Fashion is a key part of any era and generation. Every generation, decade, has it’s particular look. Fashion of the twenties is very different from the fifties. The eighties and nineties had their distinct looks. Even fashion now in 2015/16 is quite different from the early 2000’s. When thinking about fashion, the first words to pop up in anyone’s head are beauty and style. To be “in fashion” means to have a keen sense of style, to be beautiful, and to have access to money. Now, money is the most important part of fashion. If you have ever walked into a designer store then you might have been turned off by the prices. It will cost you to be in style and to have the highest of fashion. The Barkers were people who had the money to be in style.
In the Barker Mansion, on the third floor, there is a display for a gown worn by Mr. Barker’s sister, Anna Ogden. When I first looked around the mansion, this display immediately caught my attention. I’m not a huge fashion buff or anything like that, but I know elegance when I see it. There are many fascinating artifacts on the third floor of the mansion, but Anna Ogden’s gown is a true sight to behold.
As you’ll see, the dress is quite long, going well past the ankles and covering where her feet would be. Now, when we think of fashion during the nineteenth century an immediate thought is that a gown like Anna Ogden’s is very modest. From the neck down, the gown covers the body and doesn’t show a whole lot of skin. During this time period the social norms made it so women needed to dress conservatively and modestly. It’s well known that the 1920’s introduced a more breathable dress, but gowns in the nineteenth century weren’t only about modesty.
In “Victorian England: The Horse-Drawn Society”, F. M. L. Thompson writes about how horses were everywhere in the nineteenth century. Horses were the main mode of transportation, either by riding or pulling a carriage. With all these horses roaming around in towns and cities, there ended up being a lot of horse droppings all over the streets. According to Thompson, “1830’s English towns had to cope with something like 3 million tons of droppings every year, and that by 1900 they had more like 10 million tons on their hands.” This only became a bigger problem when there weren’t enough people able to clean it all up. How did the most fashionable of people cope with this problem? How could they continue to look in style if they had to worry about horse droppings all over the streets? The answer is simple-money.
Now, horse droppings was more of a problem for English towns, but American streets weren’t that much better. Sidewalks, the concrete kind of today, weren’t common everywhere during the nineteenth century and pathways were mainly just dirt. With that knowledge, it was very easy to dirty clothing and footwear when walking around. If you were wearing high fashion clothing then this would cause you a great deal of concern. Thompson points out “that the Victorians of both sexes, if they could afford it, never ventured out into the streets unless wearing ankle-length outer garments or other enveloping protective clothing, which had very necessary anti-splash functions.” A key phrase here is “if they could afford it” and that’s because money was key to making sure stylish clothing stayed in good shape. The Barkers having immense wealth allowed Anna Ogden to have the necessary functions on her gown to keep it looking nice. You’ll notice on the gown it’s mink tail fringe. It looks very lovely, but it also serves a purpose. Fringe helps repel water from wearers, and the mink tail fringe on the gown helped sweep the street in front of Anna Ogden at all times.
It’s actually very interesting to think about. When I think of fashion today, the clothing seems to only worry about looking good. It’s sole purpose is to make the wearer look magnificent. Most fashion designers don’t think about implementing a function to protect the clothing or keeping the wearer clean. Granted, we don’t have large amounts of horses roaming around cities, and the streets are relatively cleaner than they were back in the nineteenth century. However, I feel many people, men and women, would enjoy suits and dresses that are fashionable and have a protective function as well. Now, this isn’t me demanding the clothing of the nineteenth century return (no one should have to go through the torture of corsets), but there are parts of the clothing that are fascinating.
In the end, Anna Ogden’s gown is beautiful. It’s great to look at, and truly encapsulates a piece of nineteenth century fashion. Yes, women’s clothing of the time was meant to be conservative and modest, but the fashion also made sure the wearer wasn’t getting dirty every time she walked outside. As Thompson states, “To suppose, as some have done, that such fashions were dictated purely by modesty, or that their primary or sole purpose was to muffle sexual excitement, is to forget that no one could set foot in a Victorian street without encountering dozens and dozens of horses.” It’s true, no one wants horse droppings all over their clothing. That’s the last thing anyone wants.