WHENEVER SARAH ALMA Chrisman goes grocery shopping at Aldrich’s or picks up something at Don’s Pharmacy, she usually gets asked two questions: “Are you wearing a corset?” and “Why?”
The answer to the first question: Yes, under her high-necked, long-sleeved blouse, Sarah is wearing a corset that shrinks her waist to a dainty 22 inches.
Along with a floor-length skirt, it’s what she wears whether she goes shopping, gives massages or sits and sews in the parlor of her Victorian home in uptown Port Townsend.
Does she own any regular clothes?
“These are my regular clothes,” Sarah said.
Sarah, 31, is not Amish or Steampunk or living in a reality television series, but a college graduate who recently moved to Port Townsend with her husband, Gabriel, 33.
Together, the couple take the town’s identity as a Victorian seaport to a new level by dressing and, as much as possible, living the way people did in the 1890s.
“It’s not taking history a la carte,” Sarah says. “It’s trying our best to live in a Victorian way.”
Sarah has been enamored of Victorian life since her mother took her to Astoria, Ore., and they toured a historic home that she didn’t want to leave.
But wearing Victorian outfits was a problem — she didn’t have the right proportions — until she started wearing corsets two years ago.
The first was a 29th birthday present, an off-the-rack underbust style that requires a separate bra, which didn’t exist in Victorian times.
Her second was a custom-made corset that is 22 inches around the waist.
Now, like Victorian women, she doesn’t feel dressed without it.
“It’s about proportion,” Sarah said.
Gabriel, who majored in history at the University of Washington, said he has always been interested in historic clothing, especially from his favorite era, the 19th century.
While Sarah is able to make her Victorian-era clothes because the undergarments give them shape, Gabriel is limited to buying tailored garments.
While he would like to find someone who makes suits in the old style, he owns several authentic suits, including a cutaway coat, suitable for riding or sitting, made in 1888, the same year the house he lives in was built.
Men’s suits of the period are constructed much differently from today’s styles, he said, noting that coats have, in addition to a center seam, two curved seams that match the lines of the back muscles.
The shoulders of the vintage suits are also several inches narrower than current styles because the construction, like women’s corsets, dictated that the wearer stood up straight, shoulders back, arms behind the back.
After toning up his back muscles, Gabriel found that the suits fit properly.
“It was the difference between wearing a costume and putting on a suit,” Sarah said. “He looked like he had stepped out of a hole in time.”
Corsets are mistakenly associated with female submission, Sarah said, but were originally made for knights and cavalry officers to protect the back while on horseback for long periods.
In Victorian times, both young boys and girls wore corsets, she said, which were considered essential to the development of healthy posture.
“They provide incredible support,” Sarah said. “It’s like having a portable chair on all the time.”
The couple is also in the process of restoring the house as time and money allow and plan to furnish it with period furniture.
The parlor is bare except for a stove and two upholstered pieces.
One is a gentleman’s chair with carved wood arms to support holding a pipe in one hand and reading a book or newspaper with the other.
The other chair is a matching lady’s chair, open on one side to allow room for needlework.
The house does have electricity, but the couple use an oil lamp as much as possible and hopes to someday have a working ice box in the kitchen.
One downstairs room, where Sarah will give massages by the light of an oil lamp, has been restored with period wallpaper and tin tiles, reflecting the hygienic movement that brought the modern white bathroom into vogue, Gabriel said.
Work by oil lamp
Sarah, who is originally from Renton, writes books — her latest is Waisted Curves — My Transformation Into a Victorian Lady — and makes hats in addition to being a massage therapist.
Through her business, Gilded Age Massage Experience, she gives chair massages to seniors at the community center, the Food Co-op several times a month and at the Better Living Through Coffee shop Friday afternoons.
Gabriel, who has a master’s degree in library and information science, does archival consulting for school districts, government agencies and private companies in addition to his day job at BI Cycle on Bainbridge Island.
Gabriel took a job on the East Coast for a brief stint, he said, but once the couple decided to stay in the Northwest, moving to Port Townsend was natural.
“We love walking around town,” Gabriel said, mentioning Elevated Ice Cream and Chetzemoka Park as two of their favorite places. “We promenade.”
A connection to the local community is one reason they are drawn to the Victorian lifestyle, Gabriel said.
They also like the personal way business was conducted and the craftsmanship and skill that went into creating furnishings and apparel that were meant to be a personal part of people’s lives.
Women’s clothing, for example, was made to the specifications of the individual, Gabriel said, and a vintage piece not only serves as a record of one’s women’s body, but the way she carried herself and any mishaps, such as accidents or spills.
For Sarah, wearing long skirts and a corset is a way of connecting with the past that goes beyond learning about history. It also piques people’s interest in Victorian life, which is the couple’s mission.
Getting people to think historically and get beyond the stereotypes is both Gabriel’s vocation as an archivist and his avocation as a Victorian gentleman.
“We want people to think about why things were, not just what,” he said.
The Victorian era was also the time when the Industrial Revolution was bringing technology into everyday life, and people had to decide how they were going to relate to it.
An interest in early technology also generated the Steampunk movement, which the couple is not part of, with an overlapping interest in rediscovering the roots of modern life.
Working at a bicycle shop blends with Gabriel’s intellectual interests, he said — the Victorian era saw a boom in bicycle-riding.
“I’m going to learn to ride a high-wheeler,” he said.
Desire for the past
Both Sarah and Gabriel would have liked to have been born in the 1870s, they said, so that they would have been young adults in the 1890s.
While they can’t live in the past, they wish they could at least go back in time for a few days and shop for clothes — in the late 1800s, a corset cost $1.25 and a good man’s suit $100.
The latter was a lot of money, Gabriel said, but it lasted a long time.
The Chrismans give presentations on Victorian clothing and customs.
The next one, on Victorian women’s winter apparel, will be at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 26, at their home.
For directions and more information, visit their website, http://chrisman collection.weebly.com.
The couple have also joined the Victorian Society in America — Northwest chapter and plan to participate in Victorian Heritage Days in Port Townsend March 18-20.
________Jennifer Jackson writes about Port Townsend and Jefferson County every Wednesday. To contact her with items for this column, phone 360-379-5688 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.