From The Archive: The Accidental Archivist: Anonymous Old Family Photographs

This was originally posted by Jenna in June 2011. In this informative piece she touches on personal collecting for research and provides useful advice on keeping it all in order.

There are things I collect and save ritualistically as items of fashion historical research. With a mind towards not accumulating too many “things” I try to keep focused on a few significant collecting urges, and consider the amount of space I physically have to store things properly.  Some things I actively collect – like vintage conversational print dresses, Egyptomania fashion garments, and the odd nineteenth century cloak or bodice, are pretty high maintenance when it comes to storage. I envision a time when all these treasures are laid in archival boxes or hung on padded hangers in Tyvek bags in a dedicated room in my home. For now they occupy around twenty percent of my total clothing storage space.  In the interest of clearing out a bit, I have recently downsized my fabric remnant collection, and even parted with a number of vintage silk scarves I had been previously attached to.  I addressed the issue of the proliferation of fashion magazines I had accumulated and selected some key ones to keep intact, and pulled tearsheets on topics of interest from the rest.  I did all this not with regret and sadness, but with a mind towards being the keeper of my own archives, and to hold on to the bits and pieces that are parts of research, stories and exhibitions I am devising or developing.

Group photo of middle-late 1950s in Britain, spring or summertime. A large group of women pictured wearing an array of cotton or silk day dresses in prints, stripes and solids. These dresses in their similarity can be read as an affirmation of the mass fashion for this type of dress in the post war decade in middle class Britain. These dresses may have been made by the cotton merchant and dress design company Horrockses.

I have for quite some years now been keeping a digital archive on my computer of research images, scans, links and notes from a variety of costume design, styling and prop fabrication jobs.  This somewhat eclectic collection of data has served me well, and I highly recommend building your own subjective digital archive.  As there is more and more unique fashion information available online, both historic and contemporary, it helps to have your own private stash of what inspires and interests you. My computer archive is organised by time period, designer and themes and was based on how clipping files are organised at libraries such as the Library at FIT and the New York Public Library.

A screenshot of my digital design file folders

Having this kind of archive is satisfying because it holds so much information, but takes up no physical space, although there are two hard drives sitting on my desk. I dip into my digital design archives frequently for a variety of reasons, from chasing a key piece of research, to needing an image to send a friend for their birthday, to just treating myself to some visual inspiration or blogging inspiration!

Past Caring 54 Essex Road, Shoreditch, London, N1 8LR

Yet, the digital archive is much less exciting to compile, than the physical one.  The physical archive needs be actually collected, and sometimes the coincidence of finding something you never knew you even collected, seals the deal.  This happened to me yesterday, and not for the first time either.  However, it was the first time that a large box of old black and white photographs called out to me.  It was at Past Caring, one of my favourite second hand stores in London, and I had merely popped in to see about some white frames.  There were no frames, but forty five minutes later I emerged from the shop with the smell of old paper on my fingers, and a selection of four old photographs, a handmade greeting card and two 1970s sewing patterns. I had spent £13, but also had seriously thought about making an offer on the whole box of photos.

A 1950s photograph of a family in England or Ireland. The two adult women wear cotton print and striped full skirted dresses and knit cardigans. They may be a mother and daughter but dress similarly and have similar hairstyles. The young girl wears a short cropped hairstyle, knit cardigan, shorts, ankle socks and strapped sandals. The man wear a knit patterned sweater (jumper) and denim jeans with a turned up cuff. The women wear watches and have on wedding rings and the man wears a wedding band and is smoking a cigarette.

As I browsed the photos in the box, which may have all been from one family, I had my fashion history glasses on.  Guided by the search for fashion information, I tossed aside many portraits of pure breed dogs, although they are a fashion topic in their own right! I was prudent in my selection, and thus want to share the pictures I decided to take home, and some thoughts on why I chose them.

Maybe this will help you strategize or organize your own collecting urges? Or maybe it will inspire some new ones? I have had to recognise that as of yesterday afternoon, old family fashion photographs (mid 20th century) are officially on the list of the physical things I collect. I will limit myself to one shoe box full for now, but that is sure to change!

While simultaneously admiring and wondering about the people in these photos, I am also musing about the ownership and sharing of such images.  I bought these photos, so I own them rightfully and bought them from a shop licensed to sell second hand goods and personal effects. I don’t know how or why they ended up in such a shop, but they must have been discarded or unwanted.  However, they are actual someone’s family pictures. While I study them for details of dress,  hair styles and socio-cultural clues, the fact is they are someone else’s real memories. I don’t know exactly how I might use them in the future, and see them as found albeit purchased objects.

In the captions of the posted photos I offer a dress based description. I haven’t consulted other research as of yet, these are my observations and educated guesses. Essentially they would be my questions for further research.

A wedding group portrait 1930s – 1940s. This one is ripe for research, It would be significant to discover if this is a photo from just prior to or right after World War 2. Presumably it depicts a wedding in Britain, and the women wear 1930s-40s transitional styles. Dating the plaid coat on with broad shoulders worn by the woman far right would be a research clue.

I just opened up a tumblr account but have not uploaded any images as of yet. I enjoy looking at other people’s Tumblr pages, and have noticed a proliferation of fantastic fashion related sites very recently.  But I think my reticence to put my personal digital files online is significant.  Why should I keep it all to myself? Or do I just want to share my collection carefully?

Maybe I will go ahead and post some “curated collections” of images to Tumblr – because I see it as a public database programme that actual calls for its users to curate images – whether they be of historic fashion images or snapshots of last night’s party.

This wedding photo, taken in Sheffield (marked on outside of card folder) may also be from either the 1930s or 1940s. I believe it is older than the wedding photo above and think that the styles of the dresses would put it prior to 1939.

In this sense we are all archivists of our own collections, and keepers of a wealth of digital pictorial information. But I imagine we will all be keeping our shoeboxes full of artifacts as well.


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