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Photo of the Month – September 2014

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Genes Advisor 1 Sep 2014 09:27

Dress-historian, portrait specialist and photo detective Jayne Shrimpton is on hand to date your family photos.



This photo was taken at the waterfall track at Coniston in the Lake District. One of the ladies in the group is my great great grandmother, Mary Danson, aged 17 years old. Note the clothing worn for this hill walking trip.

Jayne Shrimpton's analysis:

This lovely scene is not only a great family heirloom but offers a wonderful visual record of the past - a rare glimpse of British social and cultural life and an excellent view of late-Victorian female fashions. Well-composed and of high quality, your photograph was probably taken by a professional outdoor photographer – an independent operator, or possibly a representative from a nearby studio. During the tourist season it was quite usual for photographers to set up their equipment in prime open-air locations such as beaches, parks and scenic spots like this, taking souvenir pictures of day-trippers and holiday-makers enjoying their leisure time. The resulting images are full of fascinating detail, although few surviving examples are as engaging as this image from your family collection.

In nineteenth-century Britain walking in the countryside for exercise and to enjoy picturesque scenery was a recognised recreational pursuit, especially amongst the middle classes and educated working people. By the late-1800s such activities were becoming increasingly popular with women and mixed or all-female groups might go exploring together in their free time, perhaps as members of a social club or organising an outing among fellow students, work colleagues, friends or relatives. Here this female party touring the Lake District looks to be comprised of young women aged in their late ‘teens’ and early twenties, except for the small girl who may be a daughter or young sister. You know that your 17-year old great great grandmother is present, so perhaps you may have formed some idea as to who her companions could be.

No doubt you are also aware of when this event took place, as the details seem to have been well-recorded. Otherwise, to determine the time frame we examine the style of the ladies’ costumes and take particular note of their full sleeves. These follow the puffed gigot or ‘leg-o’-mutton’ sleeve style that dominated the 1890s, their shape and size suggesting a date range of c.1893-98: so I hope this estimate accords with your notes. During the 1890s most female outfits consisted of a separate bodice or blouse and a skirt, the material of the garments usually plain cloth for everyday wear. By the mid-1890s a suit known as a ‘tailor-made’ costume was also coming into vogue, as seen here second from left – a tailored jacket and skirt ensemble, worn with a white blouse. The female equivalent of the regular male suit, smart and presentable but also functional, it was immediately linked in the popular mind with the so-called ‘New Woman’ who was shedding her traditional ornamental role and leading an increasingly active and independent lifestyle. Indeed, the female ‘tailor-made’ suit could look distinctly masculine when teamed with a businesslike knotted tie, as here, and over the following decade or so, this style of outfit became a virtual uniform for the progressive young working woman.

All of the ladies have adopted another male item – the straw boater, a lightweight yet robust summer hat often favoured for sporting occasions, weekends and holidays. Fashionable for men for several decades, broadly between the 1880s and 1920s, the distinctive boater hat was ‘borrowed’ by women only during the 1890s and early 1900s, as it complemented the plainer garment styles then becoming popular. Hats were still de rigeur with outdoor wear and a substantial brim helped to protect delicate faces from unwanted sunburn and freckles. For striding up and down slopes and clambering over stiles the women have shortened their hemlines to a more convenient ankle length and wear sturdy leather boots: they also carry canes and parasols/umbrellas for support on the uneven hillside paths. It would be at least another 15-20 years before they could abandon their constricting corsets and shorten their skirts further, but considering the limitations of Victorian fashion, Mary Danson and her companions have dressed well for the occasion and their image is a special one to treasure, and pass on to later generations


If you have any 18th, 19th or 20th century pictures, and are happy for Genes Reunited to share the image and findings, please scan and send a copy to with PHOTO in the subject.

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