Shattering Conventions
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December 2017

Shattering Conventions: The Great Dickens Christmas Fair

by Bob Calhoun

  • Dickens Fair Carolers

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    Carolers at the Dickens Fair.

  • Bob Calhoun Victorian Clothes

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    Bob Calhoun dressed for success.

  • Dickens Fair Chimney Sweep

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    A chimney sweep at the Dickens Fair.

The trousers were more than a little snug, and this was more than a little troubling. Both legs were in, and I was even able to fasten the top button, but a wardrobe malfunction seemed inevitable. One wrong bend or twist and I was going to split that seam. My 21st century, mass-produced underthings would be revealed to the entire Great Dickens Christmas Fair, an immersive recreation of Victorian London where men’s briefs that come in three packs at Costco would definitely be frowned upon. And frowned upon was pretty bad in Victorian times.

The best way to describe the Dickens Fair to the uninitiated is as one of those Halloween haunted houses except for Christmas. Over 800 actors and volunteers transform one of the wings of the Cow Palace on the outskirts of San Francisco into sprawling scenes from Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol.

There are Victorian shops and period floorshows featuring either carolers or cancan dancers depending on what part of town you’re in. With so many performers roaming these recreated London streets, more than half the people you bump into will be in character as chimney sweeps, British royalty or even pickpockets.

This year, Cat Taylor, entertainment director of the Dickens Fair, was kind enough to arrange a costume fitting for me so I could stroll through 1860s London as a true Victorian gentleman.

The cloak and the shirt fit fine. The pants did not.

“He might have to wear the pants he brought with him,” Liz Martin, the award-winning costume director of the Dickens Fair said, looking me over. I did wear some dress slacks to the fair knowing that it’s hard to find clothes to fit my hulking frame, but these modern pants would introduce a dangerous amount of synthetic fibers into the world of the past.

Liesl Seitz Buchbinder, a master seamstress of the Dickens Fair, said she could let out the pants, giving me an inch or maybe even two. I doubted she could pull it off before the media tea in 20 minutes, but she was determined. I felt like I stepped out of a hot tub time machine as I waited around in my Hawaiian shirt, while Cat Taylor and others were clad in elegant dresses shaped by extravagant crinolines.

After several minutes of furious sewing, Seitz Buchbinder was done. The pants fit, and I was off to the Dickens Fair looking respectable for a change. It was only moments later when Taylor led me through the Grand Concourse that I realized I was still utterly unprepared. Everyone in costume was also in character. You usually have to go through at least three workshops before you can work the Dickens Fair, but I skated through on my media credential. I was like an extra without any lines walking through a scene, but this wasn’t a movie. 

I was not ready for my close-up, but my close-up was constant, and all encompassing.

I was now somewhere in time.

Every month in “Shattering Conventions,” author Bob Calhoun crashes a new tradeshow, convention or conference looking for a way to fit ineven when he doesn't always belong. Calhoun is the author of "Shattering Conventions: Commerce, Cosplay and Conflict on the Expo Floor." You can follow him on Twitter at @bob_calhoun.

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