Posted by: Aunt Magaidh | March 13, 2010

Musings of a Ren Faire Newbie – Part 4, Gilding the lily

Disclaimer:  If someone takes issue with what I write here, please understand that as a newbie,  I can only speak to what I have experienced over the last couple of years.  I don’t know much about the politics or history of the various guilds, performers, or faires.  No disrespect is intended.  This will probably be the more emotionally charged article I write in this series. Remember, people, this is my personal experience and opinion, not gospel.  Oh, yeah…and be forewarned that I have a distinct bias for the historically accurate garb vs. the beautiful fantasy outfits.

Garb.  It’s a love-hate relationship.

Garb is clothing, NOT costuming.  Costuming is for temporary surface decoration.  (It is what the crazed faire actors pull over their clothing when doing the abbreviated Romeo and Juliet on stage in 20 minutes.  It’s really a great show!) Garb is what keeps you warm, cool, and protected – from the sun, dust, rain and, sometimes, snow.

For the faire performer, garb is the fastest way to help you show your faire character.  In my last post, I spoke about how to build your character.  Now it’s time to dress that character.  You’ll need to figure out what kind of garb you need based on your character.  Yes, this means that you need to revisit who you are supposed to be: peasant, merchant, middle class, noble, royalty.  Then you should look for the garb info that will help you show who you are.  You’ll need to research styles, fabrics, colors, and how they all work together.

Let me give you my example.  My character is a spinner, wife and cook.  Practicality would be pretty important in the way my character would view clothes.  I’d need good mobility in the cut of my clothes so that I could do my work.    My social status of crafter means that I’m closer to merchant class than down in the mud peasant, but as a Highland Scot I am wearing the Irish/Scots style dress vs. the typical English outfit.   (My Lowland kin would wear clothing styles closer to the English.) I also love colors and would use my connections with the master weaver and the dyer to get access to nicer colors and fabrics.  (At least, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it!)  I top it all off by wearing an arisaid and a kertch, which are clothing items specific to my character’s background.

“But Magaidh, I’m not sure what I’m supposed to look for.”  Don’t worry, here is a good test. Look at the garb guidelines for living history centers.  They have their act together.  Go look at photos of the activities that they have there.  Note the colors, the fabrics, the way the clothes hang and are worn.  Here’s a site for you to visit:

Now go look at some of the photos of visitors/playtrons at faire.  Pick any Ren faire you want.  Notice any differences?  Yup.  When first we are merely patrons coming to faire, we either do our best without good information or base it on what we’ve seen in movies.  Or we default to what we find at the costume shop or what is listed on EBay.  Or we just pick stuff because we like it. That’s okay when you are a patron.  It helps to get you in the mood and enhance your faire experience.  But when you are really going to play at faire and take that next step of craziness…er, I mean, commitment, you need to be more authentic. Out goes the tiered skirt, bustier and Birkenstocks, in come the gored skirt, laced up bodice and closed toe leather shoes.

Go back and look at the living history center photos again.  Now go look at photos of guilds at faire.  Notice any differences?  Some do all right, some are…well, let’s just say that some of us could use some improvement.  That’s why I’ve been slowly modifying my family’s garb…because those differences between our garb and the garb shown on the living history photos drive me crazy.  (I’m just a little obsessed.  Could be worse.)  My latest project is preparing to retrofit skirts with cartridge pleating.  (Don’t know what that is?  Well then, you get some homework: Google it and look for images.)

Have you noticed that a lot of people look somehow unfinished or just slightly off?  It’s the details that help us achieve our illusion of being 16th century fairegoers.  Here are things that blow the illusion for me.  (Remember – this is just an opinion!)

  1. Missing hat.  This is one of the small things that makes a big difference.  Do you have a hat?  No?!?!? Get one!
  2. Wristwatches and sunglasses.  (If you have doctor’s orders for sunglasses, like me, by all means use them.  But if you can find them in a pseudo-antique wire style frame it’ll go a long way to help preserve the right look.)
  3. Sandals.  What do your feet look like?  You should have shoes on.  This is a safety issue as well as a garb issue.  Faire sites have a lot of hazards to bare feet.
  4. Snarking Alert! Pet peeve #1: Peasant wenches wearing flowery tapestry bodices made of materials that look like wing-back chair upholstery from the 1980s.  It just makes my teeth itch.  If you are going to play a peasant, pay attention to the fabrics that you would be wearing.  Tapestry really wouldn’t be a fabric you’d have access to because of the cost.  Try canvas, twill, linen, or something else that is fairly plainly woven.  If you really want that bodice, get it – but wear it to parties or for Halloween or for a night out clubbing.  Don’t wear it at faire.   Okay, snarking done.  (Boy did that feel good getting it off my chest!)
  5. Fantasy wear when you are supposed to be historical.  Horns, wings, tails, etc.

So what is basic garb? If you are a newbie, you need to start with the basics.  These are the pieces that will allow you to blend into the faire atmosphere without having to invest a lot that first season or two.  I think it’s best if you use neutral colors and pieces that can work for peasant to middle class/merchant.  My first outfit consisted of a white long sleeve peasant blouse, a purchased bodice in rust, a couple of gathered skirts in blue and green, and a straw hat.  If you are thrift store shopping for an emergency outfit, then you are at the mercy of the donations for that store.  But if you can, take the time to shop around or make your own garb, starting with the agreed upon basics that most guilds will accept as “faire legal”.  CIRGA, the California Independent Renaissance Guild and Group Association, has a list of minimum garb on their website.

Follow that up with Kimiko Small’s presentation, Costuming Myths Busted, which discusses colors, fabrics, closures, and styles.

…And for the guys, here is a great place to start, courtesy of Daniel Baca who has a site “You CAN make a Manly Man’s Renaissance Costume Yourself” at Ye Auld Garb Monger, Here’s another good place to check info:’s Dress.  (Look at the rest of the site while you’re at it.

…And never forget the delicious information made available through SCA people.  Here is a page for clothing of the 16th century: There are some great pages to poke through from children’s clothing to embellishment to shirt construction to fastenings…and the list goes on and on!

Challenges for dressing a working class character – When you first start looking for garb info, you’re told to look at paintings and illustrations for sources of inspiration and ideas.  Unfortunately, most paintings were for people who could afford a painting – the richer folks and the church.  Many classes, workshops, websites and books deal with garb for nobility.  I have noticed a dearth of material for working class folks when I look for garb on the internet.  This means that it’s a bit harder (and way more frustrating) to find information about what lower classes wore.  I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of seeing the same 4 illustrations for middle class/country women of 16th century England.

You’ll have to look around for the people who are garb fiends.  They will put lists of paintings, illustrations, and reproductions on their websites to share their research and knowledge.  Here is a nice site that shows working women images of various countries.  And recently I found this gem: For the guys…try looking at this:

Challenges for dressing a foreign character – There are goo-gobs of articles online about how to create your basic garb if you are playing English characters.  If you are playing a “foreigner” you’re going to have to do more research.  When I joined my Scots guild I was told that we base our garb on Irish clothing.  But we also use a theatrical device to make us look different from the Irish: we use kilts, which aren’t strictly appropriate for the period.  And sometimes it is the specific things that we use consistently that marks us a specific “other”.  The Germans have these wild clothes that are colorful and feathered and slashed and have codpieces that could do major harm to innocent bystanders should the German turn suddenly.  The Scots have plaid and bonnets.  Find what is specific to the culture that you are portraying and ALWAYS hang on to it!  For example, I make a point of wearing a kertch (or am breid) to show I am a married Scotswoman.  (Here is a lovely poem about the kertch I found late at night when researching garb – yep, I have a sickness…

Here are some places to look for garb guidelines and ideas if you are going to play a non-English character.  (Disclaimer: I’m using the resources that I know about based on the people I run into at faire here in Northern California.  I’m sure that there are some other great guilds out there with guidelines, but I just don’t know them. )

Don’t forget – YOU can do the research.  Look at period paintings and woodcuts.  Just be aware that some paintings (mostly religious) use a convention of putting saints and deities in Medieval or ancient clothing styles.  Also be aware that paint can change color over time and when art restorers work on paintings, they often find that lacquer or ingredients can change radically with dirt, smoke or age.  (Kimiko covers this pretty convincingly in her myth busting article.)

A word about costuming guidelines – If your guild has a standard, fine.  Adhere to it.  When we first joined out guild, one of the first things they did was look at our introductory garb and tell us what was acceptable and what wasn’t.  Yes, we had natural fabrics, but some of the colors and types of fabrics weren’t right.  Yes, we had basic English garb, but that wasn’t quite right for being Highlanders.  That first season my sewing machine and knitting needles were quite busy making appropriate garb.

Tip: DON’T buy anything online or at a vendor until you talk to the garb maven of your group. You’ll hate it if you spent good money on something that you can’t use.  Like the corduroy bodice I bought before we joined a guild.  Not period appropriate for someone of lower class because corduroy was a luxury fabric!  Oh yeah, and it was too thin a rib/welt/ridge-thingy and a really synthetic dye emerald green.

…and a word about historical accuracy –  I will admit that I am still wrestling with the level of accuracy that I have been able to incorporate into my newbie garb.  I made my second set of garb 2 years ago, so it is in good shape, but doesn’t have all the historical construction it could.  Cartridge pleating is sadly lacking from all of my skirts.  But, on the positive side, I don’t have darts in my bodice, visible Velcro/zippers/snaps, or prints and colors that are clearly modern.  The matching bodice and skirt are out of linen fabric  in a sage green that is period appropriate.  I lace my bodice using spiral lacing.  Last year I made Irish bog dresses for both myself and Daughter.  This year I added a new lightweight leine to my garb collection and modified the sleeves of my linen chemises to better match the shape of a leine.   No, there was no pleating along the top of the sleeve…I wanted to make sure to incorporate the latest historical research that says pleating and gathering and drawstrings weren’t period.  I figure if we all were to take baby steps about incorporating PRACTICAL authentic construction (I’m not going to cut my 45” fabric into smaller widths and piece the fabric together again), we’ll end up presenting a more accurate picture of what 16th century people looked like.

If you are on the way to being a garb enthusiast/addict/freak, go look at the multitude of garb mavens out there.  There are people who seriously get dangerous about garb authenticity.   They will research the heck out of garb…the seams, the piecing of fabric, the lacing, the buttons, the fabric widths…you name it, they will know it or will refer to someone who does.  I love their willingness to spread the word about how to Rennies should responsibly garb themselves.  Here are a few that I’ve run across:

NOW SOME DETAILS…you will get a lot of “do’s and don’ts” from your guild, but here are some practical bits that you should think about when you are putting your garb together.

Make it sturdy. Garb must stand up to the routine activities that you are going to do at faire.  Are you rolling around in the dirt and grass brawling with the Italians and Germans?  Are you sitting in a pavilion with walls that hold the baking air in?  Are you running across the fair on a regular basis to get to “meet and greet” or a knighting or whatever?  I said before that garb is what you wear for a weekend at faire.  It is what you stand, sit, run, walk, eat, laugh, and sometimes melt in.

At my very first faire my guild and another guild had a squirmish.  (Really…didn’t you think we might respond to you taking our flag?)  While the women in our encampment retaliated by liberating the enemy’s swords, our men guarded OUR weapons rack, and Husby was using the water pitchers to great effect, I was tackling a teenager who was trying to steal our platters.  Tackled.  I mean… I took her DOWN.  In a chemise, two skirts, an apron, an arisaid, and a lightly boned bodice.  With my hat on.  Afterwards, I checked the seams and fabric for damage.  None!  I felt relief and thankfulness that I’d reinforced the seams.

I also paid attention to the many complaints about using plastic boning for garb.  I used the plastic stuff for a quick and dirty version of a dress for my teen daughter because I knew she would grow out of it quickly.  But it definitely has had issues after one season of hard use.  Likewise the hand-me-down bodice where the plastic boning is fraying and poking through the fabric.  I’ve upgraded to steel boning for garb I’ve made.  I’m still waiting on the zip ties because I haven’t had the need to stiffen anything recently – but give me few seasons and I’ll let you know.

If you are going to make your own garb, check out the Reconstructing History patterns.  I haven’t used them, but I have heard people saying good things about them.  Personally, I looked for freebie sewing information like the following SCA pages: and

If you are purchasing your garb, you may want to reinforce seams and stress areas.  You can add your own touches by embellishing purchased clothing.  Never underestimate the power of simple bias tape or hand embroidering or covering grommets with floss.

Safety – Yep, garb has safety factors.  Think about it…flammability, overheating, sun exposure, cold.

I was taught to use a burn test on fabrics that I used to make our garb.  In a nutshell, if the swatch of fabric sizzles, melts, and leaves a plastic bead, it means it’s a synthetic of some sort or mixture. Synthetics melting is waaaaaay bad because if it catches fire, IT STICKS TO YOU as it burns!   Not good.  Please, no synthetics if you are working with fire.  Here is a lovely burn testing chart to help you figure out what fabrics you are working with if you are making your own garb:

During her Fabrics for the Faire Performer class at Ren Symposium 2010, Kimiko Small talked about how her favorite fabrics are linen and wool, but also shared the fact that linen was really flammable (it is basically made of are the fibers of a flowering plant) and that wool resisted burning.  Currently I wear cottons and linen skirts, but I’m thinking about upgrading to a wool skirt or apron when I am cooking or dyeing.

Since we have to address heat issues, embrace the fact that natural fibers are your friend.  Synthetics don’t breathe, which can lead to overheating since most of us are performing at faire during the warm months. In Folsom Ren Faire heat, the linen chemise was fabulous! My linen skirt and bodice wicked away the sweat and dried just fine after being dowsed with water (for evaporative cooling).  The cotton bloomers kept my legs from chafing.  (A couple of years ago at Ren Symposium, Bree Fish, of Past and Peasant, had all sorts of convincing stories about her adventures in search of cool comfy undergarments. By the way, she sells a basic garb package for a decent price, so look for her booth at faire.  Here’s her website:

In the early season, snow or rain is an issue.  Wool stays warm when wet.  My arisaid was wonderful warmth last year at a wet, slushy, cold Valhalla Ren Faire. The wool felt hat was a welcome replacement for my straw hat when the rain turned to slush.  Woolen fingerless mittens…well, you get the picture.

Fabric colors – Guess what?  There are a lot of colors to choose from.  But please, avoid the colors listed “off limits” by your guild and the faire producers.  There are conventions, like the one that only the Queen wears royal purple, mostly so that she is easy to spot as the queen and our patrons can recognize her.  Here is a site that has some colors that would have been appropriate given the dye materials.  Note the color families and the subtle shades.  Yes, that is pink!  Here are a couple of dye sites that can help you visualize period colors and

bio-floris and   bio-tristan and

Ancient Dye Kit are examples.

Goodness.  This has been the hardest posting to write because so much of how we consider garb is very emotional and personal – just like the clothes we wear here in the 21st century.  Also, it’s such a huge topic, with all sorts of variations for cultures and character classes.  I guess my take-away message is this:

  1. Please have honest discussions with your guild garb people.
  2. Don’t accept something just because you see it at faire – I’ve been learning that many things we do at faire have some murky origins.
  3. Look at the latest, greatest information about clothing research.
  4. Ask questions.

Hopefully, this information will be useful to folks who are working on their wardrobes for the season.  Hey, it’s finally faire time!  Put on your finest and go play!




  1. Good article! I agree with you about historical accuracy. It just bugs me when I see details that are very “off” when I go to MD Renfair. I refuse to watch “The Tudors” because I would be picking every scene apart (not to mention the jumbled plot line).

  2. Wow, so very glad I found your website. I’ve been making my own outfits for a few years, but I’m always happy to see the take other people have. I’ll be sure to pass this along to some of my home faire’s newbies.

    • Yes, I wish I’d had some of this information from the beginning of being a Ren newbie. But I’ve been a fast learner! Actually, I felt inspired to do this series of articles because I wanted the people that I recruited to have the information so they wouldn’t get frustrated. My next article will be a list of websites/resources that I found helpful. I figured if I’d had the list at the beginning, it would have saved me hours in googling stuff!

  3. Another amazing article…YOU GO GIRL!

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