore day in and day out through the Depression and other eras, etc. is so very important, both historically and culturally.

    Here’s a photo to add to your collection: http://www.flickr.com/photos/kirkbyky/6637483591/

    • Lauren
      January 6, 2012 at 5:15 pm (5 years ago)

      Oh my gosh, that dress is TO DIE FOR!! Absolutely brilliant. Thanks for sharing it!

      • PepperReed
        January 6, 2012 at 5:29 pm (5 years ago)

        Isn’t it great?! Cuma was so very fashionable through every era I could find photos for her. When I met her, (the day my husband and I got engaged) she was in her late 80’s and still ‘dressed’ everyday.

  5. Laurie
    January 4, 2012 at 2:49 pm (5 years ago)

    I agree with you. ;) I’m glad you are starting this up again!

    How about…
    Wearing History…Day by Day (Obvously I was thinking of your great blog title)
    Laurie

    • PepperReed
      January 4, 2012 at 2:55 pm (5 years ago)

      Ooh! I like the Day by Day title.

      • Beth
        January 4, 2012 at 7:08 pm (5 years ago)

        Love this title!

  6. wacky tacky
    January 4, 2012 at 2:50 pm (5 years ago)

    Cheers! What is a blog if not a place to share your thoughts, feelings, and attitudes? I particularly appreciate when bloggers share what they’re thinking and feeling on any given subject because it makes that subject all the more personal. Furthermore, it invites thought and conversation. I love this and all of your posts. I think “What Real People Wore” is an apt title – but if I think of anything really clever, I’ll let you know. Keep up the AMAZING work!

  7. Sara
    January 4, 2012 at 2:58 pm (5 years ago)

    There can be months or years before fashion trends gracing the front of Vogue will trickle down to JC Pennys, Kroger or big box department stores. And they will stick around longer in the mass market although the industry leaders may have moved on to new trends. When you post these family photos, I would think approximate decade would work very well! Even if there are dates on the photos, they may have been written by a family member long after the photo event and may be incorrect anyway. (Painful lesson from genealogy speaking here) And “what real people wore” can be very different than the fashion pates in magazines or iconic/famous examples in museums that supposedly “define” that fashion style/era/decade. I think you are just fine with your title and love seeing these images!! I’m glad to see you posting them again!

    • Katherine
      January 4, 2012 at 4:30 pm (5 years ago)

      Great point!

      • Heide
        January 5, 2012 at 10:09 am (5 years ago)

        I was just going to say the same thing! I think the title fits. Your photos a showing what real people wore everyday as apposed to what the fashion plates or an actress would wear in a movie.

  8. superheidi
    January 4, 2012 at 2:59 pm (5 years ago)

    Just continue, these are so lovely! And the name covers it quite decent, doesn’t it? Why the fuss? You intentions are clear and honest, I think it’s fine. I’m collecting picture postcards of “ordinary people” and their pet dogs or best friend, as I like to call them (http://superheidiz.blogspot.com/search/label/man%27s%20best%20friend). Just normal, everday day people, some more plain than others, but very real and I wouldn’t know how to put it otherwise.

  9. wovengold
    January 4, 2012 at 2:59 pm (5 years ago)

    Wonderful post, and wonderful photos. I’m certainly happy to see you posting them again, as these are where *my* real passion lies. I am most interested in clothing and everyday life. Fashion is beautiful and inspiring and I do love it, but ultimately it’s the people and their lives and how their clothing functioned as well as looked that matter to me. Also, I think your original title is fine: What Real People Wore says it just fine for me.

  10. Coedith
    January 4, 2012 at 3:11 pm (5 years ago)

    These are my favorite posts! I am super happy you are doing them again. I am sorry someone hurt your feelings and I simply cannot see what their problem was. I have never had a great interest in vintage high fashion or that of starlets, but I can look at images average/real/ordinary people forever.

  11. Rae
    January 4, 2012 at 3:33 pm (5 years ago)

    So many people think they need to have an opinion on what someone posts on their blog, and for every one who is negative, surely there is someone in the positive, but it seems like the negatives are always the ones who speak up.

    I’m a positive, though! I have really enjoyed these posts for reasons that you’ve described—these aren’t high fashion, these are what people wore. Yes, it might be helpful to know that they were being worn in June 1925 in Topeka, KS, because those fashions would be much different from Dec 1927 New York City, but even so, it gives a good general idea, and it is great to see what real people looked like in the clothes—regardless of their fashion.

  12. Katherine
    January 4, 2012 at 4:29 pm (5 years ago)

    I love this post! I’ve got some really neat old photos of my family members. It’s so interesting to see what “real” people wore! And “boo” to anyone who didn’t like the fact that the photos were undated.

  13. Dakota
    January 4, 2012 at 5:21 pm (5 years ago)

    Oh, I really enjoy looking at pictures like these, and I’m glad you’re continuing with the series. Truly, I find everyday snapshots even more interesting than perfect fashion shoots, and the lack of an exact date doesn’t matter much to me– after all, not many ordinary folks would completely overhaul their wardrobe with the changing tides in fashion, right! You might have the rural farming families or old-fashioned grannies who’d still be wearing fashions from several years or even decades ago, for instance; a mish-mash of old and new. It’s fun to have an exact year attached, of course, but not having it doesn’t detract from the value of a great vintage snapshot for me :)

  14. Julie
    January 4, 2012 at 6:54 pm (5 years ago)

    I love your blog and your snapshot posts are among my favorites! I can’t believe people would be critical of your posting them. I think for every one hater out there are a thousand of us who adore them.

  15. Jill
    January 4, 2012 at 6:57 pm (5 years ago)

    I think it is great AND important to do these posts. The “ideal” fashion images in magazines and such from previous eras are only one narrow part of the larger historical-cultural picture of any given era. As you point out, these photos play a crucial role in helping us to peek into the real lives of people outside the wealthy elite, and reflect some sense of the actual “embodied” clothing. From this perspective, the suggestion that we should not seriously consider these quotidienne photos as viable historical artefacts simply because we cannot pinpoint precise date seems both surprising and illogical!

  16. Robin's Egg Bleu
    January 4, 2012 at 7:37 pm (5 years ago)

    I feel bad that you were criticized for the undated photographs. There are so many photographs out there which are dated incorrectly it’s not funny. These are often done years later by fuzzy memories. There’s no perfect way to date a photograph, and trusting what’s written on the back is okay in a general sense, but not necessary.

    I work for a historic house museum in San Diego and we recently found that the identity of a couple of family members were fudged by the original caretakers of the museum just because some ‘went’ better together than others. The son’s photograph was used in place of his father’s on the brochure because it matched his mother’s photo in style. However, on the back of the original photo in the historical archives identify the man as the son. The mother’s sister’s photo was published as her own mothers. Because they didn’t have a photo of her mother. I bet this happens all the time.

    I follow a blog that identified the 19th century photographs of a Louisiana family (well known) as the Missouri family who built his Victorian home. He got the photos from the historical society and they were mislabeled, horrendously. Someone simply used the published Louisiana family images to substitute for missing photos of the Missouri family.

    So if names are wrong on these old images, I imagine that the dates are likely not always correct either. You have to assess more than what’s on the back to date it.

    Other items in a photo can ‘help’ date it as well, i.e. cars, buildings etc. But not always a for sure thing. Gotta just use common sense and approximations.

    Keep on using undated photos! It doesn’t bother me in the least!

  17. Sharon
    January 4, 2012 at 8:07 pm (5 years ago)

    Oh please do continue posting the photos! Personally I don’t care if they are dated or not. I do enjoy seeing a glimpse into the past and these photos do that.

  18. Michelle
    January 4, 2012 at 8:57 pm (5 years ago)

    Love it! Thank you!!

  19. Sescún
    January 4, 2012 at 11:10 pm (5 years ago)

    Loved your pics, and your comments. I’m a historian and in spite of all the formal research I do, I adore to know how different daily lives and routines were in the past. I think it is the most important part of History: the way that social, economic and political background affected normal people lives. Clothing is just a material and historical document as any other, and it might be a specially interesting historical source when talking about political and social change. I hope one day I can write about “reading” the evolution of Spanish 20th History by looking at women’s outfits!
    Congrats for your blog! I am a passionate reader!

  20. ladykatza
    January 4, 2012 at 11:42 pm (5 years ago)

    Yay! I love this feature. I like the “Day by Day” suggestion but my first thought was “Snapshots in Time”. As you said, Kodak and their Brownie (tech history nerd here!) revolutionized photography by putting it in the hands of everyone.

    • Meg
      January 5, 2012 at 9:19 pm (5 years ago)

      Respectfully, it put cameras into the hands of people with disposable income. A lot of people during the depression, for example, were struggling to put food on the table and wouldn’t have been able to spare anything for luxuries like film and developing. The WPA photographs from this period are a real treasure, simply because they captured something would otherwise not have been recorded visually.

  21. Heide
    January 5, 2012 at 10:21 am (5 years ago)

    I adore old photos!! It is such a joy to find old ones of relations, but like you I have been known to buy random ones! Trying to figure out the approximate date is half the fun. It is such an interesting study to see the “trickle affect”. Even in the same photo you can see the styles trickling through the generations.

    I like the current title of your posts. But if you think a different one would be better, how about: What Everyday People Wore? or Fashion v. Everday?

  22. Debbie
    January 5, 2012 at 11:03 am (5 years ago)

    I only look at average people fashions when doing research for my fashion books and blog. The high end stuff is interesting but I want to know what average people really liked- that speaks more to social history then anything. I’m starting a new 1920’s fashion book where I will be looking at family photos, snapshots featured in local newspapers, and catalog clippings from Sears and other “common people” catalogs. Its really changes your perspective on what fashions were embraced and which ones ignored. It also makes you wonder in 50 years what will people look back on 2012 and think that we wore? Certainly not what is in hollywood magazines.

    Please keep up these posts. I just love the images and your commentary is dead on.

  23. ThirtiesLady
    January 5, 2012 at 8:46 pm (5 years ago)

    I’m glad to see you posting these again! I enjoy looking at glamorous magazine or studio photos as much as anyone, but it’s also fun to see what ordinary people were wearing, how they styled it, how both fashionable and non-fashionable outfits coexisted, etc. You know enough about fashion history to make good guesses as to the correct decade, which is all anyone can ask when dealing with undated, long-forgotten photographs! They still have value as historical references, even if no one is alive to remember the exact month, day, and year in which they were taken. Half the fun is in the mystery, anyhow. :)

  24. WendyBee
    January 5, 2012 at 8:49 pm (5 years ago)

    Good for you! I think you have been very professional! I looooove your photos, and really everything about your blog. I cannot say enough how much I support all of your efforts, and respect and admire your expertise. And I wish that comment had not stopped you cold in your tracks. But I am glad that it helped you crystallize your thoughts on your purpose with this feature. As for what you call it — call it whatever you like — it’s your blog!

  25. Meg
    January 5, 2012 at 9:13 pm (5 years ago)

    I missed this feature, too! I’m sorry to hear people were giving you grief about the dating issue — I have lots of opinions on how ridiculous that is, but I’ll keep to the “if you don’t have something nice to say” rule. This was a really great, well-reasoned essay.

    I understand your qualms about the feature title, but I think the name is fine. If you wanted (and were able to come across them), it would be interesting to see people from different economic backgrounds and ethnicities in period photographs. I have some of my grandmother in Occupied Japan in the late 40s I could email you ;) Also, almost all of these photos are snapshots — the people in them or taking them would have had to have had enough disposable income to own a camera, buy film, and develop the prints. That kind of rules out poor sharecroppers etc. unfortunately, but the truth is that there is a hole in the record because of economic issues *at the time* — I think you *are* showing real people, they just happen to be the ones that were able to record themselves on film. What’s so great about this feature is that a lot of these clothes didn’t survive because they weren’t anything special; it’s wonderful to get a feel for not only what pieces people were wearing, but also how they were wearing them.

    • Lauren
      January 6, 2012 at 4:29 pm (5 years ago)

      That would be awesome! I would love to post some photos of your grandmother, if you’d let me :)
      I wish I had more images of other nationalities, but I don’t come across them very often. I’ll be keeping my eyes out, though!

  26. hollywoodgirl
    January 5, 2012 at 9:22 pm (5 years ago)

    Someone complained that the photos were undated? Time for them to get the coat hanger out of their jacket and relax.

    I love what you’re doing.

    I agree with the OP that “What People Wore” is a good title.

  27. What-I-Found
    January 5, 2012 at 11:08 pm (5 years ago)

    I want to join the chorus of voices here praising your work and encourage you to keep it up. It’s valuable and interesting.
    I do have a story. There is a photo of my Grandmother that I had always liked, she’s in profile and has a fancy ruffled blouse and long pearl earrings. I thought she looked so glamorous. I mentioned the photo to my Mom and she burst out laughing. Seems she and her sisters had been bugging her to have her photo taken and so she dressed up in “silly” clothes and borrowed “ridiculous” earrings as a joke.
    So you can’t be sure of what you are seeing. ;-)

  28. Fourth Daughter
    January 6, 2012 at 2:18 am (5 years ago)

    While I love high fashion photos, real people are just as amazing! I mean, why else is National Geographic so popular!? Even though real people don’t necessarily have such good photography skills as NG’s photographers, there’s so much more feeling in photos of someone’s aunt or cousins etc. And in some ways it’s a lot more interesting (and important!) to see what the average person wore and how they wore it. So keep it up!

  29. Isis
    January 7, 2012 at 7:26 am (5 years ago)

    So interesting!

    As for undated, well, I think it’s better to post them than to hide them. I made about my grandmother in the 30’s a while ago as she had such a keen fashion sense and even if she was just a shop girl without a lot of money, had a really nice wardrobe:

    http://isiswardrobe.blogspot.com/2011/06/my-grandmother-in-1930s.html

    I haven’t any real dates on any of those, I just know they are from the 1930’s, but I think they are well worth posting anyway!

  30. Shelleyj
    January 8, 2012 at 9:32 am (5 years ago)

    Why cant you post undated pictures?! Isn’t it the job of the would be historical to hone their skills and *find* the date estimate that these photos come from? I mean, thats what historians do in other fields. I sure don’t think archeologists find ancient manuscripts and statues accurately dated and market. That would be tooooo easy :)

  31. Jen
    January 9, 2012 at 3:07 pm (5 years ago)

    I can’t wholly understand why anyone would be so upset about this particular feature (one I like very much). For one thing, you can only know so much about the photo, doing your best to date it as you described; it’s not like a photo says “1970” on the back and post it with a date in the 1920s, snickering all along. Secondly, the name of the feature says it all: What Real People Wore. These are ordinary people during their everyday lives, and this is indeed what they wore!

    You can only do so much dating these, and really, I just love seeing these snapshots of everyday, ordinary life. It’s fabulous. Besides, I’ve taken photos of myself that friends have said they’d swear were from the 1940s or 50s if they didn’t know better because, well, I’m not that old. ;) In 60 years, is someone going to see a photo of me in the garden with my victory rolls, dress, and collie, and mis-label it as 40s? It’s possible. Does that make them worthy of criticism? No! Just because it’s undated, does that mean people should smite a photo from the historical record? Oi. It’s silly, really.

    You make the distinction between fashion and clothing and are absolutely correct. Yes, the photos of stars are beautiful and wonderful to look at, and definitely tell us about high fashion at the time they were taken, but *these* photos are of regular folk. Moms and factory workers and brides and kids and travellers. I’ve some photos of my grandparents during the 20s-40s and love them. They say so much about my family, about life in those days—even if I don’t recognize some of the faces or have an exact date. Keep it up! I love the feature. :)

  32. LollyWillowes
    January 10, 2012 at 6:44 am (5 years ago)

    I love these posts, they are fascinating. anyone who complains obviously has nothing better to do with their time, that’s just ridiculous.

  33. Sarah
    January 11, 2012 at 5:29 pm (5 years ago)

    It sounds like you had a run-in with the Discipline Police! Don’t worry, they’re usually self-appointed ;) My training is in another small field and your experience sounds all too familiar. Some conservative scholars can be strangely dictatorial.
    For what it’s worth, I have before me a collection of academic essays from Routledge, The Fashion History Reader: Global Perspectives, and many of the photos—even of the rich and famous, even from the 20th century—aren’t precisely dated.
    Even though my own focus is on high fashion, I love seeing these old photos. Keep up the great work!

  34. Cassidy
    January 17, 2012 at 4:56 pm (5 years ago)

    It’s very silly for anyone to criticize that undated photos are useless – most garments in museums don’t come with a concrete date either! The dates given in online databases are usually based in a curator’s connoisseurship, and that’s why they’re mostly circa or a range. Obviously it’s best when a photo is dated, but it’s hardly *unprofessional* not to be able to give a date.

    Methinks anyone who would call that unprofessional doesn’t actually have any idea how the profession works.

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