Friday, 23 September 2011

Fancy dress or the height of fashion?

Image © and courtesy of Robert Silverwood
Elizabeth Adshead of Belper, c.1883-1886
Cabinet card by J. Schmidt of Belper
Image © and courtesy of Robert Silverwood

While compiling a new profile for Belper photographer Jacob Schmidt this week, including a large number of new examples of his work, I rediscovered this striking image of a cabinet card sent to me some years ago by Robert Silverwood. It depicts his relative Elizabeth Adshead (1849 - 1917) and, at the time he sent it to me, Robert was of the view that she may have been garbed in some type of fancy dress costume. The cabinet card is of particular interest because it has been hand-coloured. Whether the clothes actually were those colours is now uncertain, but it seems quite possible that they would have been represented in as realistic a fashion as possible. Unfortunately, the retouching has also given the subject's face a rosy-tinted appearance which does not help with estimating an age.

Jacob Schmidt arrived in Belper in the early to mid-1880s, and must have established his reputation quickly. This much is clear from the fact that a good number of examples of his work have survived, in spite of his death in 1893, after only a decade in the town.

Since Schmidt did not change his card mount designs frequently during this period, it is not easy to date the portrait with much accuracy from the card design alone, but other examples of this mount are probably from the mid- to late 1880s. The use of a very crudely painted classical "column" as part of the backdrop (at the left hand side), however, suggests to me that perhaps this may have been a fairly early work, and I estimate it was taken c.1883-1886.

Image courtesy of Victorian Fashions & Costumes from Harper's Bazaar 1867-1898 by Stella Blum
Spring Styles, from Harper's Bazaar, 10 February 1883
Image courtesy of Victorian Fashions & Costumes from Harper's Bazaar 1867-1898 by Stella Blum

As I've made clear before on Photo-Sleuth my knowledge of fashions is fairly limited, and I tend to rely on several well-thumbed books and web sites. One of these is Stella Blum's collection of Harper's Bazaar engravings, from which the above 1883 illustration has been extracted. Although perhaps made from somewhat different materials, Elizabeth Adshead's dress shows many similarities with the outift depicted on the right, including a high collar, short sleeves with flounces immediately below the elbows, and an overskirt gathered back at the sides, towards the prominent bustle at the back. The blue skirt looks as though it may be a fine wool weave.

The headgear is the only notable difference: she is wearing what is commonly referred to as a mob cap, rather than the more fashionable straw bonnet trimmed with ostrich feathers worn by the Harper's ladies. Although most popular in Georgian England, the mob cap was still used by servants and nurses during Victorian times.

Although I am hesitant to question Robert's identification of the subject as Elizabeth Adshead, she would have been in her mid-30s at the time I estimate this portrait was taken, and it is my feeling that this woman is a little older than that. However, her looks are masked somewhat by the hand colouring, so I can't be sure. What do you think, both about her age and the clothing? If you are familiar with fashions in the 1880s, I'd appreciate your comments.


  1. She seems older than mid-30s to me, too. But could just be an off moment for her.

  2. It is hard to tell with the photo, but I agree that she looks older than mid-30s. The high neck makes it impossible to detect neck wrinkles which are often the give-away. Perhaps a close examination of her hands might help.

    The dress does seem to be the same pattern - it is the fabric that strikes me as perhaps a bit more fine.

    Really nice photo. Now you have given me the courage to post one of my 'questionable' identification photos!

  3. I agree that the coloring may be masking her age. I am not an expert of historical fashion either, but I find her cap puzzling. It just doesn't seem up to the standard of the dress.

  4. She does look much older than 30 to me, even with the horrible coloration job. It doesn't really look like the dresses in the add to me probably because they are so fitted and her dress is rather lose and the skirt is so different then the top. but I'm no fashion expert either.

  5. Brett, I have to agree with Robert Silverwood. I think this is a costume for several reasons. While some of the lines of the bodice and skirt are similar to the 1883 illustration, there are some definite, though subtle, differences.
    --The point on the 1880s bodices come lower than the point in the lady's dress in the photograph.
    --In the photograph, the neckline is has more gathers and frills. In addition, she wears two collars in the photo, an inner one (which looks like it's pleated) and an outer one which stands up higher at the back and narrows as it comes down her chest.
    --Also, the bodice on the photo looks like it has cross-over lacing on the front, possibly with the laces tied in a bow at the bottom. (It's hard to tell because her hands rest in front of her at just that point. But you can see some blue below her hands.)
    --The gathers at the bottom of her sleeves are fuller and longer than in the 1880s illustration.

    I say you wouldn't catch a lady in the 1880s wearing this costume unless she was very old and wore it in her younger days, it was her grandmother's, or she was wearing it to a costume party!

    I also think the lady is probably older than her 30s. (But then people often aged more quickly than now and died younger.)

    You could try turning the photograph into sepia or black and white and see if you get a clearer view of her face. Or photo-shop the rouge out.

    I'll be interested to read what others think, especially if they're knowledgeable about costumes.

  6. I really can't tell her age. I don't know anything about fashions, but I think the skirt on her dress looks too plain for any fashion.

  7. As far as the age, just based on the face, I'd guess somewhere in late 40s to 50s.

    The dress seems to me to be a tad anachronistic. It reminds me more of something from the 1780s, but I do not pretend to be an expert in historic fashion. Perhaps a costume of an earlier time?

  8. Bear in mind fashion moved slower in the past what was in Harper's Bazaar in London might take 10yrs to be seen in Belper (Have you seen anything from this week's Vogue around you Today?).
    Also older people have more independence of fashion and clothes which hold memories for them (I still love my wedding suit)
    The lady certainly has a thicker waistline than the young things in the advert and a lot of rings on apparently older hands; so my money is a lady of more than 40, but people aged quicker then; so perhapa we should compare pictures of people of known age at that time.

  9. I am not an expert on fashion, but I see a tremendous difference in styles here. The dress is broad in front. The fashion at this time was more snug (straight) down the front. Additionally, the tops were far more "tailored" as jackets at that time. This lady's outfit looks as if it is a colonial era hand me down, or a costume of the era.


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