What to Wear at a Renaissance Festival
So, you’ve sat idly by watching numerous historical period films or have read books a-plenty of long ago, and now you have steered into an alternative direction. You have finally decided to dress just like the serious fair-goers at a Renaissance festival. Where do you start? What should you wear when you go? How does one from the 21st century accomplish his or her fantasy of living in the chivalrous age when there were knights and wenches and ladies-in-waiting?
If you want to sound like a Renaissance pro, the attire one wears to a historically-placed festival or fair is referred to as “garb.” According to Dictionary.com, the term garb originated in the late 16th century. It defines garb as “a fashion or mode of dress, especially of a distinctive, uniform kind.” Because there were different class systems in the Renaissance, which ran from the late 14th century to the mid-17th century, any Renaissance festival you attend will have “re-enactors” (for lack of a better term) dressed in differing garb. Your first step is to determine of which social class you wish to be a part. Normally, a Renaissance festival will run its own storyline and will have its own hired actors. There is usually a queen or king who presides over the festival (the master of ceremonies), and in such, he or she will have a royal entourage, also actors. While you won’t be a part of their entourage, you certainly can dress in garb of the wealthy—whether you portray one of nobility or a well-off merchant, perhaps. Alternatively, you can be middle-class or peasant. The choice is yours. There were also different styles of dress depending if you were Italian, Spanish, English, Scottish, French, Arabic, or any other country affected by the enlightening Renaissance.
To keep it simple, I have listed the basics that will get you by in any public-welcomed Renaissance festival. (There are members-only fairs and gatherings for which one would want to dress according to their chosen country and persona, but for the purposes of a mainstream festival, I am sticking to what the English would have normally worn in the early Tudor period.) Casual festival patrons won’t necessarily know you are dressed in a specific class, but those in-the-know (i.e. die-hard history buffs and Renaissance festival actors) will, and they will applaud your efforts, if you dress accordingly.
It seems no Renaissance festival can exist if there aren’t Xena, Warrior Princess wannabes, Trekkies, and fairies roaming the grounds. Throw in a couple pirates and gypsies and you have a typical Renaissance festival. However, the die-hards aforementioned will scowl and roll their eyes, muttering, “There’s another one.” So, to avoid potential “Renny” disgust, and to earn the honor of a genuine “g’day!,” I suggest a newbie dress in the garb of a middle-class villager.
Like today, the fashions of the 16th century changed dramatically. It can get very complicated when you chuck in fashion terminology like farthingale and kirtle. Below, you fill find a simple breakdown of what the wealthy and middle-class citizens of England would typically wear during the Renaissance.
Wealthy Ladies (i.e. Royalty and Merchants)
- Colors worn: Plum, red, blue and the colors of the middle-class, as listed below. (The reason why plum, red, and blue were exclusive to the wealthy was the fact that it was expensive to create dyes in these colors. The plum shade was created by crushing hundreds of shelled Mediterranean muscles from the sea; the red shade was made by crushing thousands of Mediterranean insects; and, the blue shade came from two common English plants, woad and indigo. Although these plants were plentiful in English soil, the methods used in extracting dye from them were laborious and potently smelly.)
- Acceptable fabrics: Silk, satin, velvet, taffeta, brocade, cotton, linen, twill, wool
- Outfit (AKA: garb): Corsets, bodices, skirts, over-skirts, farthingales, kirtles, gowns, head-dresses, cornets, hair jewelry
- Colors worn: Green, black, gray, orange, yellow, violet, pink, and any color easily extracted from berries or plants.
- Acceptable fabrics: Cotton, linen, twill, wool
- Outfit (AKA: garb): Chemise, bodice, skirt, over-skirt, boots, snood, cap, straw hat, cloak, cape, short leather boots, moccasins, slippers (not the bedtime ones)
Note: All ladies should wear some kind of head piece as you are considered “loose” if you do not. Also, if you attend a Renaissance fair and you are not wearing something upon your head, you will get hounded by Renaissance merchants and street vendors to purchase a cap or wreath from them.
So, you’re a man and you don’t want to wear tights? Rest assured, because most Renaissance fair-goers who dress in period garb wear pants. And, to further put your mind at ease, pants—or, breeches—are historically accurate.
Men In General
Linen shirt, doublet, jerkin, breeches, stockings, flat hat, cloak, cape, short leather boots, moccasins, and sword and dagger—worn more as a fashion piece than as a weapon.
There was no such thing as “play clothes” for children during the Renaissance. They simply wore miniature versions of what their parents wore. Alternatively, a child could get by in a plain muslin gown or chemise until the age of four or five.
***Note: The starch ruffled neck collar commonly seen in Renaissance films appeared in the Late Tudor era, during Queen Elizabeth I’s reign. These were a part of the upper-class’s fashion ensemble.
If after reading these garb pointers and you are feeling overwhelmed, fear not! Try a simple outfit that can get you by at the next Renaissance festival.
If You Are a Middle-Class Lady, Wear:
- A muffin cap or wreath of flowers upon your head (if you don’t have this by fair day, don’t fret, as there are sure to be merchants strolling along, selling these wares on the festival grounds)
- White or off-white ankle-length linen or cotton chemise (the fuller, the better)
- Solid color, front-lacing bodice
- Solid color, full ankle-length skirt (if you’re really into it, wear a second skirt (an over-skirt) in which you can tuck up the front half into the bottom skirt’s waistband)
- Solid color tights (you can get by with socks, as no one should be able to see under your skirt)
- Short leather boots
If You Are a Middle-Class Lord, Wear:
- A muffin cap
- White or off-white linen chemise shirt (the fuller, the better)
- Solid color doublet (thick, poofy vest)
- Solid color breeches (Men attending Renaissance fairs get by wearing ankle-length breeches of cotton, although it seems knee-length is more accurate)
- Solid color tights (yes, you can get by with modern socks as long as you opt for the ankle-length breeches)
- Short leather boots
Where Do I Buy Renaissance Garb?
The only warning I have for where you should gather your Renaissance garb is to NOT...I repeat, DO NOT purchase your Renaissance ensemble from a costume store that specializes in various Halloween costumes. The costumes they have in stock will be of non-authentic materials and colors and will not be properly made. In other words, if you desire the bodice, skirt, and chemise look, you will receive a one piece dress mocking as separates. This will be an inexpensive purchase, but it will also look inexpensive, thereby, dropping you into the category in which our regular "Rennies" will be rolling their eyes at you.
There are merchants online who specialize in historically-accurate Renaissance clothing. Some stores sell ready-made garb, while others create custom pieces using your exact measurements. A basic Renaissance outfit can range from around $100 to over $1,000, deciding on what pieces you desire. A reasonably-priced online store to begin with is The Renaissance Store, formerly known as Chivalry Sports. If you opt not to buy online, a complete Renaissance outfit can be bought at any Renaissance festival or fair you attend. You will walk through the fair gates as a modern-day visitor, but you can soon be transformed into a Renaissance lord or lady in one of the many shops inside.
Now that you are dressed in Renaissance fair garb that will trick the strolling Trekkies and plain-clothed “mundane” modern-day visitors into thinking you’re from the era of Queen Elizabeth I, go out and have a marvelous time. Huzzah!