100-year-old portraits of Ellis Island immigrants in glorious fashions from around the world


Between 1892 and 1954, thousands of immigrants to the United States passed through the Ellis Island inspection station south of Manhattan, in view of the Statue of Liberty. Each had their legal documents and health examined and a photo taken to record their entry. Many of their images were also dutifully recorded by an amateur photographer and chief registry clerk named Augustus Francis Sherman, who worked at the station until 1925.

Sherman’s images have been brought back to life by Jordan Lloyd at Dynamichrome, a studio based in London, by colorizing the photos based on available historical research. Although these immigrants were sporting early 20th century national costumes, they look as if their pictures were taken just yesterday, with film. Dynamichrome’s attention to detail makes the portraits seem exceptionally realistic. The photos will be published in The Paper Time Machine, a photo book Lloyd is currently trying to crowd fund.

“We cannot really guarantee historical accuracy, the fact of the matter is we weren’t there when the photographs were taken,” Lloyd tells Quartz. Most clothing at the time was made at home, before mass manufactured fashion became common, so details could only be guessed at. Accurately rendering colors was also difficult, as film chemicals didn’t always show colors the way they’d be seen by the human eye. The colorization therefore “was more for an authentic flavor, or a sense of historical authenticity, rather than accuracy,” Lloyd says.

Still, details of the apparel indicate the cultural and socio-economic background of the person. Although the photos could be taken as an anthropological study of early 20th century fashion around the world, Lloyd notes that they don’t convey the reality of these immigrants.

“These people are wearing literally their Sunday best, this is not what they were wearing when they came off the boat at Ellis Island,” he says. “This was maybe clothes that they put in a suitcase, and Sherman maybe might have said to them, ‘Look, you were from this particular region that no one really knows about, I would very much like you to sit for a portrait in your national costume.’ ”

Ellis Island was a gateway to new lives on new soil. Photos of the people who passed through it provide us with a glimpse into some of the least known cultures at the time, long before cameras became ubiquitous in even the most remote corners of the world.

Dynamichrome’s work can be found on Instagram @Dynamichrome. The Paper Time Machine is a collaboration with Wolfgang Wild from Retronaut, and is supported by independent publisher Unbound. It is currently crowdfunding.

Laplander, c. 1910 — Gákti is the traditional costume of the Sámi people inhabiting the arctic regions, spanning from northern Norway to the Kola peninsula in Russia. Traditionally made from reindeer leather and wool, velvet and silks are also used, with the (typically blue) pullover being supplemented by contrasting colored banding of plaits, brooches and jewellery. The decorations are region specific. The gákti is used in ceremonial contexts such as weddings, or signified whether or not one was single or married, but also served as working dress when herding reindeer.

Alsace-Lorraine Girl, 1906 — Hailing from the Germanic-speaking region of Alsace, now in modern-day France, the large bow known as a schlupfkàpp was worn by single women, while the bows signified the bearer’s religion: black for Protestants, but brightly colored for Catholics.

Ruthenian woman, 1906 — Historically inhabiting the kingdom of the Rus, which spanned modern-day Slavic-speaking countries, this example Ruthenian traditional dress consisted of a shirt and underskirt made from linen which was embroidered with traditional floral patterns. The sleeveless jacket is constructed from panels of sheepskin.

Cossack man — The Cossacks were famed soldiers. By the time this photograph was taken, they had evolved into a military class that served as border guards or police. A Cossack soldier was required to provide his own arms, horses and uniform at his own expense. The gentleman here is most likely from the Ussuri Cossack Host, characterized by his papakha, the lamb wool hat, and the green cherkesska coat, accented in yellow. The coat features a number of pouches to house gazyri, traditionally metal powder tubes for early firearms.

Romanian Shepherd, 1906 — Dominating the photograph is a traditional shepherd’s cloak known as sarică, made from three or four sheepskins sewn together, with the fleece facing outwards. These generally extended to below the knee, and could be used as a pillow when sleeping outdoors. Sheepskin was also used to make the shepherd’s cojoc, an embroidered sleeved coat that had tassels, leather strips and other small decorative elements. This particular example, given the ornaments, wasn’t likely used for practical purposes.

Italian woman, c. 1910 — This traditional dress was most likely homespun and consisted of a long, wide dress to cover the ankles. A bodice and sleeves were tied to expose portions of the linen blouse; colors and materials were usually regional. Shawls and veils were also a common feature, and an apron decorated with floral brocades was used for special occasions such as weddings.

Hindoo boy, 1911 — The topi (a word to denote ‘cap’) is worn all over the Indian subcontinent with many regional variations. It was especially popular in Muslim communities where it is known as a taqiyah. Both the cotton khadi and the prayer shawl are most likely handspun on a charkha, and was used all year round.

Guadeloupe woman, 1911 — The elaborate tartan headpieces worn by many Guadeloupean women can be traced back to the Middle Ages, when the eastern Indian city of Madras was famed for its cotton production. First plain, then striped and then created with increasingly elaborate patterns, the Madras fabric that was exported and used for head wraps was eventually influenced by the Scottish in colonial India, leading to a Madras-inspired tartan known as ‘Madrasi checks.’ This made its way via colonial empires to the French-occupied Caribbean. Like many traditional costumes, the headpiece decoration indicates the wearer is married.

Bavarian man, c. 1910 — The traditional dress of Germany is known as the trachten and has regional variations. In the alpine regions of Germany like Bavaria, leather breeches known as Lederhosen were worn regularly by rural folk, though in modern-day Germany, most people associate the garment with the annual Oktoberfest. The grey jacket, known as a trachtenjanker, is made from fulled wool and decorated with horn buttons, often used by hunters in the region.

Albanian soldier, c.1910 — The truncated brimless felt cap is known as a qeleshe, whose shape was largely determined by region and moulded to one’s head. The vest, known as a jelek or xhamadan was decorated with embroidered braids of silk or cotton, its color and decoration denoted the region where the wearer was from and his social rank. Most likely, this soldier is from the northeastern region of Albania, judging by the cut and color of his outfit.

Greek orthodox priest, c. 1910 — The attire of the Greek Orthodox church have remained largely unchanged. In this photograph, the priest wears an anteri, an ankle length cassock (from the Turkish quzzak, from which the term ‘Cossack’ also derives) worn by all clergymen over which an amaniko, a type of cassock vest, is sometimes worn, over which the black outer cassock known as a exorason is worn. The stiff cylindrical hat is called a kalimavkion worn during services.

Dutch woman, c. 1910 — The large bonnet might be one of the most recognizable aspects of Dutch traditional dress. It was usually made of white cotton or lace and sometimes had flaps or wings, and often came with a cap. The square stukken and golden pins denoted her marital status and that she was a Protestant. The rest of the costume, again like so many others came in distinctly regional variations, was made from cotton, linen or wool, and decorated with embroidered floral patterns. A sleeved bodice covered the top half of the body and came in a dark color, contrasted by a colorful tunic, as seen in this photograph.

Danish man, 1909 — Evolving since the 1750s, the Danish dressed simply, with more decorated attire for special occasions such as weddings or Sunday church. As with many nations before mass industrialization, much of the clothing was homespun by Danish women or a professional weaver and usually made from wool and flax, which were warm and relatively easy to acquire. Cuts and patterns were largely regional with a limited palette derived from vegetable dye. Men often wore several shirts underneath their jackets, and the addition of silver buttons on the jacket and other decorative details indicated an individual’s wealth and origin.

Romanian piper, c. 1910 — This particular cojoc, an embroidered sleeved sheepskin coat, is much plainer than the shepherd’s version, making it a more practical, work-oriented coat, suggesting that the subject is of the working class given the lack of decoration and the straw hat. The waistcoat, known as a pieptar is worn by both men and women, and smaller waistcoats were made from lambskin.

Algerian man, c. 1910 — It is noted that Algerian identity is shaped by its indigenous Berber, Arab, African and Mediterranean cultures. The kufiya is a square of fabric folded into a triangle and set upon the head by an ‘iqual – a circlet of camel hair. The kaftan tunic has been worn by many cultures and was often made of wool, silk or cotton–though the cloak, known as a burnous, was made from woolen fabric, came with a hood, and was either white to dark brown, depending on the region.

Norwegian woman Bunad is the umbrella term encompassing Norwegian traditional dress. In rural Norway, clothes were often made at home, typically made from wool, though silk or other imported material was available. Decoration was elaborate or sparse depending on the region, or whether or not the dress was considered Sunday best. In much of rural Norway, women often covered their hair as a sign they were married.

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