Costuming for Renaissance Faire

So you’re headed to the RenFaire for the 2nd time, because you loved it so much the first time. And you’ve been bitten by the garb bug. Going in ‘mundane’ wear is fun, but to really feel part of the event, you need to dress in ‘garb’.

You can simply dress in black cotton pants and a white poet shirt with baggy sleeves, commonly called the “Renaissance Faire Uniform”, or you can change the colors and add a few things and be more authentic. This does change for each class. Of course, the higher in class you go, the more money you’ll be spending on your garb.

Simple peasant’s garb will cost you between $50 and $75 to buy, or between $10 and $20 to make. If either you or a friend sews, you’re golden. The Big Three pattern companies, Simplicity (http://www.simplicity.com/), McCalls and Butterick/Vogue (http://www.mccall.com/), available at your local fabric store, all have RenFaire enthusiasts on their design staffs, so they all have good authentic patterns for garb. I prefer either Simplicity or Butterick because their patterns are designed as real clothing, not as costumes. Folkwear Patterns are designed specificlly for ethnic and historical clothing, so check them out also at http://www.folkwear.com/. For premade garb, see these sites:
http://www.thornyrose.com/ladys.html
http://www.dressyourdreams.com/

For fabrics, keep in mind two things: what was available at the time, and what will the temperature be? Synthetics not only look fake, but they’re hot. Covered in 3 layers of poly, you’ll die on a 70 degree day. Trust me. I walk around in black tuxedo satin and poly hoop skirts at faire. On hot days, I wear my cotton peasant garb.

Look for cotton, or even a cotton blend. Blends will wrinkle less but will still have the wicking properties of cotton to keep you cool. Wool is a period fabric, but though it was worn all year in England, if you’re going to Scarborough Faire in TX you’ll die halfway through the morning. Silk is also period, but it will deteriorate in sunlight, and you’ll be spending a lot of time in sunlight at faire, so I don’t recommend using it. Linen is good, but again, it’ll wrinkle so look for a linen blend.

There were limited colors back then. There were no synthetic dyes, so most people used plants to get the colors they wanted. If you’ve ever peeled a beet, you’ve already experienced the best non-food use of a beet. Colors were also limited by class, so don’t even THINK about making a purple peasant skirt. Many faires request that guests not use purple for their garb as it’s reserved for the queen, just as it was back then.

Burgundy, greens (except neon), dark blues, yellows ranging from pale yellow to deep saffron, browns and reds were used. If in doubt if your selected color is period’, check a few paintings from the era to see what colors were used for the clothing.

Middle class garb may or may not include an apron, as this is the merchant class. This class included artisans and those with a trade or a store. Clothing should still be cotton or linen, but can be brighter colors as this class didn’t usually get ‘down and dirty’ like peasants. The apron helped keep their clothing cleaner. If you want to use a print, make sure the print is a small geometric and not too modern-looking. If you’re just having fun with it, there are some great skull fabrics out there for the piratical types. It doesn’t look authentic, but it’s better than black pants and a white shirt. FYI: pirates were called ‘privateers’ and were often hired for protection of merchant ships and to hijack a rival’s merchandise.

For this middle class, woman can add an overskirt. This is a second skirt that is usually tied up in front to keep it out of the mud and dirt, and would be let down to look clean and presentable should a noble stop by the shop. Tying the overskirt up will also help keep you cooler. Costs for merchants or middle class garb will run about the same as for peasants, but add the cost of an apron and add an overskirt for the women. Middle class garb should be brighter colors than peasant garb.

Nobles can go all out for their garb. For this class, you can use some brocades as they were already trading with China for that fabric. Look for rich, deep colors with patterns and texture. Tone-on-tone fabrics are great. Avoid prints unless it looks embroidered or woven. Upholstery fabrics are great for noble’s garb. They’re rich-looking and they have enough body to look expensive, even if you picked it up on sale.

Again, look for geometrics, florals (but only tone-on-tone) or scrolling. If you’ll be a French noble, look for Fleur-de-lis, the 3 petal lily. If Celtic, look for knotwork patterns. Even if you make noble’s garb, it will set you back anywhere from $100 to your next few paychecks. My bodice and overskirt cost $125. With the hoopskirt, ruff, chemise and underskirt, I think its up to $200, but I made the chemise and underskirt to keep costs down. I handbeaded over the patterns on the skirt and bodice and I always get compliments on it.

The nobles class can really load on the jewelry too. Use mostly pearls, rubies, emerals, and saphires. Diamonds were not as highly prized as they are now, and those diamonds that were used weren’t faceted, they were flat-cut.

No matter what class you chose, you’ll still end up with several layers. A peasant will have a chemise (long for women, short for men), and pants or a skirt. Over this, you’d wear a simple cloak or even just a length of plaid draped over the shoulders. On hot days, tuck the plaid into your belt or waistband and let it hang down, like when you tie your jacket around your waist when it’s warmer. Men can add a tunic or a simple vest and woman can add a bodice or a corset belt. Add a few cloth pouches to carry your car keys, cash and sunscreen. You can either hang pouches from a belt or loop them from the laces on the bodice or vest.

Middle class will have a chemise, pants and a doublet or a skirt and overskirt with a bodice, and an apron, topped off by a cloak. This class has some money, so add leather pouches to carry your loot. A sporran is a nice addition, but if you’re wearing a kilt, it’s a must. Sporrans not only held valuables, they also kept the front of the kilt down during a breeze.

Noble women will wear a chemise, hoop skirts, bodice, underskirt and overskirt, noble men will wear a chemise, hose or breeches with slops (those balloon’ pants), and a doublet or vest, and maybe a surcoat. Cloaks should be of heavier wool, and can be trimmed with fur. You can use fake fur if you’re in PETA. For show, a noble would have paraded their wealth on special occasions, so feel free to load on the pearls and gems. Again, ust old paintings for guidance on the style of jewelry. Another FYI: in Medieval times, the wedding ring was worn on the thumb.

If you need ideas for garb, you can’t beat the Masters. Go to an art museum and look at the works of Michelangelo, Carravagio, Rabalias, etc and pay close attention to the clothing of the people in the backgrounds. Buy coloring books with Medieval and Renaissance themes. The clothing drawn in them is very close to authentic and it’s an in expensive reference source. I have several of them in my sewing room. My grandson can’t understand why he can’t color them. Also, when you go to faires, look to see what the cast members are wearing. They will be very close to authentic and will be mostly class-appropriate.

If you need more guidance, look for patrons who are in the richest looking garb and ask them a few questions. They’re always happy to share advise and tips.