Remember how fun it was when we were children spending an afternoon with the costume trunk, piling on the dress-up clothes? For some grownups, the fun never stops.
We met a couple of ladies a couple of weeks ago at Oak Hill Day in Annandale decked out in full Victorian regalia, complete with big hats and long skirts. They were there to promote the Victorian Society at Falls Church, an organization of history enthusiasts who don’t just read about the Victorian era, they take part in living history events and parties where they dress up and take on the mannerisms of the period.
In the photo, Karla Pringle (right) is wearing an 1890s-era gored skirt made for her with modern-day fabric, a new blouse that looks old, a vest from a vintage shop, and a hat she made herself.
“When you put the clothes on you feel totally different,” says Lau. “You talk differently, and comport yourself differently.”
Lau has about 20 outfits from the 1860s to 1912, including a bathing costume, yachting outfit, and several ball gowns, most of them custom made. Few modern women could actually fit into authentic period clothes, as people were shorter and thinner back then and had small shoulders, she notes.
“I enjoy the lifestyle, the customs, the social life, the things they did, the things they ate. I love going to tea,” says Pringle about her fascination with the Victorians. Regarding the way women were treated back then, she acknowledges, “I’m not too happy about that part.”
Lau noted there were some Victorian women who fought for women’s rights, such as Anna Howard Shaw, a suffragist. Lau sometimes portrays Helen Churchill Candee, a socialite born in 1858, who had been abused by her husband, left her family, and had a successful career as a writer and interior decorator. She was a lady ahead of her time,” says Lau, who enjoys researching Victorian women “who set out to better their lives and change things.”
The Victorian Society was started in 1995 by people who lived in Victorian-era houses in Falls Church. Currently, it has about 140 members from throughout the region.
The group has an annual Halloween party, featuring “odd occurrences” and spooky readings from the works of Charles Dickens and Edgar Allen Poe. There’s an annual Civil War-era Christmas celebration and a Burns Night celebrating the Scottish poet. Members come in costume to the annual White House Easter Egg Roll and the Falls Church Memorial Day Parade. They visit historic sites, write articles about historical issues, for the society newsletter, and get together frequently for teas.
They’ve also published three books: Afternoon Tea in the Victorian Tradition, with recipes for things like scones, finger sandwiches, and teacake; Entertaining Victorian Style; and Victorian Falls Church, with lots of old photographs.
It’s all educational, as well as fun—and it seems like it’s way more entertaining to dress up in fancy costumes for tea parties and balls than to put on scratchy uniforms and re-enact bloody Civil War battles.