The Great Dickens Christmas Fair is a theatrically historical re-creation of 19th-century London, seen through the eyes of author Charles Dickens. Though Mr. Dickens' writing spans a good portion of the mid-to-late 1800s, our costume timeline for the Dickens Fair is set to the years of 1842-1863.
The Great Dickens Christmas Fair creates a fully immersive environment in which the clothes each person wears become part of the scenery of the play. When creating your costume to attend as a patron (costumes are encouraged, but never required!), we encourage you to consider your character, your occupation and/or class, and why you are visiting London at Christmas-time! Wearing a coat, shawl, wrap, bonnet, hat, scarf or gloves while "on the streets of London" is one wonderful way to become part of our illusion of Christmas Eve in Victorian England.
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. Neither the high empire waist of the 1820s-30s nor the bustle of the late 1860s-80s, beautiful as they are, fit into the timeline of the Dickens Christmas Fair.
If you are attending as a less well-to-do character, we share that in this time period, few things changed owners more often than clothes. They traveled "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 their arts to make it almost as good as new and then resell it to someone else, and the cycle would continue.
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 Some of the thrift store ideas in it are out of date merely because there are different styles to choose from than when it was written.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.
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. Because it is winter, your color choices would likely reflect this.
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.
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 - archived page 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.