Senior Portraits – A Look Back

October 24, 2018 · CLASSMATES FUN

When you flip through your yearbook, what’s your reaction when you land on the page with your official portrait?

Do you smile? Or do you shudder and turn to a different page as quickly as possible?

John Wayne (1925) and Pat Nixon (1929) (Classmates.com archive)

The annual yearbook photo

You had one chance (maybe two if you were lucky) to get your look just right. With several hundred kids to capture on film, the photographer was usually in a hurry. So you had to be ready.

There were students who looked forward to “picture day” and planned their outfits in advance (possibly far in advance, in some cases). We’re betting that more than a few probably practiced smiles in the mirror beforehand. Others seemed not to care much about their appearance (and possibly regretted that decision later).

Some schools did offer retake days, in case you missed the first session — or just ended up with a heinous photo. Otherwise, you just had to live with a bad portrait until the next year.

And when you were a senior? This was your one last chance to look good in a high school yearbook. (And it was sometimes the only school portrait that remained on relatives’ bookcases and side tables years later.) So people often went to extra lengths for this photo session.

Bob Mathias (1948) and Cloris Leachman (1944) (Classmates.com archive)

Changes through the decades

If you’ve spent any time exploring the Classmates yearbook archive, you know how interesting it can be to check out books from different decades. This ever-growing library is basically like a living time capsule, capturing the continuing evolution of teen fashions, hairstyles, and culture.

In some of the earliest yearbooks in our collection (way back in the late 1800s!), the senior photo was a pretty formal affair. The dress code was either suits and dresses or mortarboards and graduation robes. And students frequently wore serious expressions. The smile didn’t start to catch on a little later, when getting your picture taken wasn’t such a long and drawn-out process!

Fast-forward a little – say, to the 1920s — and you’ll notice that not a lot had changed except some of the hairstyles. Students were starting to smile, but the attire was still decidedly on the dressed-up side.

Chubby Checker (1960) and Shelley Long (1967) (Classmates.com archive)

By the mid-20th century, there were plenty of sweater sets and pearl necklaces for the girls and sport coats for the guys. Again, though, the main difference was in the hairstyles: the poodle cut, the flipped bob, etc..

Jimmy Smits (1973) and Megan Mullally (1977) (Classmates.com archive)

But what a difference a decade makes! Take a peek at a handful of yearbooks from the 1970s, and you’ll most likely see a wide variety of looks. Some teens were pretty buttoned-up, but others started to really express themselves visually. This was when more casual school portraiture really took off.

This decade also brought the world that special subset of senior picture: the double exposure portrait. Popularized by portrait studio Olan Mills, the intent was something earnest and dramatic. This trend lasted until the 1980s and then faded out of popularity, but there are plenty of families who have portraits like this hanging on a wall somewhere. (Alas, we have not yet found a celebrity who used this effect for their own senior picture.)

Ken Jeong (1986) and Renee Zellweger (1987) (Classmates.com archive)

This was also around the time that you began to see “realistic” backgrounds (a rustic fence, a wall of bookshelves, a grove of trees, etc.) as an alternative to the generic studio backdrop.

Starting around the 1990s, some students began including props in their photo shoots as a way to express more of their personality or interests. A senior portrait might include a piece of sports equipment, a car, or even a beloved pet.

Chrisi Pratt (1997) and Dominique Dawes (1994) (Classmates.com archive)

Today, senior yearbook photos run the gamut from traditional cap-and-gown studio shoots to creative outdoor portraiture. And some schools even devote entire pages to each graduate, with multiple photos (including baby pics).

What’s next? Keep exploring the yearbook archive to find out!

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