A VISIT TO A VICTORIAN DRESS SHOP
If you’ve ever had the eerie feeling that you just found yourself in a place you’d been to before, maybe in a different time, maybe in a different life, I know the person to talk to. Diana Okeson is the proprietor of the Victorian Dress Shop in Pioneer Village. Well, she’s not really – she’s a volunteer. But in her persona as Miss Shilo, she owns the dress shop (purchased with Miss Shilo’s dead husband’s gold mine proceeds).
When Diana first walked onto the grounds of Pioneer Arizona Living History Museum, she says, “It was like, ‘Oh my God.’ It’s incredible. It’s beautiful! When you first walk in here, it makes you feel like you really want to be here. Then I saw the dress shop.”
The dress shop was not open at the time. It was filled with sewing machines and a huge loom. But Diana had a vision of what could be. She found the museum director. “Stephanie was very kind,” Diana says. “She said go ahead and make it look like a dress shop.”
April Phillips, “co-owner” of the Victorian Dress Shop, lives across the street from Diana in their neighborhood about a mile from the museum and also has an abiding love of the past.
April says she is “all about the Civil War. The ‘Gone With the Wind’ era is all me.” Their friendship blossomed over a shared interest in history and fashion. They run back and forth to each other’s house, dressed in their period attire. April laughs about what the neighborhood must think, but it’s obvious they are having too much fun to care.
Diana recounts going to Civil War reenactments when she was in her twenties. “I didn’t participate, but I was dying to. The soldiers would die on the field and their wives would be there because back then they would go and have picnics and watch the battle,” Diana says. “Then they would have ‘Grieving Widow’ contests—who could sob and cry the best. Oh, those women were good! And I so wanted to dress the part.”
Diana and April teamed up to turn the abandoned store into a real dress shop. Now it’s filled with 1890s dresses, porcelain faced dolls in period clothing, bolts of cloth, 1800s sewing machines. It’s a time machine. Step inside and Miss Shilo might offer you a cup of tea.
On a recent Sunday, I have tea with Miss Shilo and Miss April on the porch of the dress shop. We talk about being drawn to a place or a time, of past lives and ghosts. My favorite kind of conversation.
“They say there are ghosts here,” Miss Shilo says. “They say there’s one in the opera house. I would love to see one. And now they know we’re here and if they’d like us to portray them the way they would like they should come over here and tell us.”
During the week, the women are busy with busloads of school children who come to learn about Arizona history. They say the children want to touch their clothes, are fascinated with the dolls and with Miss Shilo and Miss April.
But on the weekends, it’s quiet at Pioneer Village. They have time to sit on the porch and drink tea.
April says, “I heard the volunteers used to cook in the houses. That on Thanksgiving they would actually use the houses to prepare a dinner and they’d all get together. That would be so cool.”
Miss Shilo looks out over the village green, toward the gazebo and the main street with the bank and the sheriff’s office, and she imagines a town filled with people, families having picnics under a tree or Indians lined up on the top of the hill.
We sit, tea cups clinking on saucers, a bird chirps loudly. Our chairs creak as we rock on the wooden porch.
“You know I do think I had a past life,” Miss Shilo says. “I really do think there is such a connection. When I put these clothes on . . . I become someone else.”