A 7-year-old girl sits at a dining room table with a cake and candles in front of her. A buffet with birthday cards is behind her.

Clothing Helps and Hinders

I rely on clothing to help date photographs relative to each other. Sometimes this reliance is helpful, other times it sends me down the wrong path. I usually find my way back, but only after considering additional features of the images.

Formal family portrait

My focus on dresses began with a family portrait. There are many variations from that day (different poses & backgrounds, mother & father only, daughters only). Each time I discovered another of the ten images from this series, I eagerly turned it over, hoping for definitive labeling on the rear.

A 1976 formal family portrait taken by Olan Mills. A family of five is pictured: parents, two older daughters, and a younger daughter.
Ten images in this series, with little guidance on the date.

Finally, I happened upon a single 3×4 image that my mother took the time to label.

The rear of a 1976 family portrait; a mother recorded the date and who is pictured.
The detail lends credibility to the date recorded.

Unfortunately, I later came across two others from the series where she had written “73-74” on the rear. Since Mom was very specific with the June 1976 labeling, I am going to discount the “73-74” labels. (Was it 1973, or 1974? Or neither? Obviously she wasn’t sure when she recorded the information). The 1976 documentation is much more specific and thus reliable.

Two dresses repeat

It appears that two of us in the family portrait were wearing the same dresses in 1974 pictures. I know from the development date on the back that this photo dates to 1974, although my sisters and I are unable to determine the event. My oldest sister is wearing the same pink dress and scarf as in the family portrait, taken two years later.

A father poses with his three daughters in a living room. The two adult daughters are on either side of him. The youngest daughter is in front of him. He is wearing a suit and tie with a pipe in his mouth.
The pink scarf is tied differently in 1974, but it’s the same outfit as 1976.

This 1974 Christmas image shows me wearing the same dress I wore in the 1976 family portrait. I remember the pink ribbon around my waist. I find it hard to believe that I hadn’t outgrown this dress 18 months later; I do have a vague recollection of it being a tight fit for the family portrait.

A 4-year-old girl is seated on a floor with a blue balloon on her left and a Fisher Price castle toy on her right. There are two horses in front of the castle.
The dress was acquired in 1974; perfect for playing with the Fisher Price castle.

I find it surprising that two of us wore the same dresses for events in both 1974 and 1976. I kept trying to make all of these photos fit into the same year because of the dresses. I finally realized that the images were from two different time periods, two years apart.

Dating a childhood portrait

I wore the same floral dress with a pink ribbon in this formal portrait, which was not dated by my mother. Comparing it to the holiday photos from 1974, I believe my age in this portrait is more reflective of 1974 than 1976.

A black & white portrait, but the same dress as the color photos above.

Significant events in 1974

As noted above, my sisters and I don’t know what event prompted these particular photos. I am puzzled, because everyone seems to be dressed up except for me (the short one). I have a timeline of significant events in my family; I refer to it when I encounter images like these with no obvious story.

There were two significant events in June 1974 that might explain these photographs. My oldest sister (pink dress) graduated from college, and my parents celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary. We expect that the adults in the family were going out to dinner to celebrate one or both events, while the youngest member of the family (age 3.5 years) probably stayed home (or maybe I just wouldn’t wear a dress).

25th anniversary portraits

My parents are wearing the same outfits in these formal portraits. Although not dated, we surmise they were also taken in 1974.

Formal portraits of a man and woman, in a paper frame supplied by the photography studio, Olan Mills. The man is holding a pipe and wears a plaid suit. The woman wears a pink and white vest over a white top and wears a silver necklace.
These formal portraits likely commemorate a 25th wedding anniversary.

It’s not the same day as the family snapshots above – my mother’s necklace is different, as are my father’s tie, pipe, and shirt. These portraits were probably taken to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary, as there are no accompanying pictures that include the three daughters.

The long quilted dress

I don’t have fond memories of this dress; the bottom half was quilted and itchy. It was long and too warm. Although I remember the dress, I went round in circles trying to figure out what birthday these pictures are from. Some of the candles on the cake are partially obscured, so I cannot count them (a technique I used successfully for other images). The development date of January 1978 on one would imply my 7th birthday in December 1977.

A 7-year-old girl sits at a dining room table with a cake and candles in front of her. A buffet with birthday cards is behind her.
The development date in the lower right corner helps to date this photo.

However, a previous review of these images led me to believe it was my 6th birthday. I finally realized that my hair is different – in the image below, I have bangs. In the image with the birthday cake, I don’t.

I evidently wore this dress for two birthdays: 1976 and 1977. I was trying to force these photos into a single occasion, but they actually represent two different birthdays.

The red jumpsuit

One other clothing detail helped me solidify dates for these pictures. In the photo below, my sister is folding a red jumpsuit as I move on to the next gift.

A 6-year-old girl opens her birthday gifts in a living room. An older friend is on her right, then the girl's mother, older sister, brother-in-law, middle sister, and another adult male.

I wore that same red jumpsuit in my kindergarten class portrait, dated 1976-77. I don’t know if the portrait was taken before the end of the calendar year or the next year.

A kindergarten class picture with 26 students, taken in Ohio between fall 1976 and spring 1977.
The red jumpsuit: third from left, front row.

The most likely explanation is that I received the jumpsuit as a gift in December 1976 and then wore it for my kindergarten portrait in winter or spring 1977. I see two other jumpsuits in the class photo (girl in brown and gold, second row; girl in blue, far right, first row). Mine was a red knit with colorful trim. I think it also had a hood.

Stripes correct errors

I have written previously about incorrect labeling of family photos. Be prepared to question everything in writing! Below is another formal portrait from my childhood. My father labeled it on the front in his block capitals, and my mother labeled it on the rear. Both claim that I am three years old in this portrait. Looking at this photo in relation to all of the others from the 1970s, I am clearly older.

Here’s a reliable image of me at age 3, with my grandparents’ dog (whose name we don’t remember).

A photo of a 3-year-old girl seated on the floor with a black dog next to her. A sofa and magazine rack are behind them.
A three-year-old me; definitely younger than the portrait with the bouquet.

I was able to date the formal portrait by comparing it to a single image in which I appear from December 1976. Although faded, I am certain that this dress is the same as the formal portrait; the stripes on the arms and bodice are the same. Now I know the portrait dates to 1976, not 1973!

A 6-year-old girl playing with toys on a living room floor. She is wearing a turquoise jumper with a striped top underneath.
My birthday or Christmas, both in December 1976 (developed April 1977).

In summary

As one attempts to date photographs, clothing is only one factor to consider. I’ve noticed that my grandmother wore the same attire at holiday events repeatedly over the years. Based on my review of the photos in this post, so did sisters, mothers, and fathers. Even for children who may quickly outgrow things, clothing isn’t a reliable method for dating photographs. Important events called for our best attire, and quality clothing was worn by everyone in my family for various occasions over multiple years.

Comparing different types of photos – formal portraits, family snapshots, and class photos – can help determine whether documented dates are accurate and solidify dates you have already deduced. Assess all images in your family collection, regardless of format (e.g., videos and slides may offer insight beyond prints).

Although the events that prompted particular photographs may never be known for certain, referring to a list of key family events and dates may help narrow down the potential occasions for a select photograph.

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