Subject: RenFaire Costuming FAQ v.1.1 (regular posting)
From: Gaylene Keene-Bartlett
FAQ - Costuming for Renaissance Faires (v.1.1)
This is *not* an FAQ on historical costuming, please check the FAQs in alt.sewing or rec.craft.textiles, if your questions are in that area. This FAQ is designed to answer questions about how to dress at Renaissance faires step by step starting with the first question of a total newbie. Please feel free to advance to a question that fits your personal needs.
1. I don't have a costume - I want to make one, can you help me?
ANSWER #1: FANTASY COSTUMES
If you want a fantasy costume (elf, wizard, princess), please see alt.sewing or rec.arts.sf.fandom for more information. Not all faires are accepting of fantasy costumes, if this is your choice, I'd sound out the participants at the faire to see if fantasy is ridiculed at the faire you plan to attend.
ANSWER #2: PUTTING TOGETHER SOMETHING SIMPLE WITH WHAT'S ALREADY IN YOUR CLOSET
If your intention is to locate a simple "generic rennish outfit" suitable for passing at most faires, not seeking any amount of authenticity, please note: Errol Flynn shirts over tights with leather belt, hat and sturdy shoes (not tennies, please) will suffice for attendance at most faires. Participants (the performers or workers at faire) will "know" that you are a guest, but most other patrons probably won't. Women can wear the same type of shirt with a flowing skirt, and try to rig up some kind of bodice (unless the faire is set prior to 1400) The bodice looks like a fitted vest that laces up the front. Again, please wear sturdy shoes and at least a straw hat. The shoes and hats are suggested for your health. Also bring water to drink; put it in ceramic mugs, or metal tankards or goblets for that period look.
ANSWER #3: A MORE AUTHENTIC COSTUME
If you're interested in a more authentic costume, start here. If you've already done one step, go on to the next.
STEP 1 - Find out the time period of the faire you plan to attend.
Many Renaissance Faires are set in specific time periods. These periods span many hundred of years - check the advertising for references to a year or monarch that will help you determine the period of time and country for which you need to plan your costume. The staff of the faire itself might be the people to ask. Once you have a year or specific time period, go to the next step.
STEP 2 - Decide on the class of the character you want to represent.
This can be complicated, you could (for instance) do research at the local library to determine an actual person to represent; or it can be as simple as saying, "I think I'll just be a peasant (or farmer, alderman, Mary Queen of Scots, etc.) The word class is a modern definition which basically describes differing economic levels. The three basic levels are: peasant, merchant, and nobility. There was some movement within each class level (a plain butcher eventually becoming an important town official, for example) But there was .00001% movement from class to class, for all intents and purposes if you were born into a particular class, you stayed there. From a faire point of view, peasants don't have to worry about their manners (get drunk on ale, roll around in the dirt) and their costumes are the least expensive to make. The merchant class have better manners (drink beer, don't get drunk, sit on something, don't roll in the dirt) and their clothing is nearly as expensive as the upper class - but usually cooler to wear. The nobility has restrained movement (due mostly to the weight of the costumes) and manners (drink wine politely, sit on chairs) and the cost of their clothing can be sky-high: of course, it's the most beautiful clothing, so make your choice.
STEP 3 - Discover the kind of clothing worn by your class of character during the time period of your faire.
Again, this can be a complicated or simple step depending on the amount of research you are willing to do. Most faires should be willing to give you the names of reference books or even copies of patterns to help you. History of costume books usually concentrate on the fashions of the nobility for a certain time period. If you wish to be a merchant or peasant, look at the clothing of the nobles 50 to 100 years before the time of the faire. It usually took that long for the fashionable look to filter down to the lower classes. (BTW when I refer to merchant class, I am speaking to the center of that class - "*not* the great merchant families - whose clothing inspired the sumptuary laws in the first place) (MAJOR HINT - Anyone with money looked like it - today if someone has money you can usually tell by looking at their car - people used to look at clothing)
STEP 4 ab&c - General information on the class you might pick.
STEP 5 - What accessories would you recommend?
- Step 4a1 - Peasants (reality)
The medival or renaissance peasant was dirt poor, had little or no cash income, lived at a basic subsistance level using barter to obtain the few items he was unable to produce on his own. (A wealthy peasant is a contradiction in terms, please find another character to be) A peasant's clothes were worn until they *had* to be replaced. One piece of clothing was frequently *cut down* (a shirt made from an old skirt, for example) to make another. Patches were used where needed. The cloth was usually hand spun, but not woven at home. The peasant would take his own spun wool/flax to a local weaver and bring home finished cloth for his wife to turn into clothing for the entire family. She sewed the clothes using bone needles or *very* dull iron needles (expensive) and a awl (also expensive). Any designs on the fabric had to be done by hand (embroidered or embroidered and applicqued). PRINTED FABRICS DIDN'T EXIST (disclaimer will follow end of section for those interested) until after the industrial revolution. Designs painted on fabric became popular for the upper classes after the English Civil War (the last one that occurred in the mid 1650's) Leather was a common choice for outer garments because it was a by-product of food production. Cotton was imported and expensive. Knitting for clothing was just coming into vogue. Caps and stockings were the most commonly knitted items. The dyes available to peasants were natural, mainly yellow, rust red, blues, grays and brown. Black, bright red, and purple were very expensive.
- Step 4a2 - Peasants (for faires) If it LOOKS like it fits into the above image, use it. Rough open weaves look more handmade to the modern eye. Cotton is cheaper than linen or leather - call it flax if anybody asks you. Make certain that a stripe or plaid is the same on both sides. Please avoid knits or non-natural fibers (the natural fiber has a different glint in sunlight than the non-natural one, it will breathe better and be more comfortable on a very hot day - and warmer on a very cold day) Get leather if you can afford it, but only on outer garments. Leather had too many other uses (it was the "plastic" of its time) to be used for shirts, skirts or trows (pants) - the normal peasant didn't own that many cows. Avoid "bright" or pastel colors; they don't read as natural. Tea or coffee can be used as a dye to darken an unacceptable color and make it read correctly.
- Step 4b1 - Merchant Class (reality)
The merchant class lived mostly in villages or towns, farmed small plots and kept small animals for food. They had small cash incomes and could afford some of the less expensive luxury items. This doesn't refer to the great merchants - but they were few and far between, and usually stayed in the great cities. The village merchant usually could afford to send their children to school (boys went to grammar schools and girls went to dame schools), particularly after the Protestant reformation (1540 or so). Shakespeare was the son of a merchant (a butcher) and only went to grammar school. Their clothes were more substantial and followed the trends of the nobility as closely as their incomes would permit. "Sumptuary taxes" (Luxury taxes in modern parlance) on *very* expensive items, as well as certain laws, prohibited the merchant class from dressing the same as the nobility. The taxes and restrictions vary from country to country. For everyday dress, a merchant would most likely be dressed to perform his job. (i.e. a butcher would have a large leather apron - a miller would have thick gloves - a blacksmith a huge hammer). There were provisions in the laws of most countries that people who engaged in certain employment or special groups of people *had* to dress in a certain fashion (for example, Jews and doctors were restricted to particular types of headgear in most countries) The wives of merchants had more freedom than most other women of these times. They could usually read and write, they had authority over all apprentices and servants in their household, some learned their husbands' trade in order to work by his side. There are records in England that many a widow of a merchant ran her late husband's business; some widows were even accepted into the late husband's guild. Because of this the wife of a merchant had more freedom to dress in a fashionable style of clothing. An extremely successful merchant might have a "good" outfit to be worn at special ocassions. The most successful merchants *might* have become town alderman (English term) and might have entered into the local governing of their town or even parliament (or its continental equivalent) But the restrictions on jewels, metallic trims, certain fabrics or colors were universal on the garments of the merchant class throughout Europe. (The restricted colors and fabrics changed from country to country; research would be necessary to determine what was allowed where and when.) By the end of the renaissance, after the protestant reformation, the color of garments also proclaimed the religious reference of the wearer. Natural subdued tones were used by the Protestants. By the time of Charles I (of England) black was the color of choice for protestants because one, it showed their religious preference and two, it was expensive and displayed that their God had favored their choice of religion with fiscal blessings. The "great" merchants generally paid the fines involved and wore what the nobility did, where the law didn't outlaw it altogether. Jewels and jewelry would be used in limited amounts, after all, if the nobility knew you had it, they would tax it. If you had coin enough for jewelry you would have it melted down and made into spoons or plate - usable until you needed to melt it back into currency. That's why silver and gold smiths were so important, they were the bankers of their time. Even the nobility did this.
- Step 4b2 - Merchant class (for faires)
It would be difficult to determine what any individual faire would accept as merchant class, but generally they "ought" to accept basic noble patterns with fabric changes. Again, a cotton weave could be substituted for a linen or wool - observing the same qualifications against non-natural fabics as were outlined for the peasants. A heavier "look" would be appropriate as the merchant class could afford professionally made fabric from professionally spun fibers. (not the rough homespun fibers of the peasants) intricate weaves would be appropriate also (corduroy, twill, tweeds etc.) There was a possibility that a tailor would have made the garments. Trimmings and ribbons would have to be appropriate to the income level of the character. Anyone with pretensions would avoid looking like a peasant, which means that every garment would be decorated with at least ruching (strips of cloth gathered and then sewn on), or strips of cloth sewn on as ribbons. If you have time, embroidered or beribboned trim would be appropriate. Avoid the color co-ordinated look unless you can justify your character having the money to afford it. And please avoid color co-ordinating with someone else in your group. (A couple in matching outfits, no matter how well made, screams modern interpretation). Apprentices were well known for trying to dress above their station. As a general rule, most faires don't object to merchants wearing jewelry especially if the jewelry worn is available for purchase on the faire site - free advertising. Avoid attaching jewels directly on your garments - avoid all gems except in their natural state, or rounded and smooth. Some gems and metals that are common and cheap today were rare in Renaissance Europe (amethyst and aluminum, for example).
- Step 4c1 - Nobility (reality)
During the renaissance period, clothes *were* the man (or woman). A poor nobleman would leave all of his debts unpaid, rather then run the risk of being dressed poorly (particularly if he had access to the court). If a nobleman were too poor to afford jewels on his clothing, he bought false jewels and used those. Appearance was *everything* (Queen Elizabeth I's records indicate that *she* paid a penny each for false pearls). The nobility's appearance was calculated to strike awe into the hearts of the common people and to emphasise their superiority over the masses. Items subject to sumptuary taxes were the items of choice for clothing for nobility. (The items taxed changed from country to country depending on local availability; generally, imported luxury items were heavily taxed). In many cases, the nobility didn't have to pay the sumptuary taxes, they were exempted. The bigger, fancier the outfit, the bigger, fancier the sword, the more money it cost, the more important it was to the noble to wear. (Again, equate the clothes with today's attitude towards cars. A nobleman wore his Ferrari on his back (many a nobleman's sleeve represented an entire year's income for 10 to 20 villages.)
- Step 4c2 - Nobility (faire)
The most difficult part of dressing noble is (a) affording the fabric and trim and (b) finding ways of looking period, without dying of the heat. Most European court dress was designed to provide warmth, because the buildings didn't. If you plan on dressing in noble garb - please check with the "court" of the faire you plan to attend. For theatrical reasons, the faire might wish you to avoid many colors or styles. This even has historical precedent - Queen Elizabeth I forced her ladies-in-waiting to wear silver and white so that QEI would look more fantastic in comparision. Nearly all costume books concentrate on the look of the nobility. Generally, the more trim the better, but that depends greatly on the time period of the faire. Cotton velveteen is cheaper than silk velvet. Pin wale corduroy gives the appearance of velvet from a distance, but not close up. *Very* thin (transparent) materials were available to be used as veils. Many period garments used cheaper fabric underneath, and expensive material where it could be seen, so do the same thing. Older garments were frequently taken apart and the fabric re-used whenever possible. Gold and silver trims frequently made many appearances on different outfits. Generally leather was reserved for outdoor garments. Complete outfits of leather (for men) were usually hunting outfits, great idea for an outdoor faire, but remember that leather was also available to the peasants and merchants, so if leather were worn by the upper classes it was slashed (to show the expensive fabric underneath), decorated, or ornamented to diguise the fact that it was leather. It's also frequently worth going to look at drapery/interior design fabric - it's usually heavier, and more likely to have appropriate patterns (especially for nobility) Don't get the rubberized kind, though. A cotton batiste is usually light and fine enough to pass for good linen. Remember that using lots of different fabric was another way of showing how rich you were. Disclaimer on printed and painted fabrics - these were available from the orient - usually silk - woodblock printing - painting also on silk - limited to the upper reaches of society and also limited to certain areas at certain times. The Turks and Portugese controlled the silk trade at various times during the renaissance - making it unavailable for the lower orders - embroidery is by far the most common form of decorated fabric during this 1000 year period, to the extent that some European museums don't even *have* examples of printed or painted fabric from this period in their collections.
- BELTS - leather w/plain simple buckles - unless you are upper
class - then you will have to research the proper belt for your
costume and period. Tandy leather sells good strong, long belts
and simple buckles for under $15.00. You will use your belt to
hang your other accessories around your waist.
- POUCHES - also called purses. Common in the lower orders. The
nobility had pages, squires or servants who followed tham around
and carried the money. When a noble wanted something, the item
was either delivered to the noble's abode, at which time the
merchant was paid, or the noble told his/her servant to pay the
merchant for the item. Hence, most nobles didn't bother carrying
money or keys, their servants did it for them. However, the lower
classes who needed to carry things around with them often put
them into pouches and hung them from their belts. Pouches could
be made from leather or cloth. (they are ideal for hiding modern
necessities from the prying eyes of the public) In England, the
pouch was generally called a pocket. During the early Tudor
period sailors discovered that pockets hanging from their belts
could be dangerous when climbing the rigging, so they had their
"pockets" sewn into their clothing. WARNING: cut-purses
(the pickpockets of their day) are still to be found at faires.
Keep your pouches close to your belt. Women eventually carried a
pouch under their upper skirt and had a slit put into the upper
skirt so that they could reach it - this and the ideas of the
sailors eventually led to internal pockets on clothing.
- KEYS were a symbol of power - and they were carried proudly.
Usually hung on a ring and then hung from the belt - The key
meant that the wearer was trusted by their masters (so the upper
class did not wear them, unless they were the servant to a
superior ranked person) Many a merchant's wife was trusted with
the keys to the strongbox and she would have declared this trust
by wearing the keys visibly. The "skeleton" key, the
ones with a hole at the end are the most authentic, they had
holes in the tip because of the way locks were made during the
- HATS - Keep your head covered - In England, there was a law
(though it was rarely enforced) that on Sundays everyone had to
wear a wool hat to encourage growth in the wool trade. Generally,
people were in the habit of keeping their heads covered; it was
thought to be healthy to keep the head warm. It was also
considered unseemly for a woman to have an uncovered head.
Braided hair could hang out from under a cap, but it never hung
loose, and most mature and respectable women wore theirs up.
- KNIVES - Most people carried a knife of some sort, both for
defense and for eating. There are any number of merchants at
faires that sell knives that are appropriate to the period. Make
sure it can hang from a belt and be peace-bonded.
- DRINKING VESSELS - During the entire renaissance milleniu
drinking and eating vessels were shared by people of all ranks.
Only the highest of the high (the king and perhaps the queen) had
separate vessels. In fact, drinking vessels of the period were
often made with two or three handles to facilitate use by the
entire group. The wooden plate of the day - a trencher - was a
flat piece of wood with a large piece of bread placed on it to
catch the juices and was shared by trenchermates. Because of
modern knowledge about disease, separate drinking and eating
vessels for each person are encouraged. Pottery would have been
the most common material, followed by wood, then leather and then
metal. If you can find a leather or wooden mug, they're by far
the best choice. Pottery tends to break easily, and metal gets
really hot or cold. A deep wooden bowl with a handle can serve as
both a drinking and eating vessel. All of these items could be
found at SCA events, faires, thrift stores or Pier One Import
Stores, look around.
- A SCARF - or an apron-like piece of cloth just hung over the
belt. Make sure it follows the costuming guildlines. (No cowboy
bandanas, please) Use it for wiping your face, or cleaning your
eating and drinking vessels. Very practical, looks period.
- A PRAYERBOOK or BIBLE - Any book can be covered with leather and
called a bible or a prayerbook - that is if you feel the need to
bring a book to faire.
- ROSARIES - If your faire takes place in a catholic country, or if
you play a catholic character you would definitely have a rosary.
If you are in a protestant country, chances are you would have a
cross. A catholic character in a protestant country would likely
have a rosary, but keep it hidden. The protestant reformation
started in the early 1500's (1517 to be exact) and was most
heavily felt in the northern parts of Europe particularly, many
German States, the low countries, northern France, Scotland and
- CLOAKS - the lower classes oftern wore cloaks or capes that were
really nothing more than a blanket-shaped piece of material
pinned at one shoulder, leaving one side open and the other side
of the body completely covered. This was less common in the later
renaissance, but during the earlier periods (600 - 1100) even the
nobility wore this type of cloak. The pin reflected the class of
the wearer, the lowest class tied it closed.
STEP 6 - Finding information about the costume you want to make.
Short answer - SCA - Library - College costuming classes. For more information read the sections below:
A good source for costuming information is the SCA, Society for
Creative Anachronism. The avowed purpose of the SCA is the study
and recreation of "the parts of the European Middle Ages
that appeal to us" -- its crafts, sciences, arts,
traditions, literature, etc. (leaving out such things as plagues
and religious persecutions...) The SCA "period" is
defined to be 600 AD to 1600 AD, concentrating on the Western
European High Middle Ages. Some members extend the period from
450 AD to about 1650 AD. Most members of the SCA make and wear
period costumes. Furthermore, most Kingdoms have active costumers
guilds. The SCA also hosts collegia (classes) on all aspects of
the historical period, including costume. You can find SCA
members in the newsgroup rec.org.sca. If you post there, be sure
to mention your city and state so that those who respond can
suggest local SCA groups and sources. If you wish to contact the
SCA national headquarters you can write to: The Society for
Creative Anachronism, Inc. Office of the Registry P.O. Box 360743
Milpitas, CA 95036-0743 Publications of the Society from the
national office include "The Known World Handbook" and
"The Complete Anachronist". The Handbook is a general
information book about all aspects of the Society's activities.
It has a few sections on costume, and has some patterns drawn on
a graph paper grid that can be enlarged. The Anachronist is a
series of pamphlets on a single subject each. The national
newsletter, Tournaments Illuminated, has occasional articles on
specific aspects of costume. Note: The third edition of The
Knowne Worlde Handboke is available as of January 1994 for $15.
Membership in the SCA includes a subscription to Tournaments
Illuminated. There are two documents that make a good
introduction to the SCA in general: "Come on in -- the
water's fine" (by Hal Ravn ) and "Life in the Current
Middle Ages." (by Arval Benicour )
- Mail lists via internet:
HISTORIC COSTUME MAILING LIST Contact: send a message to
firstname.lastname@example.org with 'subscribe h-costume your-first-name
your-last-name' in the body. Purpose: This list concentrates on
recreating period clothing, from the Bronze age to the mid-20th
Century. Its emphasis is on accurate historical reproduction of
clothing, historical techniques for garment construction, and the
application of those techniques in modern clothing design. Other
topics appropriate for discussion include adapting historical
clothing for the modern figure, clothing evolution, t heatrical
costumes, patterns, materials, books, and sources for supplies.
COSTUMERS GUILD Greater Bay Area Costumers Guild ("Dreamers
of Decadence") 5214-F Diamond Heights, Suite 320 San
Francisco, CA 94131 415/974-9333 (VoiceMail) Membership: $20/year
(includes ICG membership) Subscription to monthly newsletter:
$10/year Helpful people - full of information
STEP 7 - Where can I find sources of historical costuming patterns and supplies, or books that would help me?
Look in the Suppliers-FAQ listed separately. Compiled by Gaylene Keene-Bartlett who is responsible for its content, and who got help and comments from many people including Lara Allen and her FAQ for the rec.crafts.textile.* newsgroups, Anneli, Rose, Georgia, Judy and last, but not least, Cat Okita. write to email@example.com with comments, additions or corrections
İİİİİİİİİİ Copyright 1995 Gaylene Keene-Bartlett İİİİİİİİİİİ