An Introduction to Renaissance Faires

Those romantic days of yore still live at renaissance faires all over the world. Always spelled with an ‘e’ at the end, and usually referred to as “faire” rather than “the faire” by regulars, faire is a way to step out of the stress and madness of the modern world and relax for a day or two per week in a different sort of madness.

As a patron of the Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire (PARF or PA Renfaire) since 1995, and a cast member from 1999 to 2001, I have enjoyed the sights and sounds of yesteryear. I’m drawn to the joy of play.

The Renaissance in Europe spans the years from the 1400’s to the 1600’s. Though some faires have King Henry VIII or even King Richard II, most renaissance faires use the Elizabethan period of the late 1500’s and the shire folk bow to Queen Bess.

Pirates, gypsies, peasants and nobles populate the grounds and most faires encourage patrons to dress up by offering a discount for coming in costume. Though you may see a stray Victorian dress, Viking, or even Batman in one instance at PA Renfaire, most patrons wear the skirts, bodices and doublets of the period.

Speech is kept to period using “thees” and “thous”, “lords” and “ladies”, and colloquialisms of today’s world are rarely heard by cast or regulars. Restrooms are “privys”, and if you ask a costumed character where one is, you may find yourself leading a “privy parade” complete with a herald of your intentions. If a cast member slips and says the dreaded “OK”, they are keelhauled at that night’s cast meeting.

The types of food available vary from faire to faire, but staples of any faire include Steak-on-a-stake and smoked turkey legs, usually of gargantuan size. Dragons wings (chicken or turkey wings), potatoes in various forms, funnel cakes, or Peasant Bread, fresh fruit and chocolates are other things found at many faires. A new favorite at PA Renfaire is the German “Frankenfooter”, a super-sized hotdog that can easily feed 3 people for less than $7. Food at faires is not usually that reasonably priced.

Most faires in the US are held from late spring to early fall, and even moderate temperatures can soar if one is wearing period clothing. Those bota bags and mugs that many actors carry aren’t just for show. One thing learned early at rehearsals is that “water keeps you vertical”. You can quickly dehydrate in even mild temperatures when you’re doing a lot of walking and talking. I see many patrons being rushed to First Aid due to dehydration early in the day because they forgot to drink water.

Most new fairegoers are amazed at the myriad of goods available. Some are just props, like plastic swords and thin bodices, but others are good quality merchandise. Some faires have a forge where weaponry is made on the grounds. I advise new people to look at things at every stand before they buy. Of course, something that is more accurate to the period is going to cost more, but if you intend to come back again and again, you may want to invest in quality items that will last. I bought two bodices so far. One cost me $20 and is now showing wear even though I’ve only worn and washed it only a few times. The other cost $35 and I wore it a whole season on cast where I was rolling in the joust field every weekend for 3 months and washed it every weekend. It still looks decent.

As mentioned previously, there is a wide variety of modes of dress for the new fairegoer. Most of those new to faire opt for a simple skirt or pants and shirt. As they come back each time, they add something new to their garb. (Sidenote: It’s not called a “costume”, it is “garb”. This is real clothing, not a costume.) Between buying and sewing, I’ve added enough pieces that I now have enough garb to outfit 3 or 4 people besides myself.

For basic garb, you need a long skirt or loose braes (breeks, or trousers), a shirt with laces, or an elasticized top for women, and sturdy brown or black shoes, boots or sandals. This is the standard garb for peasantry. Stay away from black bottoms and white top, which is commonly called the “Renaissance Faire Uniform” by many in the know. Period colors include reds, dark yellows, burgundy, dark blue, browns, burnt orange, and purples. The latter is usually reserved for royalty, so unless you’re dressing as a noble, avoid purple. Moreover, natural fibers, the only thing available in that time, will be more comfortable all day, so look for cotton, linen, wool, or silk, or any blends with those fibers as the main content. As someone who wears black tuxedo satin in August, I can tell you that cotton next to your skin will keep you cooler in anything. I wear a cotton chemise under that satin and am very glad for it. When it’s just too hot, I wear my cotton flannel “Irish” garb and leave the satin at home. One plus of wearing a long sleeved blouse in August is that I never get sunburned arms.

My survival kit for faire days is in my basket or bag, and it contains the following items:

1. A mirror for checking makeup and for getting things out of my eyes.
2. Lipgloss to protect my lips from sunburn and drying out.
3. Sunscreen for my hands, face and neck.
4. A handkerchief for blotting sweat or tears of laughter.
5. A fan, which is manpowered, portable air conditioning.
6. Aspirin for pains. I don’t want to have to leave early due to a headache.
7. A brimmed hat to keep the sun from my eyes and face. Sunglasses don’t fit at a faire.
8. My bota bag and/or mug so I can carry water with me at all times.

I also carry my own filtered water bottle because the grounds water is either $2.50 a bottle or straight out of the fountain and tasting like the pipes. I take the bottle in empty, fill it there, and have never been stopped. They don’t allow you to bring food or drink to most faires.

Check the website of the faire you’re planning to attend to see what is, and what is not, allowed. You don’t want to drive all the way there to find you won’t be allowed in due to your accoutrements. Commercial faires ban pets of any type unless they are service animals, though some smaller faires or fests may allow them if on a leash. If you plan to wear weaponry as part of your garb, check the faire’s weapons policy. Some will not allow any weapons, period. Most will allow period weapons but will “peace tie” them at the gate by putting a plastic zip tie on them to hold them in the carrier. If you don’t want your leather handle or carrier marked up, leave the weapon at home.

One last thing: Renaissance Faires are addictive, so check into return tickets before you leave the grounds on your first visit, they are usually much cheaper than regular tickets. Season passes are also available.

Faire thee well!