August 11th, 2011

Who’s the Babe in the Bikini? – Fashions, Photographs and Family Members

My cousin and I were browsing through a collection of old family photos when we came across a picture of some people on a beach. “Wow, who’s the babe in the bikini he asked”? I had no idea where finding the answer to that question would lead me at the time, but it was a good and interesting question, the answer to which I decided to actively pursue. It was my first foray into genealogical research, though I didn’t consider it as such as the time; I was just trying to find out who that babe was – for my cousin’s sake, not my own! What I also discovered was that the fashions that people are wearing in old photographs can reveal important genealogical information that can lead us further along in our quest to find lost ancestors.

Identifying Ancestors in Photographs

As I would like this particular blog entry to be about the genealogical value of fashions worn by the people in family photos, I won’t go into detail about my quest to find the woman in the bikini. I will tell you however, that rather than finding the subject of my cousin’s admiration, we found the bikini first! We had shown the photograph to several family members, but as the picture was now more than 50 years old, people were slow to identify the subjects. Rather than recognizing the people though, another of our cousins recognized the bikini. “My grandmother has one like that hanging in her closet” she told us. To make a long story short, the bikini was her grandmother’s and her grandmother the one in the bikini! Imagine my cousin’s face when he found out that the babe was his great aunt!

Because the woman we were curious about was wearing a bikini, we knew she had to be at least 40 or 50 yrs older now; in fact she was 46 years older when we located her. The bikini example is just a basic one of how fashions can help us to date family photos, and consequently where to look, and what documents to look for when searching for missing ancestors. Hairstyles can also be an indicator as to the date that the picture was taken. Remember or heard of the “Beehive” hairstyle – it was popular during the 1960’s? If you come across a photo of an ancestor sporting such a cut, there’s a good chance the photo was taken during that era, or that your relative is Amy Whitehouse!

Crucial Clues to Look For

Photographs taken in studios were often made with people wearing their best outfits; many times those clothes were purchased especially for the occasion, and they can be quite revealing – genealogically speaking that is! For instance a photo of a woman wearing a hoop skirt or crinoline style dress (those dresses with the wire structure underneath) accompanied by a diagonally folded paisley shawl and mounted on a Tintype frame would almost certainly have been taken in the 1860’s. Further analysis could narrow down the date range even more, especially if the name of the studio that the picture was taken at is embossed on the back.

Genealogical clues can be hidden anywhere in a photograph, so it is important to examine them carefully. Look for signage, the style of carriage or automobile, pay attention to the architecture of buildings or potential landmarks. You must be able to “read between the lines” a bit when inspecting old photographs, but once you begin to understand what you’re looking for; the process becomes easier and more fun. If you have the means, enlarge or enhance the pictures with your computers software, if not consider the possibility of having them professionally done to increase your chances of discovering hidden clues. Read our article What Photos Can Reveal When Searching Ancestors to learn more about the genealogical value of historical and old family photos.