Tag Archives: photographic portraits

Hints on Dressing for the Photographer: 1865-1921

attractive 1890s lady portrait

In striving to look natural while having your picture taken, imagine yourself a desperado, just planning a bloody murder and you will unquestionably be successful. New Orleans [LA] Item 15 January 1881: p. 2

Mrs Daffodil has been inspired by a comment on “Face-book” about American Duchess’s self-described “rant,” suggesting that the people of the past wore their best clothing for the photographer. There are many factors that went into the choice of costume for a sitting. To judge by the articles below, the photographer may have had more influence than he is credited with.

1860s lady portrait

How to Dress for a Photograph. 

A lady or gentleman, having made up her or his mind to be photographed, naturally considers, in the first place, how to be dressed to show off to the best advantage. This is by no means such an unimportant matter as some might imagine. Let me offer a few words of advice touching dress. Orange color, for certain optical reasons is photographically, black. Blue is white; other shades or tones of color, are proportionally darker or lighter as they contain more or less of these colors. The progressive scale of photographic color commences with the lightest. The order stands thus—white, light blue, violet, pink, mauve, dark blue, lemon, blue green, leather-bound, drab, cerise, magenta, yellow-green, dark brown, purple, red, amber, maroon, orange, dead-black. Complexion has to be much considered in connection with dress. Blondes can wear much lighter colors than brunettes, the latter always present better pictures in dark dresses, but neither look well in positive white. Violent contrasts of color should be especially guarded against. In photography, brunettes possess a great advantage over their fairer sisters. The lovely golden tresses lose all their transparent brilliancy and are represented black, where “the bonnie blue e’e,” theme of rapture to the poet, is misery to the photographer; for it is put entirely out. The simplest and most effective way of removing the yellow color from the hair is to powder it nearly white; it is thus brought to about the same photographic tint as in nature. The same rule, of course, applies to complexions. A freckle quite invisible at a short distance, it, on account of its yellow color, rendered most painfully distinct when photographed. The puff box must be called into the assistance of art.

Here let me intrude one word of general advice. Blue, as we have seen, is the most readily affected by light, and yellow the least; if therefore, you would keep your complexion clear and free from tan freckles whilst taking your delightful rambles at the seaside, discard by all means the blue veil, and substitute a dark green or yellow one in its stead. Blue tulle offers no more obstruction to the action of the actinic rays of the sun than white. Half a yard of yellow net, though perhaps not very becoming will be more efficacious and considerably cheaper than a quart of kaydor—All the Year Round Cincinnati [OH] Daily Enquirer 20 January 1865: p. 1

1870s lady portrait darker

The photographer might also have suggestions for assuming a particular expression, although one suspects a joke in this squib:

A photographer gives’ the following directions to his customers: “When a lady sitting for a picture would compose her mouth to a bland and serene character she should, just upon entering the room, say ‘Bosom,’ and keep the expression into which the mouth subsides until the desired effect in the camera is evident. If, on the other hand, she wishes to assume a distinguished and somewhat noble bearing, not suggestive of sweetness, she should say ‘Brush,’ the result of which is infallible. If she wishes to make her month look small she must say ‘Flip,’ but if the mouth be already too small, and needs enlarging, she must say ‘Cabbage.’ If she wishes to look mournful, she must say ‘Kerchunk,’ if resigned, she must forcibly ejaculate ‘S’cat.” Evening Post, 21 February 1880: p. 1

1880s upholstered lady portrait

Actresses and professional beauties made it their business to photograph well.


How Colors Change in the Camera Why Actresses Take the Best.

New York Sun.

“The question is often asked,” said an experienced photographer, “why actors and actresses take the most pleasing pictures. It is because they study the principles of art and good taste in their procession and understand how to dress. Moreover, they usually bring a selection of veils, flowers, curls, braids, lace and sometimes costumes to give the photographer a choice of accessories. They come when they are wholly at leisure and are not flustered. A red face takes black, and they know it. Then they do not load themselves down with gewgaws and haberdasheries, to show all that they have got in worldly goods. Few persons know how to dress for a picture like an actress.

The best materials for ladies to wear when about to sit for a photograph are such that will fold or drape nicely, like reps, winceys, poplins, satins and silks. Lavender, lilac, sky blue, purple and French blue take very light, and are worse for a picture than pure white. Corn color and salmon are better. China pink, rose pink, magenta, crimson, pea green, buff, plum color, dark purple, pure yellow Mazarine blue, navy blue, fawn color, Quaker color, dove color, ashes of roses and stone color show a pretty gray in the photograph. Scarlet, claret, garnet, sea green, light orange, leather color, light Bismarck and slate color take still darker and are excellent colors to photograph. Cherry, wine color, light apple green, Metternich green, dark apple green, bottle green, dark orange, golden and red brown show nearly the same agreeable color in the picture. A black silk always looks well, and it takes well if not bedecked with ribbons and laces that will take white. Dark Bismarck and snuff brown usually take blacker than a black silk or satin and are not easy to drape. A silk, because it has more gloss and reflects more light, usually takes lighter than a woolen dress. Ladies with dark or brown hair should avoid contrasts in their costumes, as light substances photograph more quickly than dark, and ladies with light hair should dress in something lighter than those whose hair is dark or brown.

Few ladies understand how to arrange their hair so as to harmonize with the form of the head, but blindly follow the fashion, be the neck long or short, or the face narrow or broad. A broad face appears more so if the hair is arranged low over the forehead or is parted at the side, and a long neck becomes stock-like when the hair is built up high, while a few curls would make a most agreeable change in the effect. Powdered hair gives good effect and powder should be bestowed upon freckles. Plain Dealer [Cleveland, OH] 24 May 1881: p. 4

pretty lady with feathers portrait




[By B. C. Towne, Photographer.]

“I wonder why I never take a good picture?” Is a question frequently asked, and often with good reason, too. Excellence in a picture depends partly on the artist and partly on the sitter, and, of course, the first rule to be observed is to visit a good photographer. The first thing necessary seems to be to decide what style you will have—bust, three-quarter figure, or full length. The first two are the prevailing modes; the last implying a more elaborate toilet. Before leaving the studio, consult the photographer as to your dress, etc. Let him know what it is to be. You may be undecided which of several to use. It there may be a choice in color or in cut, etc. He will tell you at once which is best. He may request you to try more than one, and in the absence of such invitation you will be expected to pay extra for the experiment…

He will probably request you not to dress the neck too high or too tight, or in an exact circle, with the fore part of it lying close under the chin, for, of all things, the present high mode of dressing the neck is distressing to an artistic photographer. It is done because the lady has a short neck or a long one, or it is thin, and the cords must be concealed. It is done, for it is the fashion. This is all a mistake. You are surprised when the photographer says it, for there is a touch of bitterness in his tone. He illustrates his meaning by winding the lapels of his coat tightly around his neck. “You see, madam, the effect on a long face like my own. It overhangs and becomes almost deformed, while a round face becomes button shaped, and none of the little tricks of hairdressing or expression can remedy it. No; it’s all a mistake. If your neck is short, as you say, do not lose what you have, lower the drapery, do a little judicious borrowing, and, presto! the face that was round becomes oval. In any case the neck must not be hidden, for all the action and grace of position in a bust portrait centers there.”

Black, dark green, crimson, brown, and yellow, take nearly the same shade. A dress cut low in the neck always seems higher in a photograph than to an observer. Mr. Towne has secured the services of a young lady from a leading gallery in Chicago, who will offer suggestions or assist ladies in draping or arranging minor details toward making up to the best advantage for a perfect picture. Patriot [Harrisburg, PA] 26 July 1888: p. 4

1908 figure portrait



By A. Bogardus.

Dress as you are accustomed to do, and as your friends see you. Many ladies are inclined to overdress when getting a picture; that is, they dress for effect, and it generally results in so much damage to the picture. Do not disguise yourself either in dress or in the mode of wearing the hair. A gentleman once spoke to me in regard to making a picture of his wife. She came at the appointed time. I had never seen her before. The picture was delivered in due time, and was a success in execution. He gave me his opinion as follows:—”Your execution is well done, but it has no value to me as her hair was arranged as I had never seen it before, and as I never wish to see it again.”

The time was when the photographer required certain colors in dress to produce good effects. Now, with experience and the improvements in chemicals, these restrictions are removed. He can photograph white as well as black. The capable artist prides himself on his ability to show the most delicate and elaborate lace-work on the bridal dress.

With these restrictions no longer necessary, I would say—wear your most becoming dress.

Blue and pink will photograph white.

Purple will appear many shades lighter than it is in reality.

Red and deep yellow appear black, or nearly so.

Strong contrasts in dress or trimmings will give a gaudy effect.

Subdued and quiet colors make the neat picture. For example see the pictures of nuns, or the lovely pictures of Quaker ladies… An obnoxious mole too prominent for a beauty spot may be covered with wax, and powdered over. A light veiling may be draped over scars or bruises.

Unless you can smile naturally to order, don’t attempt to look pleasant, for the result may be heartrending. Omaha [NE] World Herald 21 December 1902: p. 19

1920s girl portrait

And, finally, there is advice about not wearing one’s newest or most fashionable gown for the photographer:

 How to Dress for the Photographer

It is a good rule to follow never to wear a new dress to the photographer’s. Not only do you show awkwardness that comes from wearing something with which you are not entirely familiar, but it is a well-known fact that new clothes are stiffer and hang in less graceful folds than do clothes that have been worn. The old frock has taken on the curves and lines of your body. It seems to have absorbed something of your personality.

And, of course, the old frock, if it is becoming, may be worn for a photograph when you might not select it for a party. If it is a little faded, or even shows signs of wear, this will not show in the photograph.

You may have noticed that certain pictures taken some time ago are almost grotesque now, while others of the same date are still satisfactory portraits. If you stop to observe you will see that the pictures that are still pleasing show no freaks or extremes of fashion. Collars and collar lines seem to be the details that most quickly look out of date; hence the wisdom in always having your picture taken with a low neck line if possible.

Hats, too, date a picture. The picture you had taken without a hat you will like to display for a longer time than the picture that shows its date by the hat you wore.

Jewelry does not add to the effect of a picture and often detracts much. Baltimore [MD] American 9 October 1921: p. 5

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Sound words from the professionals! It is most interesting that the suggestions about colours and about powder are so very consistent over several decades. As for wearing one’s best clothing, Mrs Daffodil has seen interviews with photographers stating that they kept clothing to be used by clients and that some persons would don top hats, watch chains, and fraternal organisation regalia for the camera, sending the finished photographs to their families back in “the old country.”

Mrs Daffodil has previously written of the Tin-type Girls—the scourge of the sea-side photographer, as well as a fad for being photographed as an Egyptian mummy. There are also posts on post-mortem photography and spirit photographs under the “Photography” category.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.