This is a photo diary of my costuming "travels"; where I've learned and struggled to make historical costumes for myself. They're not always pretty, but always fun, most of the time. And I want to share with others what I learn along the way. **You can find me on Facebook, or have my posts delivered to your email by signing up at the lower part of the right column.**

About Me

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HI, my name is Val. I'm a member of Costumer's Guild West in Los Angeles, Dean Emeritus of 2018 Costume College; Past President of the San Diego Costume Guild, member of Orange County Costume Guild, and a representative of the San Diego History Center. I make my own historical costumes but don't sell any unless I get tired of one.The eras I've made so far are 1770 up to 1918. My favorite is the 1880s bustle.


Monday, March 17, 2014

You Can Learn a Lot from Old Photos. And What are Those Bar Pins?

Right now I'm visiting my Mom up in WA and am making the rounds of the local thrift shops and antique malls. I'm in the Northwest Peninsula so not too many around here but I have my regular stops.
One of my favorite things to look for are old cabinet card photos that show a lot of detail on women's dresses and the accessories they carry. This helps me add to the “realness” of my own costumes.

I have a personal collection of photos saved in my Pinterest album, and save many more that I find online for research.  
Today I wanted to share a “eureka” moment I had this morning. I don't know if I'm right in my conclusions on this particular photo but to me it seems logical. If anyone has any more knowledge on the subject, and can tell me my conclusions are right or wrong, please tell me.
This is the cabinet card I bought today. What attracted me to it at first was the clarity of details on it. The puffy sleeves and hairstyle tell me it's 1890s.
I liked the open lapel on her bodice and the very large buttons. It fits snugly at her neck being closed by a narrow brooch. At first I thought the little pointy thing in her bun was some kind of decorative stick, but after looking at it with a large magnifying glass I realized it was a hair comb, quite fashionable in this time period, but I was seeing it from a side view. You can still see a little bit of the flat front though. The white shaded area over her top button appeared to possibly be a scratch but could also be something hanging. Again the magnifying glass showed two chains, one possibly being a watch chain, hanging from a pin just above the top button. Closer inspection with the magnifying glass also showed the bar pin at her neck is what was keeping the collar closed. Hmmmm.... this got me thinking. Putting little button holes in those things is hard. Could this possibly be what all those little bar pins I see in antique shops what they used to close their collars instead of a button and buttonhole? I know there are some that do have them but maybe for a time this is what they used? I have little to no knowledge of bar pins. And now inquiring minds want to know.
These are a couple bar pins I found online. They can be plain bars, with some filigree, with little pearls, with fancy stones, or expensive stones. I looked at a few today in the antique mall and they were sterling silver and some gold ones, and they ran from $120-$150. I know I've seen them less expensive, and for costuming, they don't have to be real. I've seen them measuring from one inch to three inches across, and from very narrow to larger and more elaborate. 

I've often come across mourning bar pins. I saw a set of four 1 inch long plain black ones that were probably for a family, and the tiny pearl often denotes the loss of a child.
Seeing as I didn't find any in my “costumer's budget” today I went shopping online on etsy and ebay, mostly for photos for this blog, but also to check prices. Oh, and I bought myself a birthday present. Yes, my birthday was on Friday so I'm entitled. Its identified as 1880s gold filled filigree with a rose cut garnet. It's two and a half inches long. It was $26, well within my costumer's budget.
I remember having a bar pin that I wore in high school that had a row of pearls on it that was made by the jewelry company, 1928 Jewelry, who are currently making the reproduction Downton Abbey jewelry. I loved my bar pin and probably only paid $5 for it. I'm hoping I still have it but I won't know until I get home and dig around in my jewelry box. *Keeping my fingers crossed*
And now that we've all been sidetracked, let's get back to those cabinet cards. This is my favorite one so far, also found in the antique mall up here a couple years ago. Its around 1910 and she has LOTS of accessories. Her hat may look strange, but its mostly that big curved feather on top. She has a rather simple dress but she's added the lacy guimpe (under blouse) to it, gloves, parasol, purse, brooch, and to top it off, the magnificent hat. The first time I saw her purse I thought, oh, it doesn't have to be a drawstring purse.
This one has 1906 written on the back and I liked it for the button decorations she has on her bodice, and contrasting color on her lapels. And she's wearing glasses. I wear glasses so this is helpful too. 
I like to find ones that gives me ideas for different trims and this one's sleeve cuffs caught my eye. They have a couple rows of ruching, and there's a lot of it on the front of her bodice, along with a ruffly neckline and under sleeves. I can't tell the exact date because I can't see most of the skirt so I'm placing it around the late 1870s into the 80s with the bustling in the back.
These were two more I picked up today, both only $4-$5. This young girl is so obviously from the 1890s with the big ole humongous watermelon-sized sleeves. They're almost as whacko as the ones in the early 1830s. I prefer the smaller poofs with the straight sleeves in the early 90s. Also distinctive was the bow at the back of her neck. I haven't done much costuming in the 90s so I'm just starting to notice these. And I've been noticing how buttons were often used as trims, and not just for closures.
This group of young ladies, probably from the early 1900s, who look so much like a group of students, are the epitome of how I first started dressing when my interest in costuming started. White lacy blouse, long skirt, and pretty jewelry. And here you can see the different kinds of lace trim. Also the Costumer's Guild West (CGW) that I'm a member of in Los Angeles just this past weekend had a Gibson Girl and Boy Golf Event and I thought of them when I saw this. The little colored bows at the necks are precious.
If you have a chance to go check out my collection on Pinterest, I've detailed those in writing of what I could see with my magnifying glass too. Also books such as Dressed for the Photographer by Joan Severa, and Victorian & Edwardian Fashion: A Photographic Survey by Alison Gernsheim, are great visual helps too.
Happy Hunting!                          ~~Val~~


  1. Great post. I'm having costumer envy, your new pin is gorgeous! I never knew those pictures were called cabinet cards. Also thank you for sharing your picture collection on Pinterest. It is such a help to new historical costumers like me.

    1. Sew Ladylike, I can remember being exactly where you are. Not knowing how to tell the difference between the different eras, or even decades, how to pick the right fabric designs, what accessories go with what, and no one around to help me. It took quite a few years but seeing photos, fashion prints, and extant gowns (both in stores and museums) have been the biggest help. I had to educate my eye by looking at many of them so I'm better at it now. Pinterest is a great tool for this, especially with its Search box when looking for specific items or years. But do that cautiously because even I have dated things wrong, and then 50 people pinned it.
      The photos are fun! The earliest ones, 1830s, that show really sharp details, were daguerreotypes or dags, then tintypes, then cabinet cards. There's lots of websites with collections of those, and pretty good historical notes on them.

  2. Thanks for sharing your insights. a magnifying glass is great idea, you might well be a lady costuming-detective :)


I would love to hear if this was any help to you. Pretty please!