What Did Your Ancestors Wear?

When trying to find out more about an ancestor’s life, have you ever thought about what they wore? Many people already know to look in newspapers for things like birth, marriage, and death notices; but one way you can flesh out your ancestor’s day-to-day life is by discovering what they may have worn.

Advertisement for women's clothing patterns (Missouri, 1875)
Newspapers are a great resource for this, as papers have long carried ads for clothing—or for the fabric and patterns to make them. You can trace how fashions changed throughout your ancestor’s life—discovering what they might have worn as kids, as young adults, and as older adults. You can find out what these fashions would have cost your ancestors as well, and learn which clothing and accessories they could have afforded in their daily lives and which they probably would have bought only for a special occasion. You can search papers from across the nation during your ancestor’s life to get a general idea of the fashion of the time, or you can look in papers from the state or even town they were from to see if local fashion trends were any different from national ones. The possibilities are nearly endless.

Here are a few examples of the types of fashions you can find in newspapers. Who knows? Your ancestors may have worn them!

Start exploring what your ancestors wore by browsing Newspapers.com!

15 thoughts on “What Did Your Ancestors Wear?

  1. I would be a little cautious. If your ancestor lived in a city and was middle class, this might be what they wore, but most of us had rural ancestry with a lot of homemade or locally made clothing designed for practicality. If a farm wife did wear a bustle, it was probably very modest in comparison to the styles that were advertised, as an example. Flashier things, like the flapper dresses probably did not make much of a penetration in areas where the social activities were likely to be church picnics under the eyes of the parents. And, of course, a lot farm girls were too muscular from chores to meet the undernourished appearance of the flappers. My mother mowed the yard with a push mower, which is an excellent form of resistance training, if you have ever used one of the old reel types made with basic steel or iron gears instead of modern lighter alloys, and with heavy wood handles.

    • I understand what you are saying, but I think that people often go way to far in thinking that their own ancestors might have been too rural or too poor for some certain fashion. There is no switch in fashion that this is truer for than the BIG switch of the 1920s. In my experience of both my own family photos and of the photos in the archive of the house museum that I work for (a very odd and grass-roots sort of place, not a mansion) the lower-middle class rural women of Indiana were very eager in the 1920s to discard their corsets, shorten their skirts and bob their hair.

      • I have to agree with jams horn as my mother’s family was “dirt poor” appallachians who lived without any help and was a family of 13. They were all small built and worked when there was work , grew their own food which wasn’t always plentiful as there was days that my grandmother and mother and uncle shared a biscuit with an onion for their lunch while walking to town to clean rooms at the local hotel. I have an old quilt my grandmother made and my mother can tell me which pieces were whose clothing in it and feed sack. The backing made of some ugly green drapery looking material. My father bought my mother her first brand new pair of shoes and used to take food from his mother’s cellar and bring to my mother’s family because he knew how hungry they were and loved being with them. Anyway my point is yes there were people who were so poor that food was more important than fashion and it was more widespread than you think. They even relocated to Northern Va and Norfolk to find work and weren’t any better off and ended up going back home.

      • My great grandmother and grandmother were working class rural Indiana they sewed their own clothes and made their own hats. I have my grandmothers wedding dress, drop waisted white sheer fabric with crystal waterfals of beads. Of course if you were starving, you were just surviving. But farm girls grew their own food, went to the city to serve as maids and see fashion, and adapted it to their means.

  2. I subscribed to a free week or two subscription which then converts to a six month subscription for, I think, seventy-nine dollars. I failed to keep or print the instructions for using the service, so I hope you can email them to me. Your service will be most helpful to me.
    Thanks,
    Lynn McIver, III

    • Go to your Account Details page. (I’m assuming your are talking about your Newspaper.com account)

      According to the help section
      “Details About Your Free Trial If you enjoy your trial and want to continue accessing premium pages, you don’t need to do anything. You’ll automatically receive full access to Newspapers.com with Publisher Extra for six months and your credit card will be billed for $64.90. (that averages out to only $10.82 per month).
      Easily cancel online from the Account Details page anytime before your free trial ends. ”

      If you are talking about your Ancestry account, go to this link for details.
      https://support.ancestry.com/s/article/ka215000000MUe6AAG/Canceling-an-Ancestry-Subscription-1460088568413-2255

      I had that happen to me. I called the support line and they took the charge off of my account because I caught it within a few days after it happened.

  3. I’ve done this for a while now. Not just for ancestors (though I’m a very experienced genealogist) but I’m a history lover. All we hear about are battles, or criminals, or what the Queen wore or whatever. We never hear what day to day life was all about. Like, how much was a dinner at a local cafe in 1931? What bras were women wearing? What about men’s socks garter, (what’s the name of those anyway?) and when did they stop wearing them? How much was butter in 1865? These are the things I like to know. I like to know what life was all about.

    • They were , in fact, called sock garters, or simply, garters. My father, who was born in 1919, liked to wear a night shirt instead of pajamas. He wore his garters upside down to keep his night shirt from riding up. And yes, it looked just as funny as it sounds!

      • My father died in 1971 and was wearing garters the day before he died. He was a farmer and wore them everyday.

  4. This may be an unfair comment but, it seems that your site is USA focused. None of my ancestors came from the USA.

  5. You are only mentioning American States not African Countries particularly South African.

    • Maybe this should be an added feature. It would need someone from or familiar with the African clothing culture. I’d like to see other countries clothing too as they changed over time.

  6. I can tell you that public libraries usually have lots of books on the history of everyday clothing. Some libraries have copies of old Sears and Montgomery Wards catalogs. You can look on WorldCat to see if there is a library near you that has them. These catalogs also show men’s and children’s clothes, underwear, and household appliances, and gadgets.

  7. My grandmother (father’s side) made all my father’s suits and knitted his sweaters from his childhood right through high school. She was so good at making suits people would provide her the materials and pay her to make suits for their children. That was in the 1920s.

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