By Yorkman Lowe
Maybe it started with Disneyland, but I’ve long been a fan of the culture of the Ragtime Era, 1892-1918. So, when I was told of the West Coast Ragtime Festival, held in Sacramento each Nov, I eagerly went, in 1999. To my extreme astonishment, surprise & delight, it turned out to be not only an exhibition of ragtime music, but a celebration of the entire culture of the era — including the dress, as many of the attendees, particularly those who danced, were attired in 1900-era fashions. I could see and appreciate that these fashions gave the wearers a distinguished, impressive appearance far superior to that afforded by today’s clothes. At a later festival I saw a dumpy-appearing man in black T-shirt and black jeans, and I re-imagined him with a frock coat, silk top hat, wing collar, silk tie, and black wool trousers — and Voila, Theodore Roosevelt! With these clothes, many women become strikingly beautiful, while the styles very effectively hide figure problems. But most impressive — and not evident from either a photo or a single live model — is the overwhelming, striking effect of a ballroom full of both men & women in Edwardian splendor — most of the men sporting cutaways, frock coats, or tailcoats, and many with silk top hats. (See attached photos.) It is as if one had walked onto the RMS Titanic.
(Of course, these were the fashions of the middle and especially the upper classes, not the poor.)
So, starting at the 2000 festival, I dressed the part. I had a charcoal grey cutaway that had been rather miraculously acquired in 1978, several pairs of black and grey wool trousers, as well as a pair of charcoal grey trousers with white pinstripes, black and grey vests, white neckband shirts, hard starched wing collars (thanks to Brooks Bros!), grey gloves, and regal stripe ties. And from that time on, every year, I’ve received unsolicited compliments, usually from women, despite my short stature (5’2″). The lines of these clothes, it seems, give me the appearance of being taller & broad-shouldered — so long as I dont stand beside a much taller man. In 1900 this was the common upper-class executive outfit, but today it is relegated to daytime formal wear in Europe & Japan — eg, the British royal weddings — and an occasional wedding. Although, in 1980 I did see a funeral director in SF so dressed.
This outfit is also very useful for events with a Victorian or Edwardian theme, such as house tours in SF & Alameda and the SF History Days. And, at those events, I’ve received compliments as well.
Not to mention events by the Greater Bay Area Costumers Guild (GBACG) and PEERS (Period Events & Entertainments Re-Creation Society).
Alas, I had a wool top hat that looked well so long as I wasn’t wearing it: it was a little too big and the shape a bit inaccurate and rather uncomplimenting. And prices of silk top hats were prohibitive !
But, as a member of the Victorian Alliance, I had let it be known that I was seeking a top hat, so in Oct 2012, one of their officers told me about a private party sale the next day. Finding the sale site was quite a challenge but in the end I got a good black silk opera hat for $75 — an absolute steal! And a member of GBACG made brushes for me with which to maintain it.
I’m writing this on the Sat before Labor Day. On the Sat before Labor Day 1978, I had dinner with friends at the Mark Hopkins Hotel, SF, dressed in this formal attire, and our group included a petite woman who was wearing a business suit. The two of us passed before a full-length mirror, and my first impression was of 2 little kids dressing up in their parents’ clothes.