Written by Joan Severa, a curator for the State Historical Society of Wisconsin Museum, this book is a must-read for those with an interest in the development of fashion and clothing, as well as those who are interested in the study of photography. It begins shortly after the advent of the camera in the mid-nineteenth century, when the daguerreotype, a "snapshot" for the mid-19th century, became readily available to the average American. Popular and reasonably inexpensive, sitting for one's portrait rapidly became the thing to do in all classes of society, including the poor. The resulting daguerreotype studios and the portraits they produced, are an engrossing subject for study, and Severa has taken full advantage of their availability, analyzing sixty years of American clothing from every social stratum. The universality of the subjects is one of the features that makes Severa's book such a success.
With her artful and captivating narrative, Severa has successfully undertaken to provide us not only with thoughtful insights into the clothes worn, but into the lives of the people captured in the photos. The subjects leap out at us from the pages of the book, and Severa allows us to see them not as musty portraits from some old family album, but as living people from another century. She does this in many ways, sometimes with the use of personal notes, diaries and letters of the subjects themselves, when available, or if not, with thoughtful insights provided by her own discerning eye.
Those of us who love costume and clothing, love its history. Much of our fascination with the clothing of long ago is a conscious or unconscious wish to travel back to a time long gone. We carefully study the clothing, painstakingly recreate it, eventually hoping to wear it as it was once worn. When we are successful, we find we are somehow connected with our past in a way that is particularly fulfilling. This book has that same effect. We are transported back to an America of the past, because we have witnessed the details of the clothing, and the lives of those wearing it, firsthand.
Yet this is not only a book for costumers or recreationists, as it appeals easily to a larger audience. While perusing the tintypes, carte-de-visites and daguerreotypes Severa has selected for her analysis, even the casual observer must rapidly recognize their allure. She accurately discerns minute details, and uses them to convey a strong sense of the times, as well as effective insights into the histories and customs of all those contained within these portraits. Whether it is a portrait of young settlers recently married, or children posing to mark some ceremonious occasion long forgotten, we are simultaneously captivated by the sitters and fascinated by the narrative.
Severa successfully pulls us into their lives with a myriad of detail of the times in which they lived and manages to educate us to various minutiae of their fashions without losing our interest, by cleverly keeping us fascinated by their day-to-day lives. This book succeeds on every level. It has the contextual depth to interest the accomplished seamstress or historian, as well as photographs so intriguing that they appeal to even the casual browser. My bet is that neither will be able to put it down.