From The Archive: On Teaching Fashion: The Great Dickens Christmas Fair

Lauren Michel originally posted this article on December 25th, 2009. She traveled to the Great Dickens Christmas Fair and reported back with some great photos and advice on how events such as this could be incorporated into teaching the history of fashion.

As promised, I went to the Great Dickens Christmas Fair and Holiday Party last weekend.  As promised, I made sure to take lots of photos to share with you.  Unfortunately, shortly after I transferred the image files from my camera card to my laptop (and erased them from the camera card), my laptop’s screen stopped working. Fortunately, I have a few highlights which my spouse uploaded to his facebook profile before the computer mishap occurred.  In addition to those, there is also that great photographic resource, flickr.  A number of Dickens Fair-goers extensively document the event, each of the four weekends over which the event runs, and make their images available to the public, often via flickr, so if you want to see more than what I have below, wander over and do a search for “Dickens Fair 2009.”

The Dickens Fair advertises itself as “a Victorian Christmas card come to life.”

The bustling streets of London, immortalized for all time by the mighty pen of Charles Dickens, form the living backdrop of your excursion into Christmas Past. You are a living part of a Victorian Christmas card come to life!

Come wander the lanes of Victorian London, as the glow of twilight settles upon the city. With the scent of pine boughs & freshly baked scones floating in the air and the sound of carolers & holiday merrymakers accompanying your stroll.

The venue for the event, the Cow Palace (feel free to snicker at the name, though it is an historic California landmark), was transformed in exactly that way.  The entire place was theatrically lit to simulate twilight.  The lanes were narrow, the place was scented as advertised, the floor was covered with sawdust, and visitors were immersed in an entertaining street theatre environment.  The costumes were a visual feast, with the usual blend I have come to expect at a costume event here in California:  the perfectly historically accurate (at least appearing so, from a vantage point of 5-10 feet), the halfway accurate, the “this looks ‘Victorian’, right?”, the corsets over streetwear, goth looks, and lastly, fantasy, namely steampunk.

The cast portrayed characters from Dickens (I saw Jacob Marley’s ghost wandering about, dragging real metal chains, the Ghost of Christmas Present escorting Ebenezer Scrooge, and Fagin and Oliver Twist) and people from most walks of life:  the chimney sweeps you see above (often with teeth blacked out), flower girls, sailors, harlots, shopkeepers, soldiers, and of course, young Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.  Charles Dickens and Phileas Fogg were on the official program, and I saw a Queen of Hearts.  Rumor had it there was a George Sand about the fair, and locked on my laptop is a photo of what may be her (alas, perhaps next week).

As a comparison, at California’s renaissance faires, the costumed paying customers are usually distinguishable from the cast by either being of the wrong time period, or heavily inspired by fantasy novels and films, and often of lesser quality construction (looking like cheap Halloween costumes, as opposed to well-fitted, well-constructed, and well-researched historical and theatrical reproductions).  At the Dickens Fair, however, it appeared that many of the paying customers were dressed as well as, and sometimes better than, the cast.  Most of the time, it was hard to tell exactly who was there as a cast member and a part of the atmosphere and who was there on their own time, and their own dollar (and this is not to imply that the cast are monetarily compensated for their time, as some may be, but most probably are not).

Now that I have given you some of the background, here follow some photos that I think are quite representative of the whole Dickens Fair experience, at least from my point of view as someone who teaches introductory fashion courses, including history of dress.  Other photos that I am not showing you (because they are on that laptop I mentioned earlier), show some of the better examples of different styles covered in my history of western dress course.  I recommend doing this if you teach history (dress or otherwise), as it is important to cover not only history as it was, but also, in a fashion program, the practical reproduction of historic styles for stage and screen, and in this case, street theater.  I look forward to being able to share them with students in the future.

Here are the fair’s Queen Victoria and Prince Albert (with the blue sashes, as you know).

Black Taffeta

Above is a marvelous example of exquisite craftsmanship by one of our Worn Through readers.  Her gown is black silk taffeta.  Perfect for mourning, of course.

The steampunk element was well established, with a special 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea-inspired environment/exhibit.

Dickens Fair 2009 Closing Day by Lbc42.

Popular with photographers were the Dark Garden Corsetry shop windows, because they featured motionless live models.

These ladies were in a clothing shop called Miss Darla’s Dolls Gone Wrong.  This was the pose they struck (before moving into it robotically) when I asked if I could photograph them.  Perhaps you can see the large gold clockwork keys affixed to their backs.

Have you attended the Dickens Fair or other costumed events?  What are (or were) your impressions?

Next week:  I will be attending a lecture by Kaffe Fassett and will tell you all about him and his latest creative endeavours.  His talk is on Sunday, December 27th (two days from now).  If you have any special questions you would like me to be sure to ask him, leave them for me in the comments below.

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