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Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans & Fashion 1840-1900. Joan Severa. Kent State University Press 1995.

I have a fairly short list of things without which my life would be greatly diminished–such as sheep, tea, travel, textiles, and books (not necessarily in that order.) The very best is when more than one not-to-be-without item can be found in one place. Tea drinking sheep, perhaps not. Historical textile books with a unique perspective on material culture, yes! I found Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans & Fashion 1840-1900 at my wonderful local library branch, Kennedy Library in Muncie, IN.

In looking at old photographs, I always have a great awareness of how much information is held within the photo–and how much of that information is inaccessable to me. A full understanding of the broad historical context of the sitter, in addition to the minutia of daily life and dress, is needed to truly unlock the secrets of an old daguerreotype. There are certainly aspects that are always left unknown. Did the sitter borrow clothing or wear her own? Did the photographer rearrange her shawl or does she typically wear it as photographed? But how a sleeve is cut or a bonnet trimmed can tell us so much about the social context and personality of the sitter. One of my favourite photos from the book is by photographer Charles Van Schaick (pg. 513.) The image is of a Norwegian couple in La Crosse, Wisconsin, walking along a storefront surrounded by town life. The woman strides out ahead of her husband with a sure step and gives the camera a level gaze. On her manner of dress, Severa shares “The entire costume has an ‘Old Country’ flavor not in its cut and fashion but in how it is worn. For one thing, she wears the mannish hat in an uncompromising manner, without any trimming whatsoever, which, in the New World, certainly marks its wearer as ‘different.'” I would love to have met this uncompromising, un-corseted woman.

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Book is broken in to sections covering each decade from 1840-1900.

This book is like having costume expert Joan Severa sitting with you, looking over photos and filling in the gaps. I have learned so much and have not gotten through half of this tome of nearly 600 pages. So, if you have requested this book at the Muncie Public Library, you will just have to wait a while longer–I’m not done yet!