“…so my husband and I had her on a bench in the garage. I had a good grip on her torso, and my husband had the saw, and was trying to get a good angle so he could cut off her breasts. Just then we heard someone come in, and turned to see one of the Merry Maids standing there looking horrified.”

Far from being the scene of a grisly crime, Jennifer Bartos, one of the owners of the Barrington House Educational Center, was telling a fascinated group of ladies about the modifications that must be made to current-day manikins in order to get them to fit into some of her fabulous vintage gowns from the 1880’s. “We always have to carve away part of their waistlines.” she added. In fact, a lovely manikin standing at the front of the classroom was wearing a breathtaking lavender silk gown with a 13-inch waist! All this was part of an introduction to a day-long seminar on Women’s Fashions of the Victorian Period, which was being presented at Jennifer’s home. Her entire downstairs is devoted to an extensive collection of vintage gowns, hats, purses and other accessories that have been collected over a 30-year period. Jennifer says, “After 30 years of passionate collecting and research these workshops are finally giving my love of women’s history a purpose and I am loving it. I’ve got some fun and interesting information to share and I hope everyone leaves with a head full of new knowledge!”

Once we had all signed in and spent a few minutes viewing some of the fabulous gowns lovingly displayed on beautiful manikins, everyone settled in to the seats that had been set up for us. At first it was hard to focus on the screen where information was being presented, as the temptation to glance at some of the gowns, undergarments and other accessories in the same room was nearly irresistible. Very soon however, the fast pace of the material being covered forced everyone’s attention to the screen as Jennifer – assisted by her friend and business partner Marion Arrington – started with styles from 1866, and  began to point out the many details that made each era’s clothing, hair, hats, shoes and jewelry distinct.

Her approach to the class was both different and refreshing. As Jennifer pointed out – when we read something about the Victorian period that is written by a modern author, we are getting the author’s opinion or interpretation of their topic. In the sessions presented at the Barrington House, all of the material presented is from the original source. Dated pictures of hundreds of gowns were presented, along with fashion plates and excerpts of text from original magazines of the day, like Godey’s and Peterson’s, as we progressed through the Victorian years with Jennifer’s helpful narration. In this way, each attendee was encouraged to form their own ideas based on viewing the original materials that were presented.

By lunchtime, our heads were fairly spinning with all of the images we had seen, and everyone retired to the back yard to enjoy lunch next to the koi pond. The creative juices had been kick-started, and lively conversations about hairstyles, accessories, and period dresses flowed around the table as we enjoyed the balmy weather. Afterward, we settled in for the remainder of the workshop, which lasted until 5pm. By the end of the day, we were all sorry that it had to end. We had viewed over 2,000 slides and articles, and still wanted another look at the fabulous display of Victorian gowns and accessories. What a fabulous, stimulating day!

You can see some of the lovely gowns and other period items at the Barrington House by visiting their web site at www.thebarringtonhouse.org.