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.
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 archive.org 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.
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.
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.