Dating Portraits from Fashion Clues
Our interest in historical fashions dates back centuries: in the 19th century, especially, there was aesthetic and antiquarian enthusiasm for earlier styles, inspiring many fashion revivals. However it wasn’t until the 1950s that the study of dress history became recognised as a serious and respectable academic discipline. At that time the art establishment first acknowledged that the costume depicted in portraits provided a unique and valuable research tool. Since then generations of art historians have commonly used fashion clues to accurately date and, in some cases, interpret historical portraits.
Tracing historical fashions necessarily closely follows the development of figural art, which extends back several thousand years to those ancient and classical civilisations who left behind representations of themselves wearing contemporary garments, hairstyles, jewellery and other accessories. Dating surviving images from fashion clues embraces not only conventional artworks such as paintings and drawings, but a wide range of portraits in different media, including sculpture, textiles and stained glass.
Traditionally-trained dress historians are equipped to date the appearance of figures depicted in art forms as diverse as Greek Attic vases, wood carvings, tomb effigies, manuscript illuminations, oil paintings on canvas, portrait miniatures and Victorian studio photographs. The types of pictures that societies produced changed significantly and expanded over time, but any kind of historical image portraying human figures wearing secular (non-religious) dress can be effectively dated, using knowledge of fashion history.
It is usually possible to identify and date very early styles of dress to within around 50 to 100 years, and from the 12th century onwards, when garments, headwear and footwear began to assume more distinctive shapes, the time frame begins to narrow. However ‘fashion’ as we understand it today – that is, rapid and continual change in dress – is generally said to have emerged in the late Middle Ages, along with the growth of European cities and the birth of ‘mercantile capitalism’. Certainly, from the early 15th century onwards, the date range that can be assigned to fashions occurring in visual sources becomes significantly closer.
During the European Renaissance secular portraiture – paintings of named individuals – became an established art form and its growth in subsequent centuries enabled first-generation dress historians to determine a more precise chronology of dress from the 16th century through to the present day – a timeline against which any historical portrait spanning these years can now be successfully measured. From the mid-Georgian era onwards, both fashionable dress and the vogue for portraiture accelerated, facilitating the firm dating and effective analysis of many portraits originating in recent centuries.
In the mid-19th century the new invention of photography offered a more democratic and popular way of representing the population at large and consequently many of us are more familiar with photographic portraits than with traditional, elitist artworks that only the prosperous could afford. By the Victorian era fashion was moving swiftly and old photographs can usually be closely dated to within five or ten years, from their fashion clues.