Victorian costumes are encouraged but not required for our patrons. Please feel free to 'come as you are' to enjoy your adventure into Dickens' London. The costume guidelines provided here are very complete and are intended for "Participants" in the event (performers & vendors). If you are a guest, please enjoy the costume information on this site as a resource to help you get into the spirit and play along at any level you wish. Even a hat or bonnet will make you feel like you are stepping back in time with us! Special note: please do not come dressed as Father Christmas, Ebeneezer Scrooge or other main characters from Dickens' works. See our public costume policy for more information.
Looking for costume approval information? That's on our Performing at the Fair page, under Requirements for Performers!
The Great Dickens Christmas Fair is a theatrically historical re-creation of 19th-century London as it was seen through the eyes of Charles Dickens. Though Mr. Dickens' writing spans a good portion of the mid-to-late 1800s, we are setting our costume timeline to the years of 1842-1863.
We are working to create a total environment in which the clothes you wear become the scenery of the play. With that in mind, this is why we require head-to-toe costumes, historically accurate and appropriately accessorized, for all participants during Fair hours. During our hours of operation no participants should be in the streets out of costume or in partial costume. when designing your costume, please consider your character, your occupation and/or class, and what you are doing here at the Fair (actor, vendor, caterer). We are an "outdoor" event that all takes place under the roof of the Bovine Imperial Residence. Please remember that wearing your coats, shawls, wraps, bonnets, hats, scarves and gloves while "on the streets of London" goes a very long way towards creating the illusion of a cold Christmas Eve.
This section of our website contains overall guidelines as well as basic information on men's and women's costuming, plus a new thrift store costuming page (which also includes general guidelines for children's costume).
Corsets were the foundation garment of the time. Women wore crinolines and many, many starched petticoats to hold up the voluminous bell-shaped skirts that were in fashion. Women should understand that neither the high empire waist of the 1820s-30s nor the bustle of the late 1860s-80s are appropriate for the Dickens Christmas Fair.
A very important note for EVERYONE: Please wear your costume, shoes and corsets before opening day. Wear them to workshops and rehearsals as soon as possible. Do not try to break them in on opening weekend - you will regret it. And always remember one simple little rule - shoes first, then corset!
For those of you among the less well-to-do, you should know that in this period, few things change owners more often than clothes. They travel downwards from grade to grade in the social scale with remarkable regularity. The original owner may sell a well-worn garment to a "clabberer" who would use his arts to make it almost as good as new and who then resold it to someone else, and the cycle would continue. Even when a garment became too tattered to be patched, it was sold to someone whose business was taking clothes apart and making new things out of the pieces.
If you desire more detailed information than we present here, we highly recommend the book Victorian Costuming, Volume I: 1840 to 1865 by Janet Winter and Carolyn Savoy. In the book's pages you will find all the information you need to construct your own costume. Some of the thrift store ideas in it are out of date merely because there are different styles to choose from than when it was written. It is a fabulous resource. It is published by Other Times Productions and can be obtained through Patterson & Sons at the Fair, and from Games of Berkeley at 2152 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley, CA 94704, (510) 540-7822.
Everyone, both men and women, should wear just a little bit of makeup - not enough to look made up, but enough to give your face a little life. A non-bright lip color, blush, powder, brow pencil and makeup base will be enough. Eye makeup needs to be very discreet, as eye shadow and mascara were not worn during our time period and tend to be quite obvious. The lights at the Fair are unflattering and much as you may dislike it, some subtle stage makeup will really make a difference.
It goes without saying that Victorians did not have their noses, lips, eyebrows, etc. pierced and neither should you. There are many companies that make "flesh" tone silicone plugs for concealing piercings. Kaos Softwear is one of them.
Neither did Victorians have VISIBLE tattoos. Please make sure that your tattoos are covered by either clothing or with a makeup designed to hide tattoos, such as Dermablend or Covermark. There are also several YouTube videos that show how to cover them as well.
Suggested fabrics are wool, twill, serge, cotton velvet, satin, taffeta, cotton, and linen.
Colors were rich and varied - garnet, plum, moss green, gold, gray, beige, brown, blue, and black. Fabric patterns were interesting and fun, including plaids, prints, paisleys, stripes, herringbone, and tweeds. Remember that it is winter, so your color choices should reflect this.
DO NOT use fluorescent or modern-looking colors or prints, and avoid obvious polyester fabrics.
There are many books and movies that are excellent sources for costume, manners and accent of the time we are portraying. Below is a selection of some potentially useful films.
- The story of Adele H. or L'histoire d'Adele H. (French movie about British events, subtitled) - Women's garments and military costume.
- Fingersmith (BBC production, 2005) - Great representation of lower-class Cockneys as well as upper class, set in the early 1860s
- Christmas Carol (Patrick Stewart) - Fabulous for all classes.
- Oliver Twist (Elijah Wood, Disney) - The color palette is excellent for The Dockside area, or Mad Sal's.
- BBC David Copperfield miniseries - Starring a young Daniel Radcliffe. This is a very good movie and an excellent source for visuals.
- Nicholas Nickleby (2002) - A wonderful movie full of approvable costume ideas and colorful characters. Highly recommended for this Fair.
- Little Women (Winona Ryder, 1994) - Great middle-class 1860s costumes; ignore that later 1870s bustle costumes towards the end of the film.
- North & South (based on an Elizabeth Gaskell novel, BBC production, 2004) - Lovely upper-middle class 1860s costumes.
- Oliver Twist (Roman Polanski dir, 2005) - Interesting lower class, fabulous middle class costumes especially on the extras in the street scenes.
- The Secret Life of Mrs. Beeton (BBC production, 2006) - About Catherine Beeton, the Englishwoman who wrote a hugely popular cooking/household management book in the 1850s. Nice middle class costumes.
- Turn of the Screw (based on the Henry James novel, 1999) - Nice 1840s middle class.
- The Great Train Robbery with Sean Connery, Donald Sutherland and Leslie Ann-Down
- Bleak House (BBC miniseries, 2005)
- Little Dorrit (BBC miniseries, 2008)
- The Old Curiosity Shop (Carnival Films, 2007)
- Edward VII/Edward the King (ATV miniseries, 1975) The first 3 episodes focus on Victoria and Albert up to Albert's death, while the last 3 focus more on Edward; still, great costuming and the history is bang-on.
- The Young Victoria (2009) The early costumes are well done; the history, so-so.
Recommended with reservations:
- Black Adder's A Christmas Carol (BBC) - You can't trust Black Adder not to play a bit with history, but worth seeing just for the fun of it.
- Oliver! - The musical. Costumes (especially women's) are not necessarily accurate, but this film is many people's first visual impression of Dickens. The first part of this movie has an excellent crowd scene. Watch it for just that.
Please feel free to e-mail Liz Martin with any questions at: firstname.lastname@example.org
It is very difficult to recommend just one or two books as references for this period. As mentioned above, Victorian Costuming, Volume I: 1840 to 1865 by Janet Winter and Carolyn Savoy is an excellent starter book. Here is the list we use for the Costume Overview class at workshops:
- Fashion: The Collection of the Kyoto Costume Institute
Taschen - ISBN: 3-8228-1206-4
- English Women's Clothing in the 19th Century
Dover - ISBN: 0-486-26323-1
- Men's Garments 1830-1900
R.I. Davis - ISBN: 0-88734-648-0
- Fashion & Costumes from Godey's Lady's Book
Dover - ISBN: 0-486-24841-0
- Godey's Costume Plates in Color
Dover - ISBN: 0-486-23879-2
- Four Hundred Years of Fashion
Victoria and Albert Museum
- In Style - 50 Years of the MMA Costume Institute
Metropolitan Museum of Art
- From Queen to Empress: Victorian Dress 1837-1877
Metropolitan Museum of Art
- Cut of Men's Clothes: 1600-1900
Norah Waugh - ISBN: 0-87830-025-2
- Victorian Costuming, Volume I: 1840-1865
Janet Winter & Carolyn Savoy
- History of Children's Costume
Elizabeth Ewing - ISBN: 0-684-15357-2
- Victorian London Street Life in Historic Photographs
John Thomson, Dover - ISBN: 0-486-28121-3
- The Age of Uncertainty: Victorian photographs from the 1860s
A fantastic resource put up on the web by UK blogger Steerforth -- Victorians from a variety of social backgrounds from the north of England in Charles Dickens' day. The link above goes to the full Flickr album; click here for the original blog post, including the story of how the photo album was narrowly saved from a trash bin!
- Fashion-era.com: A good website for Victorian costuming and general information on the Victorian period.
- Portraying the Victorian Woman from the Homespun Living History Guild - although this is written about American fashions and customs, it is close enough to be a wonderful resource.
- Reproductionfabrics.com - Cotton reproduction fabrics organized by type and time period.
- Renaissancefabrics.net - Specializing in wool, silk, linen, and cotton fabrics for historical costumers. Note: Some are appropriate for the Renaissance era and not for the Dickens Fair, so make sure you know your era!
- Abraham's Lady - Civil War era clothing, accessories, patterns and fabrics, etc. Although this site focuses on the U.S. Civil War era, many of the items are also workable for the Dickens Fair.
What is the best way to dress for a day at the Dickens Christmas Fair? Is there any clothing that isn't permissible?
The Dickens Christmas Fair is a casual, family-oriented environment. We suggest you dress comfortably, wear good walking shoes, and check the local weather report to determine if coats and umbrellas will be needed for your walk from the parking lot. The entire Fair is indoors and there is a Cloak Check provided just inside the entrance to "London."
Ensuring that the Fair maintains a family-friendly environment is an important part of our theatrical time travel & holiday experience. In that spirit, we ask you to use your discretion and common sense. Attire that is not appropriate for a family event (and which may result in refusal of admittance) includes but is not limited to:
- Clothing with objectionable material, including obscene language or graphics
- Clothing which, by nature, exposes excessive portions of the skin that may be viewed as inappropriate for a family environment
We also ask that you not attend the event in costumes or clothing that can be viewed as representative of a central Dickensian character (especially Ebenezer Scrooge; the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present & Future; and Charles Dickens; or of course, Queen Victoria herself or Father Christmas himself).
Thank you for your understanding and cooperation.
Please take the time to consult our very informative costume guidelines to help you create a full or partial costume to enhance your experience. Again, costumes are encouraged, but not required.