Recreating Christmas Caroling Costumes through the Ages: Part I
December 7, 2011
Getting in the Christmas Spirit!
– PART I –
This article is a continuation of Christmas Caroling Through Time: From Fur Capes to Fistfights
If you want to step out of the norm and take on the adventure of caroling, there are three fabulous eras to costume from: ye olde Middle Ages, the classic mid-19th Century, and the rootin’ tootin’ 1950s. Each era has it’s advantages (warmth, thank goodness!) and challenges, but all of them are so much more fun than just parading around in your reindeer sweatpants or a polyester dress that lets Jack Frost into places he shouldn’t go…
Now, that dress is trying really hard to go in the right direction– and with a few tweaks like longer underskirts could actually work– but for the price, you could buy a custom-made costume that’s a tad more appropriate (and reusable for non-Christmas events!).
Most of the costumed carolers you see are dressed up to pay homage to Charles Dickens’ novel A Christmas Carol. In addition, during the 1860s, Christmas carol writing began to pick up steam, meaning a lot of new songs were filling hymnals and sheet music stores. Caroler costumes that mirror this era vary a tad in actual style, ranging in date from the 1840s to the 1860s. Most costumes take cues from all three decades, but the 1860s are particularly well suited for outdoor caroling because large, layered skirts and long sleeves. Don’t like plaid? Red and green make you dizzy? Good news! The mid-19th century saw the creation of new chemical dyes that allowed dresses to be made in a wide range of never-before-seen bright and rich colors! A caroler in blue or yellow? Why not!
An 1850s-1860s Caroler:
Full Dress or full skirt/blouse combo
Petticoats and/or hoops
Hat or bonnet
Cape, wraps, muffs, gloves, etc.
Corset and slip (if desired)
Hoops and Petticoats
Hat or Bonnet
Caroling has a long history, going all the way back to the Anglo-Saxons who would sing songs to the spirits of trees to ensure a good harvest. Today, we sing to songs around trees for a different harvest: Christmas presents! Singing carols while decorating the tree is one of the last remnants of the ancient tradition of Wassailing. You’ve probably sung “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” and demanded figgy pudding, but I bet you’ve never realized you were supposed to be singing it to the richest person you know in your best Medieval peasant get-up, ordering them to present you with delectable adult beverages!
Medieval Wassailing Outfit:
Kirtle (Fitted, Long-sleeved Dress)
Belt or overdress
Wool Stockings or Tights
Flat-soled Leather Shoes
If you want to change-up your caroling routine, a Medieval gown is perfect: no hoop skirt to get in the way, no corsets, and no trouble to piece together!
Flat-soled Leather Shoes
Tips and Tricks:
Corsets cutting into your glooooooooooooooooooooooooooorias? Try a looser corset or some modern shapewear. Many modern patterns for historical gowns take modern underwear into account.
Unless you’re a stickler for details, there’s no reason to freeze for the sake of historical accuracy, so take advantage of modern clothing technology! Who cares if you’re wearing Under Armor beneath your gown? It’s just modern long johns!
Medieval gowns for lower class ladies were pretty simple, but if you want to dress it up, 1980s velvet dresses with long sleeves work great! Layer on wide-sleeved robe and add some funky gold jewelry for more flair, but be warned: If you dress as the rich folk, you might get wassailed by peasants!
Want an overdress/surcoat but are deathly afraid of the prices? Make one yourself! Find a plain, long dress two sizes bigger than your true size then cut the sleeves off from the top of the shoulder down to about your hip in an oval shape. Dab any unraveled seams in fabric glue. Voila! Instant Medieval overdress! Cloaks are equally easy to craft. Do you have a blanket? Great! Drape it around you and pin it in place. Voila! Instant cloak!
If you are too busy to memorize the songs, carry a songbook decorated to match the period of your outfit. Use an antique book to hold your 19th Century carols together or make a parchment-look girdle book for your Medieval costume by gluing strips of fabric to the outside of your booklets!
Coming soon in Part II: Christmas Caroling circa 1950!