Two Wrongs Don’t Make A Right

I’ve been toying with the idea of archiving the blog portion of this site for a while, seeing as how I’ve all but abandoned it in the last few years (especially since Frock Flicks has taken over a substantial part of my blogging brain), but it just so happened that this week would deliver me something that really can only be discussed appropriately on this here website. So, the Mode Historique blog has gotten a bit of a reprieve while I vent my spleen about Sarah and Gabriel Chrisman and the controversy they’ve kicked up over their treatment by Butchart Gardens staff.

Bob the Drag Queen
Grab a drink, this could get lengthy.

The brief run down, for those of you lucky few in the costuming and historical reenactment communities who haven’t had your social media pages blown up in the last week, centers on the couple from Port Townsend, WA who dress in Victorian clothing 24/7 and attempt to live a Victorian life consisting of gas lamps, petticoats, pennyfarthings, and internet blogging. These intrepid individualists recently took a trip up to Victoria, B.C. a couple weeks ago to visit the Butchart Gardens and, upon arrival, were told that costumes were not allowed in the Gardens. The Chrismans dug in their heels, refusing to budge, highly affronted that their clothing was being likened to costumes, and things escalated dramatically for the better part of an hour (all of this, btw, is chronicled over at their blog, so I’m really just giving you the TL;DR version as best I can in case you can’t stomach the indignant twee-ness of Sarah’s writing), while the Gardens staff offered them several compromises ranging from changing into old staff uniforms (which, I will grant, is pretty insulting), to getting a special one time only reprieve from upper management to go through with the tour without changing, to Sarah simply removing her bonnet. Through all of this, the Chrismans held firm, insisting that what the Gardens was demanding of them was akin to discrimination against hijab-wearing Muslim women or racism because of skin color (highly ironic given the fact that they fetishize the Victorian era, a time when judging a person based on their skin color or religion was totally cool so long as you were white and Protestant). The Gardens ended up refunding them the cost of their tickets, the tea, and transportation, no doubt just to make them go away.

Upon arriving home, the Chrismans went to the internet (obviously the first line of attack for a Victorian) and related the entire sordid experience with Butchart Gardens, naming the names of the staff they interacted with, calling them out on their “discriminatory” practices, and basically casting themselves as victims in a barbaric, unfair world where women are allowed to go public places nearly naked while those who believed in good Victorian values of decency were persecuted like, I kid you not, the Hebrews of the Old Testament. References to urchins were made; Rudyard Kipling was invoked; women wearing “indecent” tank tops and shorts were sneered at in a not-terribly-subtle slut-shaming way. The names and descriptions of the Gardens staff were given out and an email address to direct their followers to complain to the ownership about the discriminatory policies and treatment of our heroic Victorians were urged. This turned into a brigade against the Gardens, and it apparently was extensive enough to be reported on by numerous news sources, requiring the Gardens to issue a public statement on their website addressing the allegations.

It flooded my Facebook with outraged costumers and historical interpreters who were only too eager to grab a pitchfork and join the brigade, but I had the opposite reaction. Allow me to address each of the points outlined by the Chrismans and perhaps you will understand why I refuse to align myself with them:

  • Butchart Gardens is a private facility and, as such, is perfectly within its rights to specify a dress code for attendees. If anyone violates that dress code, they are also perfectly within their rights to deny them entry, be it “no shoes, no shirt, no service” or “costumes are not allowed.” Further, it appears as if the Gardens has had the no-costume policy for a while… Digging around on revealed that their “etiquette” policy, which stipulates the prohibition of costumes of any sort, including wedding attire, has been on their website since at least March of this year. The Chrismans can plead ignorance of the no-costume policy, but given that they routinely describe in sordid detail the hostility they allegedly encounter on a daily basis for their lifestyle, they should at least be familiar with the concept that not all places are costume-friendly. No matter how much you insist that they aren’t costumes, but clothing.
  • My dear friends Bess and Edmund dressed for their 1569 Kentwell interpretation in 2005.

    Many facilities and organizations have a no-costume policy, which is why most costumers know to check ahead of time before showing up in wacky clothes lest they be turned away. Disneyland is a prime example of this, but there are many smaller organizations with the same rule. For some it’s an issue of safety, for others it’s to provide a controlled experience for attendees without distractions; in other cases, it’s because there are authorized historical interpreters on site and having someone show up in a costume would confuse guests and create liability issues for the site should an accident occur, or the costumed patrons behave poorly or illegally. There’s a reason why, of all the times I’ve been privileged to go to Kentwell Hall, I’ve never gone in costume despite sorely loving to have the opportunity. Kentwell employs a staff of hundreds of costumed interpreters, and while I know my costumes would pass their standards, I have not been trained and the jig would be up the moment someone wandered up to me to start a conversation about the chimneys. Nor would I be covered under their insurance policy should I injure myself or the property in some way. So, I go in mundane drag and day dream about the day when I will finally get my shit together and apply as a participant.

  • I can hear the cries, “But Colonial Williamsburg allows costumed visitors!” Yep. That’s their right, and they’ve figured out a way to make the experience of living history participatory in a way that works for them and their objectives. Go them.

And now for the biggest problem of all that I have with this entire fiasco, which is so big and important that I have to separate it out from the rest of the list lest anyone miss it:

  • This is not a discrimination case, and everyone needs to stop calling it that. For this to be a case of discriminatory practice, it would have to be against a protected class, pure and simple. Now, granted, I only know this from the US side of the law, but I’m willing to give our Canadian cousins the benefit of the human rights doubt on this and presume the laws are similar up there. Something tells me that a country that understands the need for socialized medicine probably understands human rights a little bit. Choosing to wear Victorian drag 24/7 does not a protected class make. It frankly galls me that the vast majority of voices raised in support of the Chrismans, including the Chrismans themselves, are putting this experience in the same category as asking a Muslim woman to remove her hijab, or telling a Black man that he’s not welcome because of the color of his skin, or refusing to let a trans* person use the bathroom that aligns with their identity because they don’t have the “correct” genitalia.
The coronet makes this get up less nun-like.

As an historical costumer and someone who regularly ventures out into the real world dressed in historical clothing, I am used to the curious stares and comments from the public. I welcome those comments, because they have never once, in 25 years of me wearing historical clothes been hostile (encountering hostile public is a favorite topic of the Chrismans). At worst people will avoid looking at me. Most just want to know where the Ren Faire is or if I’m in a play; little kids will ask if I’m a princess while Mom asks for a picture while I’m waiting in line at Starbucks. The people who work up the nerve to ask me why I’m dressed like some kind of weird nun (in other words, in late-13th century kit with a full wimple and veil) are always polite, even if they don’t really “get” it. And I am always polite back, mainly because I believe in being a good ambassador for the historical costuming and reenacting community. I could be having a shit day, a migraine, cramps, or exhausted from spending half the day setting up our medieval encampment, but if I need to go to Target to grab last minute supplies, I am on my best goddamn behavior with the public. I smile and answer questions no matter how inane they may seem, and I encourage them to stop by and see for themselves what all of us costumed people are up to. The last thing I want is for someone to run into me and walk away thinking how rude and insufferable those costumed freaks are, which, sadly, was my take-away message from the Chrismans’ ordeal. Butchart Gardens isn’t going to suddenly have the veil drop away from their eyes and realize their policy against costumes is unfair to people who identify as Victorians — no, they’re going to double down on that policy and woe betide the next hapless person who wanders in wearing anything they deem to be a costume.

In the end, this entire scenario is unfortunate all the way around, but I think there’s a good object lesson here about 1) doing your due diligence; 2) the difference between religious, racial, gender identity, sexual orientation discrimination and a lifestyle choice; and 3) being a good ambassador even when you feel like you’ve been wronged.

Also, don’t be a dick and people won’t treat you like one.

25 thoughts on “Two Wrongs Don’t Make A Right

    1. I wish more costumers would speak up against this brigading, since I know there’s tons of us out there who feel like I do. This is not a good look for us.

  1. BRAVA!! (Applause)

    I admit, when I first joined the SCA, to indulging in a bit of “freaking the mundanes”. Then I stopped, and realized what a poor impression I was giving of a society that celebrates courteous behavior.

    The Chrismans’ behavior gives us all a black eye.

    1. Ah, Freaking the Mundanes… A time honored tradition. Thankfully one most of us grow out of once we realize how insufferable we were acting. 😉

  2. I feel excessively special and like I have great taste in friends, because the first I heard of this was when you posted about it on FB! Yeah, sorry, costumes /= protected class.

    1. I kept seeing it pop up as people would share it with my friends, and then someone put it on the GBACG FB group and all hell broke loose. I probably wouldn’t have bothered commenting on it if it hadn’t been for the sheer number of posts trying to equate their treatment with racism or religious persecution. *headdesk*

  3. As a Canadian I can state that we do understand the difference between a Victorian dress chosen as a means for self expression and a hijab worn as religious tenant. We also tend to, for the most part (always exceptions to the rule), understand that a rule is a rule and even if we don’t agree with it, it is still a rule. If we unknowingly break a rule we say sorry and try our best to work out a compromise. Sounds like Butchart Gardens was being very Canadian.

    1. I think the Chrismans lack any self-awareness and that plays heavily into what happened with the Gardens. Also, the sense of entitlement is strong in these two — I don’t want to speculate about their actual lives, but it must not be easy being around them. :-/

  4. The picture from their blog where she’s “feedings the fish”.
    Funny how the bottoms of her shoes don’t look very Victorian.
    What a ridiculous little couple.

    1. The historical reenactment/costuming community seems to have divided opinions about them, but the one critique I’ve heard over and over is that they cherry pick whatever elements from the Victorian era are convenient to them and gloss over or ignore everything else. So it doesn’t surprise me that shoes (and that satchel) are totally anachronistic. What matters to them is the appearance of Victorianess, not the actual practice of it. Though they’d would rather die than admit it, they’re no different that the rest of us LARPers, cosplayers, and reenactors — they just don’t change out of their clothes at the end of the day. But it’s the sneering attitude towards the reenactment communities that just kills any respect I might have had for their little social experiment.

  5. Thank you. In the recent kerfluffle, I’ve been one of the minorities by being NOT outraged. The whole issue here is that Mrs. Chrisman likes attention. Nothing else.

    Her writing is awful. Wearing a corset without a chemise underneath – which she clearly does in the photos in her book Victorian Secrets – is an amateur mistake which she doesn’t have the sense to correct. That alone would have totally wrecked her credibility for me, if her priggish attitude hadn’t done it from the start.

    1. If she chooses to make the n00b mistake of not wearing a chemise between herself and her corset… No wonder she’s in such a bad mood all the time. That’s seriously uncomfortable!

  6. Thank you thank you thank you. I saw the blog fairly soon after, and my spidey senses tingled. I went to thier page, Buchard Garden’s, before they updated it. They have two restaurants, and afternoon tea. Right there she wasn’t telling the truth about her extensive research of the gardens. And you do not have to prepay for lunch, only make a reservation, so of course he looked at her odd when she demanded money back. And there is no reason for any hostility to those in costume I have seen, so she must have a wonderful attitude.

    1. You’re welcome. I have to say, if this had occurred on American soil, the cops would have been called the second it went past ten minutes of arguing in public. That this supposedly lasted an hour is a testament to the patience of our Canadian cousins.

  7. This is by far the silliest drama I’ve come across all week. I’m Canadian and when I heard the news break I felt a little embarrassed by the Gardens because they were portrayed as being some kind of menacing figure throwing out costumers, but then I read a little more and it just seemed so gobsmackingly common sense because they do have the rule, they have a reason for the rule, and they seemed to have tried very well to reach a compromise. At the time I didn’t know who the two guests were specifically, but they seemed awfully brattish and entitled at the end of it all.

    Really, some people need to get over themselves and show a little decorum. You don’t have to like an outcome, but to start a digital witch hunt when you don’t get your way is bonkers. This is such a non-problem, I don’t quite grasp why this is -news- to everyone.

  8. So well said. I was appalled at the Chrisman’s behavior – if they truly did as much research as they claimed to do, they would have seen that the gardens very clearly prohibited that sort of attire.

    I may make the choice to wear nothing but jeans and t-shirts, but if I go to a fancy restaurant that specifically states that there is a formal dress code, I couldn’t expect to be seated. This was very clearly an attempt to grab attention and get more hits on their blog – and, unfortunately, they succeeded.

  9. I read their blog yesterday and to be honest I was appalled at what they wrote, not on their behalf but for the gardens. If I’ve complained about a business online there’s no way I’ve ever used people’s names and a couple of lines are more than sufficient if that business has not had good customer service according to their promises.
    However in this case it’s a business that simply refused to override the rules that have been in place for a while for this one couple and did offer alternatives, that’s not bad service, that’s going beyond the call of duty.
    The Chrisman’s seem to have decided that dressing and living as Victorians makes them more important than other people, unfortunately the end result seems to be making them come across as obnoxious, which is a pity as they have an opportunity to educate and inform.

  10. 100% This on SO many levels. I’ve had issues with The Chrisman’s since they first popped up. I mean do what you wish with your life, your lucky enough to live somewhere that you can go ahead and do that. But for me the way they approach their lifestyle choice and other people, smacks of attention grabbing and a ‘look at us’ mentality. The moment I saw this most recent issue pop up ( on the GBACG FB ) I both cringed and at the same time exclaimed in my brain ‘what did they think would happen?!’
    They are grown adults, they should honestly know better. Even when I was in my early twenties, which is admittedly a very long time ago, if we went anywhere in costume to do photos or picnic, save a very public park, we always called ahead or looked up to see if costuming would be permitted, or if you had to pay an extra fee/do a waiver bit.
    It boggles my mind that people are defending them and it was honestly angering that it was equated to discrimination, it was insulting to see actually.
    I feel you deeply that the Chrisman’s, if the grew up a bit and took some more grace could have been good ambassadors of living history and education. Sadly that will never be as they would rather bring about spectacle.

  11. I’ve been following this matter also, and can’t understand why the reenactment/re-creation-LARP community is so up in arms. Case in point: one of the very basic rules for attendance at SCA events is ‘an attempt at pre-17th century clothing’. An ‘attempt’ is very, very broadly interpreted. Most events have a loaner wardrobe available. Is this basic rule discriminatory to moderns? No. It is the right of set standards for attendance. If the Chrismans showed up, say, at June Faire, which is held yearly in their neighborhood, they may be looked funny, but they would not be turned away, because it is a demo event, meant for the general public. But if they showed up at a Crown Tourney or Coronation or such (I’ve been to a Coronation at that site), they would be told to put on appropriate clothing. And it is the right of the sponsoring branch to do so.

    If I’m on my way to, or need to run errands from an SCA event, and I’m wearing garb, I am extra careful to be polite, and I’m prepared to be stared at, and I don’t mind. When people ask, I give them a brief explanation of my clothing and why I’m wearing it. If they ask further, I give them my card and invite them to contact me online. I don’t get sniffy at them, and I don’t expect to be treated grandly because I’m wearing 8th c clothing. Same went for when I worked at a museum in Western Washington, and wore Victorian clothing to work. Outside of work, if asked, I’d tell them where I was working, and invite them to come for a tour. Is this so hard?

    Their lifestyle is a *CHOICE*. It is not race or religion. If they are wealthy enough to live like that, whatever. But they really shouldn’t expect kid gloves treatment because of their choice. If they’re getting hostility (something I’ve never gotten), it is likely because of their entitled attitude.

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