Living In The Past In Quebec City

By Judith Fein,

Every time I visit a historic town and see visitors dressing up in period costumes to have their pictures taken, I run as fast as I can in the opposite direction. Call it a character defect, but I loathe dressing up as someone else. When Halloween comes around, I pretend not to have received email party invitations because they involve the “c” word—costumes.



I was pretty confident when I received an invitation to Fêtes de la Nouvelle France (New France Festival) in Quebec City that I could stand on the sidelines and be an observer.  I had heard the festival was a huge party with brains: folks in Quebec City celebrate their French heritage, which goes back to the time when Champlain settled the city and France ruled the St. Lawrence region (1608-1759). Many locals are extremely knowledgeable about and proud of their heritage, and they dress, act and speak with remarkable historical accuracy. For visitors, it’s a total kick to encounter noblemen and women, petty criminals, wags and wenches, dolts and dandies, clergy and cooks—all in period clothes. I relished the opportunity to learn, snap photos, and participate in the raucous revelry.

And then I found out that I was expected to be in costume! A form appeared in my inbox: I had to measure parts of myself and mail back the stats. I couldn’t do it. I had such resistance to dressing up, that I couldn’t figure out exactly where my hips were (I mean, of course I could find them on my body, but I couldn’t decide whether to measure the top, middle or bottom), and the same went for waist, legs, bust, and, most probably my brain. With great reluctance, I sent back my measurements with a note informing my hosts that they didn’t really need to bother with dressing me. I could happily attend the festival in my own clothes.

But that was not to be. Once in Quebec, I was whisked away to meet a dresser, who proudly held up the green-tinged costume of a noblewoman, and told me to put it on. I did as instructed, and then refused to come out of the dressing room. I huddled in a corner, hoping she would forget about me. I peeked through the curtain at the other folks having their fittings. They all reveled in dressing up.

French, Indian, English, Photo Credit Paul Ross

French, Indian, English, Photo Credit
Paul Ross

The costume was speedily altered and delivered to my hotel room. I hung it in the closet, avoiding it every time I went to fetch a pair of shoes, hat or pants. And then, it was time for the opening street parade of the festival, and I couldn’t avoid it any longer. I retrieved the garb from the closet, stepped into it, and bade my husband to lace up my bodice from behind. I grabbed the little lacey purse-thing the dresser gave me, and stumbled out of the room, tripping over the hem like a noble klutz.

When I arrived in the hotel lobby, a harried tourist asked me a question about where to find a restaurant, and… my utter surprise, I answered him in French. Not only did I speak French, but I spoke l7th century French, including the accent. I could understand speaking in French, because I am bilingual, but not French from the Champlain era.

I cannot tell you what happened next, because it’s all a blur of costume memory, but I adopted the gestures of a noblewoman, nodding and clicking my tongue and smiling demurely. Pretty soon the transformation was complete. I became that high-born lady, with a tinge of naughtiness. Instead of tripping, I walked trippingly. And, until the end of the festival, I never dropped my character for a moment. I strode, dined, interacted as though I were she. And she were I.  We were one and the same.

People photographed me in the street. They asked me for directions. Other costumed participants from Quebec waved and smiled, as though I were one of them. And, in truth, I was. When I doffed my costume at the end of the festival, I left the noblewoman behind. I actually thanked her, and then resumed being me.

I am not sure that I would ever get costumed again, or have another transformative role-playing moment, but now I understand a little better why people dress up and act like other characters. It’s liberating. It’s surprising. It’s expansive. It’s creative. And yes, mes amis, bon voyage because it’s great fun.

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