A (Very Brief) Intro to Costuming for a Renaissance Faire

By | May 7, 2016


This is a high-level overview for newbie costumers to give an idea of where to start and what to avoid. Once you’ve read this, I suggest you visit the resources page to hunt down the in-depth information you’ll need to create a complete ensemble.

Renn Faire season is always around the corner, and you want to create an appropriate costume. This is a quick-and-dirty guide on what your options are when just setting out and it’s shamelessly generic because of that. If you want to get into the minutia of different regions and specific periods, visit the resources page.

This entry covers the late Tudor / early Elizabethan look that tends to be the standard at Renn Faires. If you’re hoping to work or volunteer at a Faire, find out what their clothing rules are before you start sewing. They’ll have a lot of them, I assure you.

The Silhouettes

Lady Jane Grey (or Katherine Parr, depending on who you ask). The portrait amply illustrates the "two triangles" aesthetic popular in the period - the torso is an inverted triangle over the skirt, meeting at the waist.

Lady Jane Grey (or Katherine Parr, depending on who you ask). The portrait amply illustrates the “two triangles” aesthetic popular in the period – the torso is an inverted triangle over the skirt, meeting at the waist.

Ladies of all classes wear long skirts, long sleeves, modest necklines (sometimes covered with sheer fabric) and bust support is either via an external bodice, or a set of stays. Stays are the precursor to the corset and you’ll find sewing patterns calling it that, too.

(Quick note on stays/bodices – the point of them is to create a smooth, conical torso – NOT to cinch in your waist. Try that with a Tudor corset and all you get are bruised kidneys. Learn more about foundation garments here.)

As you go up the social ladder, the ladies get stuck into more and more rigid clothing – reed-stiffened stays under the bodice to achieve a fashionable conical shape. Then a bumroll and a farthingale (an early hoopskirt) supporting full skirts of heavy fabrics, to the point where it’s impossible to move any faster than a stately stroll.

Gentlemen would wear short trousers (pantaloons) – the style varied through the period – intended to show off a shapely calf. Shirts were full-cut and collar-less or with a band collar. Over the shirt, a doublet, could be worn with or without sleeves attached.

Cloaks and coats were worn atop to keep warm and dry, but you’re probably dressing in summer, so let’s not worry about that. The same can be said re: gowns worn by the accomplished middle class – heatstroke in an hour.

There were no zippers in this period and many garments were held together with pins or ties, for ease of cleaning and repair and to render the wardrobe more versatile – pairing sleeves with different doublet bodies, for instance. Buttons were more decorative than functional, but not exclusively so.

Laboring men would wear a long tunic/shirt and hose (knitted wool or cut fabric) and leather or wood shoes – although dirt-poor peasants couldn’t afford even wooden clogs. Doublets were NOT common among laborers, unless it was a hand-me down by which time it would have lost all re-usable embellishments, most of it’s style and be quite worn – but still good as an extra layer of protection against the elements.

Everyone – everyone – wore a head covering of some kind, even the children. Young girls could wear their hair down, but adult and married women were expected to keep their hair pinned or gathered up in some fashion – a crocheted hair-net is the default go-to when a lady can’t get a hat.

The higher up the social ladder you go, the more rigid the fashion rules and the more expensive the clothing. Then as now, clothing was a way to show off wealth. Some things never change.

Assuming that you’re putting a costume together at short notice, you’re not going to have time to build costume the upper / upper-middle classes, especially if you’re a woman. As ever, it’s cheaper and easier to be a commoner.

Robert Dudley, killing it in some snappy duds. 1566-ish.

Robert Dudley, killing it in some snappy duds. 1566-ish.

The “Proper” Fabrics

I shouldn’t have to remind you that there aren’t ANY artificial fibers in existence at this time, right? Right. Period fibers are linen, cotton, wool (sheep and goat), silk and blends of any of the above. Fur and leather were used as well, of course.

Metallic thread would be used in court gowns for nobles at the very tippy-top of the social ladder. Sumptuary laws limited certain weaves/dyes/styles to the upper classes – both to reinforce social structure and to protect local industries.

Foundation garments: linen. Linsey-woolsey (a linen-wool blend) was sometimes used, but it sounds itchy to me. Anything you wear next to your skin, keep it as natural as possible. Linen was the first and last choice for almost everyone. If you’re in a rush, you can skip this as you’re not going to be wearing your costume day in and day out for an extended period. But try to get something between your costume and your skin, even if it’s just a cotton undershirt.

Outer garments: the lower classes wore wool and liked it. It would be un-dyed, or dyed with one of the more affordable (and less vivid) vegetable dyes.

Hose would be made from linen or wool cloth. Knitted hose was too expensive for the common man.

A durable cotton canvas shirt could cost the equivalent of a week’s wages or more, so when used, they were worn until worn out. So think shabby-chic.

The middle classes would wear a finer grade of wool than their peasant counterparts, including wool jersey, and they would wear more layers for reasons of both comfort and status. The rule of linen next to the skin still holds.

Generally, fabric was of a solid color but you might sometimes run into a cross-woven fabric, where the warp is a different color from the weft. Brightly-dyed fabric cost more – and so would be worn in moderation and/or by the upper end of the merchant class.

Knights could wear velvet (silk and cotton), certain furs and plainer satin weaves in silk.

The seriously wealthy set could wear all that, plus shiny (silk) satins, taffetas and damask. The upper class is also where you’ll find ruffs and lace collars – although some middle-class folk aspired to imitate the fashion, it could be a social faux-pas.

Purple silk, cloth of gold and sable fur was limited to the royal family, so avoid them in all cases.

Which Fabrics Can You Use?

Natural fibers of all kinds, including blends of one natural fiber with another. Just keep in mind you don’t want to wear itchy wool next to your skin.

Linen is still your best choice for anything worn next to your skin, but it’s pricey. As a result, Cotton gauze and muslin have become the go-to fabrics for many Renn-Faire wardrobes. Both are cheap and light (Faires cause heatwaves, imho) and gauze is available in a range of acceptable colors.

Pure wool is pricey and hot to wear. Look for wool blended with an artificial fiber. It’ll still be hot to wear, but cheaper to buy. Bounce a strong light off it when you’re at the fabric store and avoid anything “shiny”.

Cotton velveteen is a great fabric for the middle classes and just skirts the sumptuary laws about velvet being restricted to the nobility. All that, and it’s washable.

If you’ve got the time to pull together a costume for the nobility (in which case, you probably don’t need to be reading this!) here are some considerations: Triple velvet is an affordable alternative that looks lusher than cotton velveteen, but doesn’t nearly as much as rayon/silk velvet. Silk satin is luscious stuff, but costs an arm and a leg.

Look for heavier satins such as bridal satin and satin crepe. I prefer acetate taffetas over polyester taffetas, but they’re more expensive and more difficult to find.

A polyester taffeta can be helped along with judicious flat-lining to keep it from looking too flimsy. Silk taffetas are widely available in a huge range of colors but, again, aren’t cheap.

There are some good-looking faux-leathers out there that are worthy of consideration over real animal hide. The same can be said regarding fur. The upholstery section is a great resource for anyone looking to costume upper-middle class and the nobility. However, only certain patterns are plausible for the era. Visit the resources page for more information.

Upholstery fabrics will have artificial yarns in them but there’s nothing you can do about that without breaking the bank.

There is an ongoing debate about corduroy and whether or not it’s an appropriate fabric. If you’re costuming for yourself (not part of a volunteer guild with specific rules) go ahead and use cotton corduroy if you like it, says I. But if you’re part of an organized group, check in with the costume-chief, as they might have strong opinions the other way.

Stay the Hell Away From

Lightweight polyester satins (I’m looking at you, Casa Collection). They’re flimsy and too darn warm, plus they rarely come in appropriate colors.

Polyester velvet should also be shunned, because it’s shiny as anything and even hotter to wear than silk or cotton velvet(een). Upholstery velvet will be hard to sew and expensive. You might be able to get away with it for a simple garment, like a cloak, but I wouldn’t do it.

Any multi-colored brocades – if it has more than two colors, it doesn’t exist yet. Also the pattern probably won’t suit the era. Especially Asian-themed broacades.

Anything dyed a bright color. All dyes were natural and not nearly as eye-popping as what we have today. What few brightly-colored fabrics existed belong to the upper echelons of the nobility.

Jacquard fabrics – the jacquard loom hasn’t been invented yet. Damasks do exist because they only feature a single color of yarn.

Polka dots, paisley, madras plaid, gingham check and houndstooth check patterns ALL fall outside of this period. And you’re only going to wear tartan if you’re an Irishman.

Avoid ALL printed patterns. Printed fabric wasn’t in use in Europe at this point – all patterns in a fabric were woven in.

And for the love of heaven, don’t get your ideas from the cable TV series The Tudors. I’ve not yet managed to get through a single episode without shrieking at some blatant liberty taken by the costumers, and I know I’m not the only one. It’s very pretty eye-candy, but not all that authentic.

Suggested Commercial Patterns

Always visit GBACG’s Great Pattern Review when considering patterns.

Alter Years – this is a line of relatively simple, easy to sew patterns. Offerings include: chemise,  back-laced bodice, peasant shirt, peasant skirts.

Fantasy Fashions – another line of relatively easy-to-sew garments. Offerings include: men’s doublet, slops/breeches, ladies’ bodice and chemise and headwear.

Margo Anderson – meticulously researched patterns, but possibly some of the garments in her line might be too challenging for a brand-new seamster.

My past experience suggests you stay away from Period Patterns, Mantua Maker and Reconstructing History until you feel confident enough to make alterations and cope with instructions that could be more clearly written.

Simplicity and McCall’s both offer Renn-friendly patterns with a variable degree of historical accuracy. I haven’t used them, so I can’t speak to their quality, but patterns by the “Big Three” can usually be counted on to have accurate yardage estimates and reasonably clear instructions.

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