After a Fashion

“In this portrait we see a woman probably approaching forty yet still wearing the popular stiff, busked corset, and her dress is as tightly fitted over it as if she were a teenager.”

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Unknown woman, partly solarized 1/6th-plate daguerreotype, circa 1842. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

I am fortunate to have several daguerreotypes in my early image collection that were featured in one of the two seminal books on Victorian fashion by Joan Severa, former curator of costume at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin. My Likeness Taken: Daguerreian Portraits in America, 1840-1860 was released in 2006, as the followup to 1995’s Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans and Fashion, 1840-1900. Both volumes were published by Kent State University Press.

In My Likeness Taken, Severna wrote of this image, “Few details testify so perfectly to the power of fashion influence as the persistent use of tight corseting. In this portrait we see a woman probably approaching forty yet still wearing the popular stiff, busked corset, and her dress is as tightly fitted over it as if she were a teenager. The corset makes for a rigid, upright posture.

“The sleeves are of the new, narrow shape, which became the preferred sleeve form by 1843. The collar is wide, in early forties style, and lappets have been laid under it and pinned with a brooch at the throat.

“The daycap is of the early forties shape, with a very deep brim that has been turned back so that its edge ruffle frames the face. The ribbon strings are tied closely under the chin and fall in lappets. Only in the later forties were the capstrings left open.

“The hair is done in short sausage curls at the crown, where it fits under the puffed back of the daycap.”

This image is also notable for its early date. The Daguerreotype process did not reach America until the end of the 1830s and was not viable for commercial use until exposure times could be cut down to a period that the sitters could bear.

“Americans began to experiment with the process almost immediately. Neck clamps limited the movement of subjects during a sitting. Mirrored systems to increase light and improved chemical techniques reduced exposure times to less than one minute. Although it is impossible to say who created the first daguerreotype portrait, all the claimants were Americans, and the daguerreotype acquired a particularly American identity. Even the leading daguerreotypists in London and Paris advertised ‘Pictures taken by the American process,’” notes the Cornell University website for the exhibition “Dawn’s Early Light: The First Fifty Years of American Photography.”

The solarization of the ribbons on the sitter’s daycap and collar is explained by M. Susan Barger and William Blaine White in The Daguerreotype: Nineteenth-Century Technology and Modern Science: “Blue usually occurs in daguerreotypes that have overexposed highlights. The frequent appearance in cheap daguerreotype portraits of blue shirtfronts on men gave these daguerreotypes the name ‘bluefronts.’”

I would postulate that given the 1842 date Severna assigned the image based on the sitter’s clothing, the photographer—who was plainly adept at posing and lighting his subject in an open and appealing manner—may not yet have mastered the technical processes of the art form. He may have been, in modern parlance, a “newbie.” Ω

Author: Ann Longmore-Etheridge

Writer, journalist, editor, historian.

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