Editorial: Couple in Victorian clothes a distracting note at Butchart Gardens

It might seem Butchart Gardens was being unduly restrictive by refusing admittance to a Washington state couple wearing Victorian attire. After all, there’s a strong heritage component to the gardens, and why not dress Victorian for Victoria?

But the management of the gardens was within its rights to turn away Sarah and Gabriel Chrisman, a Port Townsend couple who are committed to a Victorian-era lifestyle. Although the Chrismans said they were not wearing costumes, just their everyday attire, they could easily have caused confusion for visitors to the gardens.

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The Chrismans live a fascinating life. They have immersed themselves in late 19th-century culture, including living in a house built in 1888-89 that includes a wood-burning stove and an icebox.

“We are not actors playing dress-up to portray ‘great men/women,’ but just ordinary people choosing to insert as much of history into our present as we can, and using our experiences to teach others,” says their website. “Sarah wears a corset 24-7, 365 days a year. All of Gabriel’s current glasses date from the 19th century, from his 1850s green sunglasses, to his everyday gold-rimmed spectacles, to his pince-nez for reading. We don’t have cellphones or watch television; Sarah doesn’t even have a driver’s licence. This is who we are.”

Sarah is a writer who focuses on the Victorian era, and they run a historical consulting service, assisting with books and movies, and offering research into 19th-century life.

They have garnered considerable attention, including newspaper interviews and TV appearances. They have, in effect, become an attraction wherever they go.

So it’s understandable that their appearance at Butchart Gardens would make management nervous. Other visitors might assume the Chrismans were part of the experience. They could be besieged with requests to have photos taken; they could draw attention away from the splendours of Butchart Gardens.

Butchart is meticulous about its atmosphere. There’s hardly a leaf or petal out of place. That takes a lot of effort, planning and maintenance. Two people in period dress, whatever era they are trying to represent, would not fit.

“For the enjoyment and safety of all visitors, and to preserve our tranquil atmosphere, the Butchart Gardens joins many international attractions in not permitting costumes or masks to be worn onsite,” says a statement from the gardens. “This includes persons wearing period style or historical dress, as they could be mistaken for entertainers or interpreters hired by the gardens.”

Butchart says that as a compromise, staff told the couple they could come in if Sarah removed her hat. When they declined, Butchart refunded their bus, admission and meal costs, and paid for a cab back to Victoria.

Dress codes for theme parks and other attractions are not unusual. While Disney parks allow people in costumes, they place restrictions on what is worn, and adults dressed as characters are not allowed to pose for photos or give autographs. Attractions including Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, Virginia, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Texas, do not permit costumes.

Even Hulk Hogan, not exactly the epitome of sartorial correctness, has a customer dress code for Hogan’s Beach, his Florida restaurant: No plain white T-shirts, no sports jerseys or sleeveless tops, no low-hanging pants, no gym wear of any kind and so forth.

The Chrismans were not dressed offensively — quite the contrary — but their attire was a legitimate concern for Butchart Gardens.

The couple should be invited back to Victoria, though — many people would like to meet them and ask about their experiences and research. And they would not be out of place strolling around the heritage buildings in downtown Victoria.

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