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Oamaru’s Victorian Heritage Celebrations were on recently, a yearly time-travelling festival of top-hattery culminating in a parade and fete. Even though I’ve been living here for two years, it was my first time.
The ladies at the Victorian Wardrobe fitted me for a costume, because unlike many Oamaruvians, I didn’t possess my own. These women are national treasures, why they don’t all have New Year’s honours is a mystery. They always look a little disappointed at your civvies, but fair dos; when you’re dressed up Victorian style ... you’re just more dressed. Covered neck to ankle, the sexiest parts of you are your toes and face, all else is imaginary. Men become courtlier and walk on the road side of the footpath in case of run-away carriages. You stand up straighter, feel daintier and less able to vote or keep your children should you divorce.
The Victorian Wardrobe was flat out. They would end up doing 54% more business than last year thanks to the padlock at our border and New Zealanders deciding to do something new.Saturday dawned bright and sunny and the temperature steadily grew to a bajillion degrees - no wonder women fainted so much back in the day. I weighed a tonne. Gloves, petticoats, a hat, velvet skirt and jacket, not to mention my enormous bustle. You couldn’t just slip it off either. Buttons, hooks, bows and ties: virtue well and truly protected, I felt like a ready-to-split saveloy, swagged like an ’80s window. Mad respect to Victorian villains, and anyone prepared to carry off a load this heavy.
Speaking of a bustle in your hedgerow, everywhere I looked bustles bounced, swayed and jutted. The Victorians liked big butts and they could not lie (down). I was killing it though, until I needed to pee. There was just such a lot going on, a considerable amount of delving involved ... later, someone told me you were supposed to flip skirt and petticoats up over your head but this wasn’t ideal as I then became trapped in acres of flounce and couldn’t see what I was doing, like a woman stuck in a collapsing tent at night.
It was amazing how little had changed. In Victorian times, just like today, bikes were super popular. There was pandemic, too, and a Queen but a lot more syphilis. Graeme from the Oamaru Ordinary Cycle Club was keen to get me on a Penny-farthing, but my skirt was a death trap so I decided not to emancipate myself for fear of falling from a great height. We sat and sipped beer outside the Criterion instead while a steady flow of humans - parasole’d and moustachioed - strolled past. Men tipped invisible hats, ladies curtsied. Red coat soldiers, explorers in pith helmets, Morris dancers, spectators in shorts, jandals and dream catcher tattoos; all of us gathering to celebrate small-town daftness and community joy, the lovely bubble of us all in it together.
The heat had became too much by 2pm, so we headed home to rest and shed layers of tweed and velvet. I put shorts on and let my hair down and after a day of propriety felt like an absolute slattern.
Heading out again at 10pm to the Servants’ Shindig, the night still very warm, I slap slap slapped down the hill in slippers because my tootsies had had it. We sat outside the Scottish Hall in our Victorian gear eating bangers and mash, and, having missed the early evening imbibing, temporarily found ourselves to be the soberest, most upstanding members of society, a rare treat indeed.