If you see a woman in period clothing walking around an event in the Alberni Valley, chances are she is with the Centennial Belles.
The Belles began in 2012 for Port Alberni’s centennial; historian Meg Scoffield approached Tricia Knight to put something together to celebrate. Knight recalled at Niagara-on-the-Lake there were people dressed up in period costume, and suggested that would be a good idea for Port Alberni.
An information meeting attracted 46 people interested in helping out. “I was telling everyone if you want to participate, with a long, black skirt and a high-necked blouse you’re probably ready to go. Everyone showed up in long black skirts,” she said.
“There was a lot of enthusiasm. We did 57 events that year. We were in four parades, we did four full fashion shows. We were kept very busy.”
At the end of the centennial, those who didn’t want to be involved beyond the year went their own way, but a core of about 12 people remained. The group has grown from simple black skirts and hats to having costumes covering the last century and a half.
Knight continues to run the Belles along with Linda Phillips and the core group, and they put on at least one local fashion show a year and many other events such as Red Hat Society showings, Rollin Art Centre fundraising events, and even a 1950s show at McLean Mill in honour of the Franklin River anniversary last year.
Knight is well-suited to running the Belles: “I have a passion for the past,” she said.
Her background is in theatre, and she took courses on Victorian and Edwardian fashion. “It’s very difficult to get into theatre without getting interested in fashion. When you’re directing a Victorian show, you have to know how they moved, what restricted them, etc.”
Armed with her theatre knowledge, love for genealogy and a teaching background, Knight ensures the Centennial Belles’ fashion shows educate people about the fashions too. Last year they hosted a fashion show with wedding dresses that included a slide show featuring the original brides in the dresses on their wedding days, models on the runway in the dresses—and in some cases, the brides were also in attendance.
Her favourite era is Edwardian—known as La Belle Époque, or Beautiful Era— stretching from 1871 to 1914. “I used to hate the 1920s but since Downtown Abbey and we did the ‘20s fashion show last year, I would say I like that era.”
The Belles continue to put on their own fashion shows, but they have also been invited to other communities.
In 2013 Holland America hired them to go to Victoria and meet the Westerdam cruise ship, where they greeted people on the dock in period clothing “in a 90-kilometre-an-hour gale,” Knight said.
They then went on board and changed into Titanic-era evening wear and paraded down the Westerdam’s winding staircase.
“We got some really good responses. It was really well received,” said Knight.
The same year they were also invited to help Port Coquitlam celebrate its centennial. “We made a whole fashion show of 1913 tea dresses and suits.”
While in Port Coquitlam six members of the Belles did a lot of thrift store shopping, picking up outfits to be modified and vintage fabrics.
They look for old drapery fabric because they need the heavy fabric for some of the older outfits.
All the costumes from 1912–14 have been handmade using examples, photographs or patterns of outfits.
“We take great care to replicate them properly,” Knight said.
“We’ve been fortunate in having some wonderful donations. The last show we had some gorgeous wedding dresses donated.”
When they were in Parksville last year a woman approached Knight with a dress bag and handed her an authentic 1920s hand-beaded dress from Paris. “She said ‘I’ve got this dress.’ She had it hanging in her closet for 50 years.”
Another benefactor has donated a 1920s cape worn by a prima ballerina from the New York and Bolshoi ballet companies.
“There’s a lot of provenance with that one. It’s going to be restored and used.”
The hand-beaded dress will likely appear in one fashion show then will be displayed somewhere; the fabric is delicate, and it’s difficult to find models who can fit into outfits from a century ago because women were different sizes and shapes back then, Knight explained.
In September 2014, Knight moved the Centennial Belles’ workshop to the Alberni Valley Youth Centre on Cedarwood Street, where they have taken over an entire classroom and storage room and are contemplating asking for more space.
Prior to that, the Belles’ collection was housed in Knight’s and Phillips’ homes.
“My storage room and my den and every closet in my house (were full),” Knight said. “After the last show I said we can’t keep doing this.”
The workshop has given the Belles the opportunity to spread out a bit, keep a display of their accessories (purses, bags, hats, wigs, etc.) and store their costumes by show. They also have ample space to set up sewing stations to create costumes.
“We now have 150 years of costuming. We don’t know where we’re going to go from here,” Knight said.
The Fashion Fabulous show on April 11 will feature 100 years worth of gowns and costumes from 1820 to 1920. “There will be some demonstrations of dressing (a model) on the runway,” Knight said. “They’ll start off in bloomers and everybody will see what goes over it all.”
Two shows are planned at Echo Centre for 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Banquet seating will allow everyone a chance to see the runway. Edwardian-era refreshments prepared by members of the Beta Sigma Phi Sorority Preceptor Xi Chapter will be served on tea trolleys by the Sunshine Boys.
Tickets are $20 in advance and available at Rollin Arts Centre, Capelli Hair Design and Boutique Belles Amies. The show sold out quickly last year, Knight said.
Partial proceeds from Fashion Fabulous will go to the ADSS Breakfast Club and to the elementary schools Read and Feed program.
The fashion show will include a teaser for the Belles’ next venture, a Jane Austen Festival July 3–4 in the Rotary Arts District. Knight will use one of the costumes to demonstrate how people can find an outfit in a thrift store and modify it so it will be suitable for the festival.
Knight will also have a Jane Austen dress pattern uploaded to the Belles’ website, www.centennialbelles.ca following the April 11 fashion show.
One of the Belles’ goals with the festival is to challenge a Guinness Book of World Records’ record for the most people dressed in regency costume in one gathering.
“Louisville, Kentucky broke the Guinness Book of World Records’ record with 409 people,” Knight said.
Another group in Bath, England, recorded 550 but it has yet to be verified, she said. The Belles aim to beat this number in the summer. More details will be released as the festival draws closer.
For more information on the Belles or their Jane Austen Festival, please go online to www.centennialbelles.ca.