Why People From the Past Always Look Older Than They Are

0 0
Read Time:6 Minute, 59 Second

The Surprising Reason Old Photos Make Young People Look Aged

Have you ever looked at an old black and white photo from many decades ago and been struck by how much older the people look compared to their actual age? A 15-year-old from 1920 somehow looks more like a 30-year-old by today’s standards. What’s the deal?

As it turns out, there’s a fascinating explanation for this peculiar phenomenon. No, people didn’t age faster back then. The real reason is much simpler, and it has everything to do with fashion and cultural norms.

It’s All About the Outfits and Hairstyles

The primary reason young people from old photographs look older than their years is because of the way they’re dressed and styled. In previous eras, children and teenagers frequently wore the same types of conservative, modest, “adult” clothing and hairstyles as their parents did.

Think about it – in old photos you’ll often see young girls in prim dresses, stockings, and tight hairstyles that make them look matronly. Teenage boys frequently wore suits, ties, and hats that aged them prematurely too. The fashions that were standard for all ages back then are styles we perceive as “old” today.

Cultural Norms Played a Big Role

Beyond just the clothing itself, the cultural expectations around how young people should present themselves have shifted enormously over the decades. Up until the mid-20th century, children were often expected to act and appear more mature, mirroring their parents.

Youthful fashions and styles that celebrated adolescence and teen culture didn’t really emerge until the 1950s and 60s, with the rise of rock and roll, civil rights movements, and anti-war counter-culture. Before that, there wasn’t much of a concept of “teenage” fashion as we know it today.

Formal Photos Made People Look More Severe

Another factor that makes young people from the past look prematurely aged is the type of photographs that were taken at the time. In the early days of photography, having your picture taken was a very formal, serious affair.

People would dress up in their fanciest clothes and pose stiffly for solemn black and white portraits. They often wouldn’t smile, as staying still for the long exposure times required was difficult. All of this formality and rigidity made even young subjects appear stern and mature in photographs.

Candid Shots Were Rare

These days we’re used to seeing casual, candid photos of smiling, laughing young people in bright clothes, which captures the essence of carefree youth. But snapshots like this simply didn’t exist in the early 20th century.

Photography was much more formal and constructed, without the spontaneity and lightheartedness we associate with photos of young people today. When all the photos you see of teens are serious portraits of unsmiling youths in somber outfits, it’s no wonder they look older than their modern counterparts.

Makeup and Hairstyles Could Be Aging

In some old photos, girls and young women can appear especially aged due to the heavy makeup and severe hairstyles that were fashionable at the time. Compared to today’s fresh-faced, natural youth looks, the pancake makeup, thin plucked eyebrows and tightly-permed hairstyles of the early-mid 20th century could be very aging.

Bold Lipstick and Adult Hairdos

In the 1920s and 30s in particular, the combination of dark berry lipstick and short, tightly-waved bobs or pin curls can make even teenagers and women in their early 20s look surprisingly matronly to modern eyes. The overall effect was very glamorous and elegant, but not exactly fresh-faced and youthful by today’s beauty standards.

Grown-Up Looks Were Desirable

Unlike today, where looking youthful is the ideal, in past decades a more mature, adult appearance was often seen as aspirational and attractive for girls and women. The pressure to look grown-up and sophisticated – not young and carefree – comes through in the way young women styled and carried themselves.

Hardship Could Physically Age People

It’s also possible that, in some cases, the physical hardships of life in the early 20th century did prematurely age people to a degree. Factors like hard manual labor, poor nutrition, and lack of access to good medical care or sunscreen may have caused some people to develop wrinkles, sun damage and other signs of aging earlier than we would commonly see today.

Life Could Be Tougher Back Then

While we shouldn’t overstate this effect, it’s true that life was physically harder for many people in the past compared to modern standards. Long hours of difficult work in factories, on farms, or in the home from a young age undoubtedly took a toll on some people’s faces and bodies, aging them beyond their years.

Child Labor Was Common

It’s hard for us to imagine now, but a century ago children as young as 5 years old often worked long days in grueling industrial jobs to help support their families. For many youths, a childhood of hard labor in mines, mills and factories robbed them of the soft, plump faces we associate with young people today.

But Cultural Differences Are the Biggest Factor

Despite the potential impact of physical hardship, the aging effect we perceive in old photos is still mostly due to the drastic differences in fashion and grooming over the decades. It’s primarily the old-fashioned clothes and hairstyles that make young people from previous generations seem older than they are.

Interestingly, this phenomenon may reveal more about our modern cultural lens than it does about the past. We see youths dressed like their parents and assume they must be older than their years. But to people at the time, the styles we perceive as “old” were just the normal fashions that everyone wore.

Our Perception Tricks Us

In a sense, it’s our modern eyes playing tricks on us. We have a cultural stereotype that modest, conservative clothes, tight hairstyles and formal poses belong to mature adults, not fresh-faced youths. When we see those things in an old photo, our brain easily assumes the subject must be older than they really are.

So Next Time You Look at an Old Photo

Next time you see an vintage photograph and think “Wow, that 12-year-old looks 30!” remember, it’s likely just because they’re dressed more like their parents than a modern tween. Fashion is the biggest clue we use to guess someone’s age – and our cultural associations can easily lead us astray.

It’s a fascinating reminder of how dramatically styles have changed, and how much we take for granted the hyper-casual, youth-focused fashion of today. The teens of past centuries may look mature beyond their years to us, but maybe one day in the future, our own “youthful” fashions will look strangely old-fashioned to generations to come.


The mystery of why young people look older in historical photographs comes down to the enormous cultural differences in fashion and grooming over time. A combination of mature styles, formal photo poses, and the physical toll of harder living conditions made youths appear more adult to modern eyes. But it’s mainly our own perception and cultural lens that fools us into thinking they’re older than their years. So next time you marvel at an old photo, remember, they were the same age as the fresh-faced youths of today – they just had a very different style!


  1. Q: Why do young people look so old in historical photos? A: It’s primarily because of the much older-looking, more conservative and adult styles of clothing and grooming they wore compared to modern fashions. Our cultural perceptions make us assume someone in a suit or formal dress must be older, even if they were actually quite young.
  2. Q: Did people physically age faster in the past? A: In most cases, no. While the harsher living conditions of the past may have aged some people prematurely, the effect is likely overstated. It’s mainly that their formal clothing and photo poses make youths look more mature to our modern eyes than they really were.
  3. Q: When did “teenage” fashions start to emerge? A: Clothing and hairstyles specific to youth culture really started to develop in the 1950s and 60s, with the rise of rebellious rock and roll and counter-culture movements. Before that, children and teens dressed very similarly to their parents in “adult” styles.
0 %
0 %
0 %
0 %
0 %
0 %
Previous post 15 Proven Strategies to Ignite Your Drive for Success
Next post 10 Reasons Why Life Can Feel Hard and How to Overcome Them