Tim the Enchanter’s not quite finished, but I’ve been sick as a dog and haven’t been able to finish the accessories. In the meantime, here’s some inspiration for the Renaissance festival season.
Forsooth! Festival season is upon us! Depending on what part of the U.S. you’re in, anyway. In the warmer parts of the country, it’s already started; those of us still in sweatshirts have some time to sew our garb.
The Renaissance covers a lot of ground, historically, beginning in Italy late in the 1300s and and continuing into the 1600s. It was quite literally a rebirth for Europe, devastated by the plague — the Black Death may have wiped out as much of 60% of the European population from 1346-1353. Globally, a hundred million people or more died from the pandemic, which is thought to have begun in central Asia and traveled west along the Silk Road.
Since the Renaissance covered so broad a time period, and all of Europe, the clothing didn’t look the same in 1450 Italy as it did in 1550 Germany or 1650 England. Most Ren faires are set around the late Elizabethan period, but unless you are actually working at the faire and have a strict dress code to adhere to, that may not be so much a concern for you. (If you are working at the faire, as a performer or a vendor, check to see how strict they are with period correctness. Some faires are sticklers for that — no modern fasteners or fabrics.)
Another thing to consider is that a lot of these festivals are in the summer, and Elizabethan garb has lots of layers, especially for women. There was a “Little Ice Age” happening at the time, temperatures in Europe were cooler so it made sense for them to wear all those layers. Be sensible, if you don’t have to wear all those layers, skip them. Check the forecast before you go, if it’s going to be a hot day, leave off the petticoat. Or if you start to get too hot, slip it off and take it back to the car. Don’t sacrifice the fabulousness of your costume for your health! (Been there, ladies; trust me, heat exhaustion is not fun!) That goes for you gentlemen, too — yes, you look amazing in that doublet and cape. Take it off before you pass out. Thank you. This has been a public service announcement from Sew Your Cosplay.
If you’re sewing your own costume/garb for the faire, you’re probably also considering class. Peasant class is always the easiest, and certainly least expensive, route. Roughly woven wool or linen fabric dyed from plants would include blue from woad or indigo, yellow from onion skins, red from madder or the insect cochineal, orange from safflower, etc. Peasants would have little time for embroidery or money to purchase ornamentation for their clothes, so they’d be pretty plain. Simplicity 3519 (views B without the lacing, or D) is ideal for men’s peasant shirts. Simplicity 5582 will take ladies from peasantry to upper middle class, depending on the fabric and ornamentation used. Men, up to the the gentry, would have needed Butterick 5936 for the pouches to carry their things, most especially the water bottle carrier for today’s faire-goer when you don’t want your plastic water bottle ruining the look of your costume. Ladies carried simple baskets to hold their stuff.
Merchants or tradesmen would have slightly better fabric, but still rough. They’d have more ornamentation, and the fit would be better — clothing wouldn’t be so sack-like. Since this is a more prosperous group, they’d have more than one set of clothes, so their clothing colors would be a bit brighter since they didn’t get washed as often, but the colors themselves would be the same. However, because indigo was so readily available and inexpensive, it was a color worn by servants and apprentices — social climbers would never have worn indigo so as not to be associated with the working class. Simplicity 4059 would be an excellent pattern for men’s garb for this class.
Upper “middle class” are highly skilled tradesman, gentry, or lower nobility — landowners. Shirts and chemises would be linen or cotton, with ruffles at cuffs and collars. Wool and linen are still used, but are more finely woven. They’d have just a bit of silk satin and velvet, too. Their colors were brighter jewel tones and trim was more ornate, but only the wealthiest members of this group could afford gold and silver trim — and pay the sumptuary taxes that went with it. Simplicity 3809 is a step up the social ladder for ladies, and depending on the fabric and colors, this could be used for gentry or nobility, while Burda’s 7171 is more limited to the nobility.
The nobility are certainly the most colorful and fun to costume, and more expensive, then and now. Silk satin, damask brocade, velvet, finely woven wool and linen, and even Egyptian or Indian cotton in small amounts were used by this class. The colors were bright — but still limited to what could be achieved by natural dyes. And remember: purple is exclusive to royalty! Jeweled embroidery is abundant and the overall effect is opulent. Burda’s 6888 is an excellent example of a slash-and-puff jerkin, with an opulent coordinating doublet in 6887.
For the Silk Road aspect of the Ren Faire, Simplicity 5359 (view B), or Simplicity 2158 and 2159 (designed to go together), are close to what might have been worn by dancers at the time. (Ghawazee coats are 19th century, not 17th. The Ottoman entari coat is similar, and more “period correct,” without the keyhole in the front for the bust.) Again, remember that colors would have been limited to what natural dyes could produce if you’re trying to stay at least within shouting distance of history: orange, golden yellow, red, brown, blue… not green. (Green is the color of Islam, and dancers would not have worn it to dance in; that would have been blasphemous.) Also: no coin bras, no beaded fringe, no giant yarn tassels (those were worn by camels, not people). You want to balance the historical accuracy with your visibility, freedom of movement and comfort, and audience expectations. If you have friends who dance at faires, you might ask what works best for them.
There is certainly a blending of cultures happening at the Renaissance faires. I’ve seen belly dancers, Klingons, faeries, walking trees and royalty interacting with “everyday” people as though nothing unusual was happening at all. What’s not to love about them? I think my favorite memory of being at a Ren faire was getting caught in a downpour, and everyone ran for the nearest shop to get out of the rain. We were all so crowded, there was no “personal space” to be had, and even though the shower lasted for quite some time, the mood remained quite jovial. (It probably helped that it was fairly early in the day, and not at the end of the day, when everyone was exhausted…) Then the sun came out, and we all trooped off, avoiding mud puddles as we could — it was the best day!
For further reading:
Elizabethan Costuming for the Years 1550-1580 by Janet Winter and Carolyn Savoy is an amazing reference.
The Renlist — “The easiest way to find Renaissance and other fairs near you.”
Renaissance Magazine — they also have a page with a list of faires, but there’s lots more info