Going Victorian in Port Townsend
Dear Ladies (and gentlemen, too),
It is with sincerest regret that I inform you that I will not be able to attend this year’s Port Townsend Victorian Festival. We had a wonderful time in 2018 but distant seas are calling us away this spring.
For those adventurous souls who are interested in the Victorian era, what better place to explore it in the Pacific Northwest than in Port Townsend, one of three Victorian-Era Seaports in the United States?
Read here of our exploits at last year festival including having a tintype photo taken, attending a Victorian ball and trying not to step on ladies’ skirts, taking a ghost tour, and proper Victorian attire for ladies and gents (and where to buy Victorian clothing).
We must acknowledge that in this fine blog post we do utilize some links of the affiliate nature. This means that if you click on a link that is an affiliate link and happen to make a purchase we get a small commission, which supports our indefatigable blogging endeavors.
We hope to be able to attend again in 2020 but may console ourselves in the knowledge that there is also a festival in June for those brave souls who like to add a little Steampunk flair in with their Victorian.
One of the things I learned at the Port Townsend Victorian Festival was that a proper lady should wear a corset. I was an improper lady (a nasty woman?) thoroughly modern under my Victorian-ish flouncy dress – and it was duly noted by the assistants of the tintype photographer at the festival.
“There’s a lady in Shoreline for that – she does great custom corsets,” they told me. I hoped they didn’t notice me subtly trying to suck in my gut. Perhaps in youth, it would have been possible to fool people but in middle age one’s lack of corset is, alas, evident.
“Why are we dressed up?” asked my husband. He was being a good sport, showing off the top hat, green velvet waistcoat and frock coat I had bought him. The obvious answer to this question is, “Why not?” If you’re going to a Victorian Festival, why not dress up Victorian and become part of the action rather than a mere observer?
While there were plenty of people in Victorian costume at the festival, there weren’t so many roaming Victorians that spending a day walking through town didn’t sometimes make us feel like minor celebrities. Passers-by whispered that they thought they were seeing ghosts or had just stepped into the past. Drivers stopped and asked us for photos. There. Maybe that was my 15 minutes of celebrity, and I just used it up standing around on Water Street in a flouncy blue getup.
But, despite that we attracted some attention, our two days of dress-up was not too unusual. There is a couple who lives in Port Townsend who have devoted themselves to dressing and living like Victorians all the time.
Slices of History at the Port Townsend Victorian Festival
During Port Townsend’s heyday in the Victorian Era, people speculated that it would be the largest Seaport on the West Coast. However, the rail lines that were supposed to extend as far as Port Townsend never made it there. They ended up around Tacoma and Seattle and Port Townsend went into decline.
There were plenty of opportunities to learn about Port Townsend history at the festival. A slideshow presentation on the history of Port Townsend inaugurated the event, followed later by a demonstration of Victorian-Era cycles. Though I love bikes, I chose to forego this event in lieu of one of the tours. I had walked Port Townsend many times in the past, but I thought, perhaps, the tour would give me a new perspective. It did.
The tour was a mix of history and ghost stories, as they were led by the aptly named Grymm, who leads Port Townsend Twisted History Tours, featuring the darker side of the city’s history and some of the city’s many ghost stories. The tour included a few stops along the waterfront, including two hotels with checkered pasts: the Palace Hotel and the Bishop Victorian Hotel.
(Above: Left: Grymm, who leads Twisted History Tours, a group taking a tour during the festival, and they say a ghost in blue haunts the hotel. Oh, wait…that was me!)
Grymm had his young daughter in tow during the tour, who added some of her own humor to the mix. Near the fountain, he joked that if people didn’t look before crossing the street, it might make a new ghost story for his tours. Later, I overheard his daughter whiper ominously to a tour participant, “We haven’t had anyone die yet…but my dad hopes they will!”
Damn! I look like my ancestors: Tintypes and Posing Stands
No, that’s not my grandmother, that’s me. One of the highlights of the weekend, for us, was the authentic tintype photos by Jason Bledsoe. We’d had “Old Time Photos” taken in Victoria in the distant past, but Bledsoe’s photos are the real thing. He uses original equipment — an impressive-looking camera from 1905 with leather bellows. What you end up with is an actual tintype, not a paper photo.
Using genuine equipment from the era comes with genuine problems of that era of photography. Maybe I’m fidgety, but the photographer was having trouble getting me in focus. I knew (from researching for my unwritten novel) that some of the photos people mistook to be “Victorian-era death photos,” pointing out the stand that was used to supposedly “prop up” the deceased, were actually live people utilizing a stand to prevent them from wiggling and keep them in focus.
I mentioned this and, guess what? Presto! They pulled out an actual posing stand, with which I was promptly posed — the little head-holder prongs pinching into my occiput, but successfully keeping me in focus.
Fortunately, I don’t look dead in the photo — quite. Just severe. I was focusing so hard on holding still that my expression suggests I just had a hard day on the farm. The way my ancestors looked. I always thought they looked like a miserable bunch…now I know why.
My husband, courting danger, pointed out the difference between our old photo from Victoria when I was a saloon girl, and he was a gambler to this one. “See what happens with age?” he lamented. Yeah, same to you, buddy.
Victorian Literary Fashionistas
Later, it was time for the Victorian Fashion Show. The outfits reflected the theme of literary characters from the era. Some of the entries were impressive hand-sewn creations featured impressive hoop skirts perhaps suitable for the nobility – fun to wear for a while, but not, of course, representative of most of the masses during the Victorian era. And I’d quickly burn the corset.
On the Alarming Danger of Ball Gowns
Of course, the problem with dresses like these is dancing. I’m sure this ceases to be a problem if you (unlike us) know how to dance. I’m sure many of the group dances of the era were choreographed to avoid mishaps of the type that can occur when your parter is wearing this much fabric. I don’t recommend dancing with people in hoop skirts if any of the following are true for you: 1) You have two left feet 2) This is your first time and 3) You’ve had more than one glass of wine or more than your share of whiskey.
Otherwise, go to the grand ball – you’ll have a great time and learn some new dances from some experienced dancers.
Time for Tea
If you’re going to go to the Victorian Festival, register early for the high tea. Saturday spots fill up first. We had Sunday tickets but donated them because it was in the afternoon and we had commitments at home the following morning.
But, without even going, I can tell it would have been a good event. Aside from the fact that I love going out for tea, I’ve stayed at both locations hosting tea: The Commander’s Beach House and The Old Consulate Inn, and both were excellent, so I’m sure their tea was as well.
So What Should a Fashionable Lady or Gent Wear to a Victorian Festival?
The Victorian era spanned quite a long period – from about the 1830s to 1900 so, of course, there were changes in fashion during the Victorian era. For Port Townsend, let’s look at the styles of the late Victorian era. This article is about the Victorian Festival, not fashion, but a quick run-through might be appropriate.
For the gents: trousers had high waistlines, and the men wore suspenders. A waistcoat was an essential part of the outfit, and, though if you look up Victorian apparel, you’ll see many tailcoats represented, I think a frock coat was more likely a part of everyday attire – so this is how I chose to dress my husband. Bowler hats were not uncommon, but he liked the top hat, so we went with that.
For the ladies: Everyday photos of Port Townsend ladies showed them wearing long skirts with blouses with high necklines. Hats are ever-present in these photos and range from boater hats (see Dakota Fanning in The Alienist — Goorin Bros claims their Griffin Fedora is like hers, but her hats look more like boater hats to me) to wide-brimmed hats lined with feathers or other trim.
Where to Buy Victorian Clothing
Of course, there’s always the option of looking in a costume shop — that might be a better deal for an outfit you’re just going to use for a weekend, but do I do things the easy way?
There are tons of examples of “Victorian Clothing” on Amazon.com, not all of them accurate or well-made.
For the Ladies:
If you want Victorian fashion and can’t (or don’t want to) do your own sewing, some places I’d recommend looking online are Victorian Choice. They don’t have a physical shop where you can go and try on the items, but they sell on eBay and have a generous return policy — I bought two dresses and they let me return the one that didn’t work out.
For the Gents
For men’s costumes, I got much of my husband’s accouterments through Historical Emporium. They also offer women’s and Steampunk clothes.
What We Wore:
The blue dress I wore at the festival is this one from Victorian Choice — maybe not 100% accurate, but, hey, maybe I can Steampunk it up for the festival in June. This is the dress that I returned — probably more authentic and very beautiful, but it didn’t suite me. Real ladies should wear a corset with it. If you live in Seattle, you can get a custom-fit one from The Fitting Room, or, of course you can be cheap and lazy and just get one on Amazon which is what I would probably do.
The hat was one I bought at the festival and just happened to match my dress. The boots were these ones from Amazon. If you’re tempted to buy a hoop skirt, don’t unless you are wearing a ball gown. the dress I wore was much more successful with a petticoat underneath.
My husband said “just dress me up,” and didn’t want to worry about it. For him, I went with the green velvet Gramercy waistcoat with a frock coat over the top and a white shirt underneat, and a cravat to complete the outfit. The bottoms are Callahan high waist trousers with Y back suspenders to hold them up. We completed the look with this top hat.
Even though he didn’t want to order his clothing, Ted really got into pocket watches and walking sticks. Fortunately, he already had a pocket watch, but I found him perusing other ones but, somehow, we ended up with THREE walking sticks, his favorite something like this one with a raven on top.
So, we have our outfits for next year…and the year after that…and any time we want to be Victorian (I will confess I have a Victorian-ish sitting room in my home). After a busy Victorian weekend, time to retire to the fainting sofa.