Tuesday 11 August 2009

Forensics on fashion

It is not common for art writers to utilise fashion history in their discussion of paintings or sculpture, let alone photography. Locally, Wystan Curnow has been doing some interesting research into the history of the costume worn in Rita Angus’ now famous portrait of his mother, the late Betty Curnow.

Here are three unusual ambrotypes that I wish to date via their subject’s costume and their photographic style. ‘Ambros’ were mostly produced during the 1860s, when they had become cheaper versions of the daguerreotype process. Ambrotypes had already gained wide currency from the early 1870s but were superseded by tintypes and cartes-de-visite within a decade. Click here for my previous post on ambrotypes.

This ambrotype (above) is dated May 1877. As such, it is already a late instance of the medium. The photographer cleverly uses a low-angle, candid point-of-view which was already becoming common within wet-plate photography by the later 1870s. Dry-plate photography had been invented in 1871 and a photo’s exposure time was therefore much reduced. The camera here sits on a tripod ‘looking’ at this family group, all of which have been carefully arranged within the carriage. They are individually posed in order that they can all be seen clearly. Yet, their poses appear both natural and spontaneous. This is the work of an experienced ambrotypist as this was still a difficult medium to use out of doors.

Note how the man at left wears a bowler riding-hat. None of the men wear a top-frock coat; instead, they are all attired in morning coats. This probably means that they are members of the emergent middle class. Charles Dickens' favourite readers. The two boys wear dyed straw boater hats, always suitable for summer. The carriage’s banner sign shows that the cost of their excursion ‘To the Dyke and Back’ will cost one and six-pence.

This is a much wealthier group of land-owning men. Once they would have simply been called 'toffs' - smartly dressed men. Their black silk top hats, frock coats, lighter trousers are the uniform of the privileged during the mid-1860s. The figure fourth from the left has a figure-hugging, cloth country suit, which appears to be double-breasted. This is very dashing attire for this time.

What are these men doing together? They could be all be setting forth on a country outing to a sporting event where wearing such formal clothes was absolutely necessary. Their extensive whiskers were called muttonchops or dundrearies. Look at their mixture of hats – top hats, stovepipes, chimney pots. In addition, their decorative extras – fob watch, buttonhole flowers. Not the look of the ‘working-class’ at all.

These guys are what we would now call labourers. Practical men who work with their hands. The signage on the wagon’s tarpaulin, in the ambrotype above, reads ‘The Whitehead 72 Hoxton Street opposite the Britannia Theatre’. A London address. Partially obscured is the painted sign on the sides of this huge wagon that reads ‘By road haul’. What is already apparent is that these are the men who actually work with this wagon. See how their posture and demeanour says that they 'possess' the daily work of this wagon.

Three of them wear high bowlers, one a well-worn short top hat, the other a homburg style and the boy has a soft cap. To our eyes these blokes seem formally dressed but this dressiness was not at all unusual for the period – the mid-1860s. Men in the public transport arena still had to be hatted and coated. While also wearing a tie or buttoned up collar. Look at how relaxed they are. They may never have been photographed before. This is a 19th century equivalent of a snapshot in all its casualness.

An anonymous writer in The Quarterly Review for March 1847 commented: ‘The male costume is reduced to a mysterious combination of the inconvenient and the unpicturesque – hot in summer – cold in winter – stiff without being plain – bare without being simple – not durable, not becoming and not cheap….The hat is a machine to which an impartial stranger might impute a variety of culinary purposes, but would never dream of putting on his head.’

However, English costume between 1860 and 1880 was socially stratified and classified according to one’s position in society. A man or boy never thought of wearing anything outside their ‘station’. These three ambrotypes are very scarce outdoorsy instances of the Victorian hierarchy to personal appearance.

Image credits
Unknown photographer England active 1870s
Carriage excursion – To the Dyke and Back May 1877
61 x 74mm

Unknown photographer England active 1860s
Carriage excursion circa 1865
60 x 72mm

Unknown photographer England active 1870s
Wagon and workers circa 1870
58 x 70mm


Anonymous said...

Are these photos online anywhere else - to see larger - Flickr? or?

Ron Brownson said...

These photos are not on Flickr yet. I hope they can be one day.

Christopher Thompson said...

Unknown photographer England active 1870s
Carriage excursion – To the Dyke and Back May 1877
61 x 74mm

I'd suggest that we're looking at here is an image created by a Brighton ambrotypist (so possibly identifiable). My speculation is based on a probability that the Dyke referred to is 'Devil's Dyke', a v-shaped valley on the South Downs about 8km NW of Brighton (as the crow flies). It was a popular tourist destination during the 19th century when Brighton was the seaside resort of choice for Londoners. From 1887 until the 1930s it was accessible by train. Now you have to walk (avoiding flying golf balls); but it's still quite spectacular!