Christmas. The most magical time of the year. And especially so in the Michigan Upper Peninsula (“UP”). I called the UP my home for close to 6 years as I attended university. It is the place I credit as finding my true self.
Though the holiday season was punctured by final projects and exams before the end of term, we always found a way to make the most of the snow and the season. One of my favorite parts of the Christmas season in the UP was the opportunity to work with Downtown Houghton on their Victorian Christmas event. The event started in 2017 as a way to encourage students and locals to stroll through the quintessential downtown shops to support local businesses while finishing their Christmas shopping. A member of the City committee approached the University’s theatre program for help in setting the mood with authentic Dickensian strollers.
They wanted the event to have the classic feeling of stepping into Charles Dickens era Victorian England, complete with horse drawn sleigh rides and carolers.
Our theatre honor society (Alpha Psi Omega) was more than happy to step up and take on the event as strollers. Since that first year, we learned to be better about period accuracy, coordination of volunteers, and (most importantly) wearing layers.
In 2019, the event was again at our door and I was determined that this would be the year to be most polished. This blog is going to document some of the planning process, design considerations, and final ensemble looks from the event.
I must preface that this is NOT EXACTLY PERIOD ACCURATE. We pulled the majority of our pieces from costume storage and were extremely limited in time and budget ($0 to be exact…). So, we did what we could and this is a fine example of creating the illusion of period ensemble looks, but should not be used as an exact replication example.
Back to the design! Creatively, we decided to focus on the era between 1830-1850 for our ensemble collection. This was the height of Dicken’s career and life. The fashions of this era are also the most recognizable as “Christmas Carol”. These are a few of the images I pulled as our female inspiration in building a mood board.
With the large hoop skirt inspiration from the fashion plates and the classic Christmas color pallet, we were ready to head to costume storage to begin pulling pieces. We hoped to reuse as many items from stock as possible to limit the amount of construction since the costume team was tied up with finals and projects. We had also just closed on our fall main stage production.
Oh, did I mention the event was taking place the same day I would be graduating and move out from my apartment?
Since we were primarily pulling from the college theatre stock, we needed to pull enough items to have options for who would be volunteering while limiting ourselves to the color pallet, era staples, and items that we could wash easily. The event is outdoors and in a Houghton winter, we knew to expect snow, slush, and salt that could easily stain or ruin garments. We were limited especially in men’s pants since most tuxedo pants we had available were dry clean only, something we needed to avoid like the plague.
Based on years previously, I expected to have anywhere between two to three dozen male and female actors volunteer who needed not only authentic outfits, but also warm layers and trimmings. We pulled EVERY SINGLE item we could in addition to hats, bonnets, layers, and canes.
Beyond checking that all items were in good condition and washable for after the event, we pulled items based on the standard formula:
- Tuxedo pant
- Tail coat or overcoat
- Button-up shirt with high collar (tuxedo shirt)
- Bowtie or cummerbund
- Top hat, bowler hat, deerstalker, or newsboy cap
- Scarf, gloves, and ear warmer
- Cloaks as requested
- Button up shirt with high collar and lace accents
- Hoop skirt, ruffled petticoat, or crinoline
- Smooth petticoat
- Full skirts or tiered skirt
- Cape, jacket, or caplet
- Bonnet, fur cap, or fur wrap
- Scarf, gloves, muff, and ear warmers
Other extra items that we pulled included warm under layers for anyone who needed them and what we called “du-dads”. Du-dads were any trimmings or added pieces that we built from floral greenery, holly, or Christmas colored flowers. These would be tacked or pinned on to jacket lapels, bonnets, or tucked into pockets or hair.
Actors were to provide their own additional warm underlayers as needed and shoes. We gave recommendations on shoes to wear, but opted to let everyone decide their own comfort level depending on the weather of the day.
To manage the number of volunteers and all the pieces available, we set up time slots for those committed to participating to come to the costume shop to be measured and fitted. Since these were mostly friends of mine and some had done the event in the past, I kept the fittings quite casual. After taking their measurements, I put on my director’s cap to interview the actors on what type of character they wanted to portray. What were they doing? Where were they going? Are they with someone? How old were they?
I did this to help develop an ensemble of rich characters that the volunteers were excited about playing rather than just a crowd of people in fancy costumes. This discussion then led to decisions about each individual costume. Here are a couple of my favorite stories and as they developed into characters and costumes.
Tyler Q. would be acting with the group, but would primarily be focused on taking photos of the event for our organization and the overall event. We discussed how we could incorporate his camera into the story and how that affected his character. He perked up when I suggested a “ragamuffin look” where he would portray a street peddler taking photos of the passing people for coins.
To develop the look, we started by giving him the rattiest looking top had available. The hat was a dingy black with a rotten looking burgundy and tan band. This would be our color story. From there, we found him a pair of tan pants on the rougher side, a warm toned flannel button up, and wool vest. All to be accented with mud and grit.
Since he would be one of the few actors without a coat, I gave him extra layers to wear in addition to thermals he would need to bring.
Joseph was the first actor of this trio to come in. In discussing with him, he wanted to be “posh”. So, we started by finding a jacket that fit and flattered his frame from the tailcoats and overcoats we had pulled. The coat was very well tailored and hit correct proportions for the period. To give him a classy look, I paired the navy tailcoat with a deep blue bowtie and matching scarf. Finally, the look was finished with a grey hat with navy brim ribbon. Lastly, we added white with gold “du-dads”.
As Joseph was hanging up his completed look, our friend Wade arrived who wanted a similar “posh” look. The pair then decided that they would be going to the opera together. Here, we selected a complementary look for Wade with red accents at the hat brim, bow tie, cummerbund, and du-dads as well as a polished looking cashmere producer’s scarf.
Next up was Alissa who would be finish off the trio. To complement and continue with the story of the group going to the opera together, Alissa chose to focus her color story on the deep royal blues like Joseph and the two would be a pair. To achieve this, we added pops of blue to a grey ensemble with white accessories.
Her look consisted of a smaller hoop skirt and white petticoat to give the proper era shape. This was overlaid with a crisp white button up with high lace neck and a tiered, ruffled grey skirt that had been build for a previous show. Though the colors of the skirt creating an ombre effect are completely and utterly wrong for the period, the tiered ruffles made for the closest to true Dickensian ladies dress of the ensemble.
Finally, we gave her a thick wool cloak with detailed embroidery and faux fur bonnet that was constructed for a previous year. The only built item for the garment was a deep blue velvet waistband to be worn over the skirt waist band to further tie the color stories of the group together. The waistband was built simply with slide closures at the back which would be hidden by the cloak.
Thus concludes the opera trio! Or at least the design of the trio. Unfortunately, Wade fell ill the night of the event, and the trio became a duo. But they still looked great!
In following with the beginnings of a storyline from our opera-goers, our next fitting fell into place based on one item: the hat.
We were extremely limited in the number of decent top hats at our disposal and were forced to supplement with bowler hats, deerstalkers, and newsboy caps. Brian came in when most of our top hats had been divvied up and the only remaining ones were not the right size. He opted for a newsboy cab and we decided he would be a cabbie.
From this inspiration, we gave him a sturdy looking warm wear overcoat paired with a rougher shirt and thick wool vest. Overall, he looked ready for work but clean and crisp, the type of sort the classier folks would hail a cab from. The coat needed a few minor adjustments from the fitting to bring it to period and be a good fit for Brian, but we were able to make these temporary fixes quick and dirty with catch stitches that would be later removed.
This garment once again began with a hat. Or in this case, a bonnet.
We were lacking in period appropriate bonnets for the ladies even more so than the top hat inventory for the lads. To combat this, we quickly made bonnets based on 19th century styles. Unfortunately, the nearest specialty fabric store was more than 4 hours away and we had no way to order buckram and the other necessary supplies to make these properly.
But, we did what we could with the supplies on hand and made our bonnets from cardboard, wire, duct-tape, and tacky glue. They were then finished off with polyester velvet, lace trim, and holly du-dads.
Madi’s look began when she asked to wear the green velvet bonnet I had recently finished. The bonnet lead us to a plaid green skirt in a matching hue. However, none of the capes or ladies cloaks we had on hand complemented the style or color pallet of the outfit. We opted to create one for her with a simple homespun plaid we had bought at our last 4-hour away shopping trip. It was then lined with a complementing tan fleece.
For her fitting, we were only able to drape the fabric around to show the color story and style with the other elements. Here, you can see a lace color that would also be repurposed from a different cloak to heighten the look since the blouse underneath was rather plain.
As you might be able to tell from the photo, Madi was paired with her sister, Makenzi, for the event who was dressed in a more industrious coat. The two made quite a pair of sisters, looking to the visitors as though they were a country lass and city lady visiting on a holiday.
Returning to the themes of the opera go-ers, John came in ready and root-tooting to do an accent and create a persona. We found him a nice bowler hat that fit and began discussing characters to create. He seemed to like the idea of the folks going to the opera, but the pieces we were finding that he liked weren’t quite up to par with the posh look of the other three. After discussing with John, we leaned full into the idea that his persona was new money, trying to get a foot in the door of the likes of the opera trio.
To create this, we went over the top. We found a bedazzled gold vest that was built for a production of The Producers. It sparkled and glittered as he bounced around the fitting room, already creating a mock posh voice and accent. This was then paired with a larger than life bow tie and perfectly Christmas plaid scarf over sharp looking tails, coat, and tuxedo pants.
Kassie was primarily focused on construction of garments and the alterations we had found along the way. But, as it was her third year participating in Victorian Christmas, we made a point to give her first pick of the pieces.
She started by selecting a beautiful full blue skirt with velvet embossing in a damask pattern. She then opted to overlay a white lace shirt with a full grey cape and caplet pair that she had worn the previous consecutive years. The two pieces together gave an “Old-Money” weight to the garment, and she was ready to roll with the concept. Since she was leading the construction team, we decided that she would build a new bonnet of matching blue velvet and lace trim based on design completed for Madi.
Now, we come to my favorite skirt of the ensemble. The MASSIVE red satin gown that could be matched only with an equally massive hoop skirt.
When Rey came in for her fitting, she was actually talking about wanting to portray a newsboy or similar character. Then, we discovered that she had the exact measurements to fit the red satin gown that I had wanted to put on someone for 3 YEARS. I asked if she would be comfortable trying it, and she said she would try. We put the hoop skirt, tiered petticoat, and opulent skirt on over a simple white blouse with lace trimmings and dang, did it look perfect.
After pairing the ensemble with a matching satin trimmed wool cape and mid-construction fur bonnet, she felt amazing. Right before this photo was taken, she was swirling around the room in all the satin glory. It was right, even though it wasn’t what we’d set out to create.
Nearly to the end of all the actors discussed above plus handfuls more not discussed in details, I simply started running out of steam. I had yet to pull an outfit for myself and we were quickly running out of garments to choose from, much less that were in my size.
I noted that at that point, our color story was strongly toward warm tones and reds with little contrasting blues or purples as would have been popular in Dickensian times. Fortunately, we had one remaining blue skirt that fit my waistline perfect. However, the skirt was not full enough to fit around the full crinoline I had constructed for the event over the summer. I considered creating a window dress similar to the bottom right woman in the illustration below:
Following this thought, I found a length of gold jacquard I had been gifted from my grandmother’s stash the previous holiday. The piece fit nicely to fill the gap in the fullness.
I paired this with a brown jacket and white & green accents for the scarf and du-dads. It was quick and dirty, but since I would need to construct the finished panel skirt, I needed all the time I could get.
To quickly make the panel, I cut a rectangle of fabric at the exact length of the blue overskirt and used the full width available. After finishing all edges, I gathered the top edge and tacked it to one side of the blue overskirt, slightly underneath. I tacked it at the waistband, hemline, and a handful of points along the side. The tacking method was also used on the opposite side except for at the waistband, to allow the skirt to be put on over the head. Here, I added snaps to the fashion side of the panel and wrong side of the blue overskirt at the waistband to create a closure that would give the appearance that the panel was a full underskirt.
And there it is folks, a period ensemble design almost entirely from stock, completed in about two weeks time. I am very proud of the work the team put in to bring the event and the stories together. From setting up fittings, to building bonnets, to hand tacking ribbons and holly to hat brims, ever detail came together to create the illusion of stepping into a fantasy realm of Christmas joy.
We skipped through town to our hearts content, we met with happy shoppers and gave them advice on the best place to find true Houghton delicacies, and we had a jolly good time with our terrible British accents. All in all, we made merry.