What do our ancestors' clothes tell us about them?

Sussex author Jayne Shrimpton explores Fashion & Family History in her new book, published by Pen & Sword Books at £14.99 and available online from Pen & Sword Books,Waterstones, Amazon and The Book Depository.

Monday, 8th February 2021, 7:00 am
Jayne Shrimpton
Jayne Shrimpton

Jayne, aged 61, explains: “As a trained and experienced dress and art historian (MA history of dress, Courtauld Institute of Art), and ex-archivist at the National Portrait Gallery, London, I have been working professionally with historical fashion images and with privately and publicly owned photographs and artworks for 30 years.

“Over the past 16 years much of my work has been within the family history/genealogy arena, dating and interpreting old family photographs through the fashion clues and writing books and literally hundreds of magazine articles and columns.

“I have had this book in mind for some time: it is literally an assemblage in one place of much of my acquired knowledge, skills and hands-on experience as a historical consultant since the late 1980s. I am known to fashion, family and social historians worldwide so hopefully there should be a broad interest in this book, but perhaps mostly from family historians who are invariably fascinated by how their ancestors dressed.

“Here I wanted to address some of the questions that people often put to me, for example at genealogy events or when we are discussing their family pictures, such as: my ancestors were poor – could they afford to follow fashion?

“I hope the book provides myriad interesting facts, resolves many queries and also offers further food for thought. Acquiring, creating, wearing and caring for clothes were fundamental to our forebears’ lives, as they are to us today.

“This is my passion. I enjoyed writing it as I feel I work with the most wonderful subject and love to share knowledge, tips and ideas. The period covered – 1800-1950 – saw immense changes in Britain, as it transitioned from an agrarian, rural based society to predominantly urban, manufacturing nation. This was powerfully reflected in dress at every level.

“Unlike many fashion historians, I am interested in the clothing of everyone, not simply the fashionable elite. So here we aim for a good balance and cover various themes, including everyday work wear, street wear, traditional country clothing and sportswear. I also felt it important to consider how making, buying and looking after clothes impacted on peoples’ lives.

“All my books are highly visual as dating and analysing historical images is the backbone of my work. In this book, we have included a diverse and useful array of both black and white and coloured pictures: photographs, paintings, advertisements and fashion plates – some never published before. The first chapter is essentially a visual timeline that illustrates my discussion of how fashion and dress evolved– a sequence of firmly or closely dated images to provide a helpful reference tool and aid readers in their own research.

“This book is basically the culmination of decades of work: it builds on my academic training, magazine and consultancy work and on seven other books. I have no immediate plans to write another book yet, but I’m sure there will be others! This is my eighth book. Several of them explain how to date and interpret family photographs and artworks, chiefly through recognising and understanding the fashion clues, but also using other research techniques. The most thorough guide is my earlier book for Pen & Sword: Tracing Your Ancestors through Family Photographs (2014).”

Jayne lives in Lewes.