The Importance of Finding Color: Edwardian Autochromes

It’s sometimes hard to think of the past beyond the black and white…

Making your costumes look and feel real is one of the greatest challenges in costuming. To accurately design a realistic outfit, you have to do research, often using primary sources like images. It’s important to not only get the seams and silhouettes down, it’s important to really feel like you know the era for which you are reenacting, and, therefore, living in! I’ve already covered how using unusual sources of extant images like Valentines and Stereographs can help inspire your costumes, but there’s another type of image I haven’t really explored before: Autochromes.

It began a few years ago when I discovered an autochrome in an antique shop. Wow! A COLOR photo of an Edwardian! I didn’t even know of their existence, having thought that colored photos beyond hand-tinted ones only arrived in the 1930s. I was curious, but never really delved too deeply into the history because, frankly, I hadn’t really become interested in photograph research just yet. The past few years I’ve gotten much more interested in photos as resources. Today, my interest was reawakened by this post at American Duchess.

This image of Ms. Emily Winthrop, piqued my interest in autochromes because of one small detail: her red necklace (which appears to be coral or art glass). It’s amazing how such a small detail like the color of a necklace can make such a difference! The rest of the image is pretty standard: dark hat, dark dress, white lace collar, even her blue eyes would all have translated fairly recognizably into black and white. Those beads, however, aren’t anywhere near as eye-popping in black and white:

It made me realize how important these autochromes could be. Color goes beyond just proving something red or blue, but also highlights textures and shapes in ways black and white photos can’t, especially since some colors, like red and green or even blue, look the same in greyscale, so prints with such color combos look much different. The difference between orange and red is important for fashion design, but black and white can render them indistinguishable. Traditional colorblindness dot tests prove how minute differences in color can make a world of difference. Here’s an even simpler test showing the importance of color:

Square A
Square B

These squares are the same colors, I just greyscaled the second one. You can test this for yourself by making a color square in paint or Photoshop and then editing the image by desaturating the color 100% (I used Microsoft Picture Manager) or using a black and white filter. The difference is huge! All those wildly different colors suddenly become indistinguishable. That’s also why Victorian ladies’ skin looks so flawless and smooth: any splotches and redness grey out to almost perfectly match the underlying skin tone! It’s like Photoshop Edwardian Edition:

After realizing how important colored photos really were, I found a new love of Autochromes! Invented in 1903 by the Lumière brothers, Autochromes aren’t as harsh as modern color pictures, providing softened hues and tones. They are amazing at making photographs look less rigid and distant and more like an attainable reality. They are so beautiful!

Some of my favorites don’t involve everyday activities, but people in antique costumes and fantasy shots. Since autochromes were so new and special, people used them to capture scenes that could only be achieved with hand-colored prints and paintings before.

You can find a fine article on autochromes by Mark Antman here.

5 thoughts on “The Importance of Finding Color: Edwardian Autochromes

  1. I absolutely agree that colour is so useful when researching. Do you have any good reference sites with online collections of autochromes?

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