Research Female Ancestors Through Their Fashion

Her Story - Uncovering Women's Lives

The clothing and hairstyles of our female ancestors can tell us much about the life they lived.
Getty / H. Armstrong Roberts / ClassicStock

Even without photos you can often re-create a general description of your female ancestor through a study of the clothing, hairstyles and fashion of the time and place in which she lived. Many books, articles and other such resources have done much of the tedious work for you by compiling useful information from many difficult-to-locate primary sources. For instance, in The History of Underclothes by C. Willett and Phillis Cunnington, you learn that in the 19th century, both men and women believed that good grooming required that all clothes in direct contact with the body be of wool. The changes through time of how women covered or revealed their body parts, says much about how women and their roles were perceived in their cultures.

Clothing Was a Big Part of Daily Life for Female Ancestors

In reading about clothing of any period, keep in mind that, in most ordinary families before the 20th century, clothing would have been constructed—and sometimes the cloth woven—by the women of the family. Women also maintained the clothing, an insight you can experience first-hand on a visit to the Frederick Douglass home in Washington, D.C., where in the laundry behind the kitchen, heavy irons were used to press the clothing of the household. The time to iron one lady's dress might be several hours, given the volume of material used and the intricate pleating popular at that time - this in addition to the actual laundering time, which, without the aid of modern washing machines and especially in cold weather, might take hours, too.

Probate records, including wills and inventories, can be a good source for information about your female ancestor’s clothing items. Advertisements and photos from period newspapers, lady’s fashion books and magazines from the time period, and costume exhibits at local museums and historical societies, may also provide insight into the kind of clothing your ancestor likely wore.

For more information on women’s fashion and couture:

Dating Vintage Family Photographs Through Womens' Fashion

How many old family photographs do you stored in boxes or albums which don't have names on the back? The fashions worn by women can often be used to assign a decade, and sometimes a smaller range of years, to your vintage family photographs. The clothing worn by their husband and children can also be helpful, but women's clothing styles have generally changed more frequently than men. Pay special attention to waist size and styles, necklines, skirt lengths and widths, dress sleeves and fabric choices.

For more information on dating vintage photographs:

Your Female Ancestors Are Silently Waiting…

With the wealth of genealogical and historical resources available there is no excuse for researchers to neglect their female ancestors in family narratives and histories. Despite the challenges of tracing the women through history, they are just as much a part of your heritage as their male counterparts. Begin today by talking with your living relatives before it is too late and then branch out from there. It takes a bit of creativity and sheer determination, but by using a combination of personal, original, and derivative sources, you should be able to glean a significant amount of detail about what life might have been like for those women in your family tree—and about how different our lives are today, in part because of their hard work and sacrifices.

© Kimberly Powell and Jone Johnson Lewis. Licensed to
A version of this article originally appeared in Everton's Family History Magazine, March 2002.