Thursday, 18 April 2013

Why do I dress as a Victorian lady?

An incident a little while ago got me thinking about the reasons why I dress up in costume. I started at the tender age of 10. My mum and dad had gone along to the local dickens festival to photograph the event (photography was a hobby of theirs) and as usual with their photographic excursions I was brought along. I instantly fell in love with the costumes, and particularly idolised two of the ladies – both tall, graceful, elegant, impeccably dressed and the complete opposite to my my slightly dumpy plain awkward self. One of these ladies stopped dressing up a couple of years after I started, the other was (and still is) the epitome of how I wanted to look in costume.  So when we went home my mother attached a pair of sleeves to my party dress (looking back it would have probably looked more Victorian without them) made what I christened the banana bonnet (a piece of yellow quilted poly-cotton in the shape of a rather wide banana tied to my head with ribbons) and I joined in the next day. 

 My first year in costume complete with banana bonnet (far left)

23 years later and apart from two festivals I have taken part in all of them since. So why the attraction to dressing up, and why carry on well into my adult years. Was it just a desire to look at least a little like the graceful elegant ladies that inspired me. Partly yes, but to understand the rest will need me to explain a little about myself. I was always a bit of an odd child. The shopkeeper down the road genuinely thought I was mute because I never spoke to the staff, only pointed at the sweets I wanted. At primary school they thought I couldn't read until my mother was called in and I explained I didn't want to read the books because they were babyish. School reports always said that I would do well if I'd stop daydreaming. Yet if it was a subject I was interested in they would have a whole project pack of work from me. I was always quite an adult child, finding kids my own age a bit silly and preferring the company of adults. Two incidents really shaped my pre-teen life and both happened around the age of 8-9. The first was my best friend turned round to me and told me he loved me. I had always thought of him like a brother, and being completely shocked by his statement I told him that it was disgusting. Unsurprisingly he never spoke to me again. I was cast out of my little group of friends (all boys) and became a bit of a lone wolf. And that's when the bullying began. Initially it was a boy who thought he could practice his karate moves on me. Later bullies were less violent but more mentally damaging and so the pattern continued until I left school. The second incident was family related and led me to have a nervous breakdown. My parents came home to find that I had locked myself in a cupboard and was refusing to come out. These things increased my natural tendency to shyness and OCD, problems that are ongoing even now. 

 Always a bit of a tomboy

I've been told my shyness comes off as standoffishness. A good example of this was when I met my genetic g.grandmother for the first time in a local supermarket when I was around 15. I had no idea who this lady was who came up and started talking to me, and she went up to my mother and said “she's a bit up herself isn't she!”. I'm useless at conversation. If someone comes up to me and asks how I'm doing the general response is “I'm fine” then panic as to what to say next. Either crippling shyness sets in and I try and find some way to escape (mentally or physically) or it takes me so long to think of something else to say that normally the person or the conversation has moved on. I also can't do eye contact which probably doesn't help matters. The last defining point of my character is that I try very hard not to be noticed. Even walking down the street I can't stand the thought that someone might notice me, and say or think something negative. I dislike attention being drawn to me, I'm terrible at taking a complement and hate being thanked for anything (especially in public). This all leads me to be terrible at making friends and even worse at keeping them. On the plus side I do have a loving and supportive husband, a wonderful little girl and a good sense of humour :D

Aged around 14 (far left)

So with my shyness, doomsday attitude towards people's opinion of me, and my desire not to be noticed, why am I dressing up and parading around in front of hundreds of people? I think at first it was escapism. For one week of every year I could change from my jeans and t-shirt self into a young Victorian lady. The people who looked and took photos and wanted to talk were not interested in me, it was the costume that got their attention. I could be seen without being seen. If people wanted to talk to me, I could just talk about the costume. The festival itself was like one big family (including the standard arguments and people not talking to each other), and I fell I love with the town in which it is held (Broadstairs). 

Beautiful Broadstairs

I was always a bit of an outsider, not part of any of the main groups, but I made friends played croquet and had fun. This happy state lasted for around ten years until I made the mistake of starting a relationship with my best friend who also took part in the festival. Ladies and gentlemen if you ever consider doing this think very carefully, as the fallout is not pleasant to say the least. I think it would be fair to say we were doomed from the start. Initially we lived in separate parts of the country, his mother disliked me and my mother loathed him and we both lived with our parents. Despite this we managed to last a few years but a mistake on his part and my insecurities coupled with my father having a mid life crisis and going completely cuckoo (to the point of stalking and sabotaging the house myself and my mother were living in) dealt the death blow to our relationship. The fallout from this was that my friends were his friends, and with both of us taking part in the festival it lead to some having the uncomfortable position of trying to talk to both of us (many thanks and apologies if you are one of these) or completely blanking me. One lady still glares at me today, much to the consternation of my dear husband who couldn't understand why I was being given such dirty looks. 

 In my 20s

Yet despite this I still carried on dressing up, as I still had something to escape from. My mother had always be controlling but the breakdown of her relationship with my father and his eventual death made it far worse, and I knew no better. Even though I was more on the outskirts of the festival family then ever before it was far better than my home life. That was until the man who was to become my husband entered my life. He showed me that my life didn't have to be the way it was. When my mother chucked me out he took me in, when she called a week later expecting me to come back he allowed me to stay. Three years to the day of us starting a relationship we got married and 8 months later our little girl surprised us by joining us a month early. 

I still dress up though I'm not so bothered about it now. Perhaps it is because finally I have nothing to escape from. I still have my love of the costume (you just need to see my blog, Pinterest and Facebook page to realise that), and I love the attention that I get when dressed up without having to be the real me. Also the festival has been a part of my life so long that to lose it would be rather like losing a friend. But I think the main reason is that somewhere deep inside I'm still that little girl who looked at the pretty dresses and wanted to be an elegant princess once in a while.

 Me and my wonderful family



  1. Reading your post, I am amazed at how much I can identify with you regarding dressing in costume. We have a similar background and so I found your post intriguing. My costuming has mainly been in Czech Kroj, which you can see on my blog, if you are interested. I am curious, are you in Europe somewhere, or the States? You are so fortunate to have found such a beautiful place and event where you can wear your creations.

    Thanks for the post :-) Deborah

    1. Hi Deborah,
      Thank you for commenting on my post. It was scary to write and even scarier to publish (luckily I had my husband to stop me backing out) but I've been pleased and somewhat humbled by peoples responses to it. Love the blog, especially the baby dresses. I'm always interested to see new types of costume, and I must admit I'd never heard of Czech Kroj before so I was intrigued. I'm in the UK, or the south east of England to be precise. Broadstairs is a quaint little seaside town with a lovely beach, fishing boats off the jetty and a little Charles Dickens Museum in a cottage where the inspiration for Betsy Trotwood lived. We are also lucky enough to have the Rochester Dickens Festivals within easy travelling distance. Rochester is a very small city with building dating from the 14th - 18th century and a very imposing cathedral. Both are very stereotypically British, including the weather. Though we are lucky enough to rarely get rained off for the Broadstairs festival I have been caught up in a thunderstorm at the Rochester festival. There's nothing like lightning nearby to make you realise just how much metal there is in your crinoline :D
      Best Wishes

    2. Maybe the crinoline would act as a farady cage. ;)

  2. I too was quiet (well I didn't *like* talking and always put my foot in it when I did open my mouth), nerdy, bullied at school with crippling shyness. but I love dressing up and history and well most creative stuff art music dancing sewing...
    It started with a school trip, dressing as a tudor...i loved it so much nagged my mum to take me back on an open day so ~I could dress up again. Then lack of funds -pocket money didn't stretch to material etc. - I just stuck to sketching my dress designs. Then I started work...and began to look for custom made clothing (vintage inspired) when then progressed onto me making my own. then I found some friend historical forums and found out about jane austen festival in bath. It took me two years but I saved up made my own frock and accessories and joined in the parade. Loved it!
    Now, I scour the internet for events I can make a histrorical outfit for and join in with...I'm no living history buff, I wouldn't regect a fabric because it wasn't handwoven like hte orginal etc. Its about the essence and spirit of the era.

    (ps. i was one who posted on facebook)