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Table of Contents

Appropriate Costume
Costume Pieces
Advice on Making Your First Costume
Other Resources

Appropriate Costume (or, "Can I Wear This?")

What is Appropriate?

The "Period" that I am using for this site is English Renaissance (approx. 1485-1603, with a little bit of 1603-1640 mixed in). My personal preference is to tend toward Elizabethan (1558-1603), just because I think the clothes from that period are prettier. What does all this mean? That's what this page is about!

What is NOT Appropriate?

It's often easiest to begin defining a Period look by eliminating some broad categories of costumes. We'll talk about fabrics later.

First of all: fantasy costumes are not appropriate to what we do. That includes spiky leather armor (plain leather may be appropriate), tribal designs, wizard's robes, fur or chainmail diapers and bikinis (yes, I've seen them, and yes, they are every bit as scary as they sound), and anything with gold or silver lame.

Second: blatantly anachronistic clothing is not appropriate. It is important to note that this includes Medieval and Classical clothing, as well as Napoleonic, Colonial, and Victorian. By the way, there is an Ancient Renaissance Costumers' Axiom, handed down for generations from Master to Apprentice, which clearly states as follows: No matter how hard you try, you cannot diguise a prom dress.

Third: pirate costumes are not technically Period, but it is a touchy area, as many of our patrons are expecting to see them. Consult your Costume Designer for the rules that apply to your particular show. My usual approach is to deal with them on a case-by-case basis, but tending toward Period, and away from Theatrical, unless a compelling argument can be made otherwise.

Fourth: Some basic accessories that we take for granted are not appropriate. Wrist watches and modern spectacles come immediately to mind. "Antique" looking glasses may be approved, if a good argument can be made that they support the character. No smoking is permitted while in costume and in view of the audience.

Fifth: Do not assume that if it is sold at Festival, it is appropriate. Merchants are given a lot of leeway in what they sell, because they have to make a living. Many of the costumes sold on site are pretty, but not correct for our purposes.

Finally: if you are ever in doubt about any aspect of your costume, ASK! I cannot stress this enough. Before you spend money on something, please check to make sure that you'll actually be able to wear it. This applies to both costumes and props. Most costume designers will look at anything, and if they can't approve it, they'll be happy to give suggestions for an alternative.

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Does every piece of cloth have to be 100% Period?
Does it have to look Period?

The trick is to find a balance between what looks Period, and what is wearable and affordable. We are a Florida Festival and it gets pretty hot during the run. If we were to wear what was worn in the Period, we'd all be wearing wool, which is too hot, and linen, which is (for most of us) too expensive.

I recommend cotton fabrics wherever possible. Although cotton was rare in the Period, it is a natural fabric with excellent breatheability. I also recommend poly-cotton blends, because they are stronger and lighter, as long as they look natural. Of course, silks, satins, and velvets are acceptable for the nobility. All classes have access to leather, which was much cheaper then than now. Fur would have been used as lining or as trim. We'll have to deal with fur on a case-by-case basis, as the different kinds of fur have class associations (see colors, below). If it's appropriate to the character, it will probably be approved.

In general, no shiny fabrics or knits will be approved. The one great exception to that rule is suedecloth. It is a polyester knit, but it looks like a low-grade velvet or (in a brown color) suede. It's versatile, cheap, easy to work with, and darn-near indestructible. You can fight in your suedecloth doublet, get it filthy, throw it in the washer, and it will come out looking new. It can be a little warm, but it's not usually too bad.

Another fabric to avoid is any sort of lace-by-the yard. I am referring here to the sheets of lace seen on some costumes sold at Festivals. Of course, lace trim is acceptable, depending on the type. Eyelet lace is not Period, but any crochet-type is.

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During the Renaissance, the gentry emerged as a quickly-rising middle class. Through commerce, many folks were able to afford better and better clothing. It rapidly became difficult to tell the difference between commoners and nobles by what they wore. In an attempt to preserve the class structure, Parliament passed a series of laws regulating who could wear what. These laws are known as sumptuary laws. For the text of some of those laws, click here, or, if you prefer, there is also a chart available.

What does this mean to us? Well, we need to have costumes that will express our characters, and which will show our patrons the world in which those characters live. So, if you are playing a noble character, check the Sumptuary Laws to see what colors a person of your rank is permitted to wear, and wear them. The more status-conscious your charater is, the more ostentatiously he or she will wear the richest fabrics and furs allowed by law!

For the most part, the important rule is to avoid purple, unless you are royalty. Moreover, avoid any color that can be construed as purple. There are a lot of reds and maroons that are too close for comfort. Again, when in doubt, ask.

The color black is also problematic. Although the matter is subject to some debate, I have seen versions of the Sumptuary Laws that relegate black to the royalty and upper nobility as well. This is simply not practical for us. We will, in general, allow most folk to wear black accent pieces (belts, boots, etc.), but we need to avoid having an entire cast dressed in black. The people of the time wore the brightest colors they could find, and our cast should reflect that fact.

This brings us to color, in general. Many of the colors available today simply did not exist 400 years ago. Neons, for example, did not exist, and will not be approved. Theoretically, most of the strong primary colors, especially blues and greens, were unattainable with the dyes that existed. We will bend the rules on those if the character warrants it.

By now, you're surely asking "what can I wear?" The answer to this question will vary widely depending on your character. Peasants should in general stick to earth-tones: browns, dark greens and reds, even some dark blues are excellent choices. Here is an excellent treatise on color in peasant dress, illustrated with period paintings. The higher the class, the more color you can wear, and the nicer the fabric. The gentry could wear some brocades, if the color is fairly plain and has minimal trim, while a nobleman's doublet is often an explosion of trim and velvet!

A Word of Caution:

Most shows require that all fabrics and colors worn by the cast must be approved by the Costume Designer before they can be used. Most fabric stores will let you take a swatch to bring in for approval. On the other hand, they will usually not allow you to return cut fabric. Do not buy a tremendous amount of fabric before you get it approved! If you do, and your fabric turns out not to be suitable, you will be stuck with that fabric, and will have to go and get something else.

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Before we go on to particular items of clothing, a word on the kind of wear-and-tear your costume will have to survive. These are not traditional stage conditions, nor do we have a costumer who will be caring for your costume for you. So think of the pieces you make as clothes, rather than costumes. You will be living in them two days a week, for six weeks, plus rehearsals and promotions, so they must be durable. Furthermore, most sites get pretty dusty and dirty, so make your costume washable, if at all possible.

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Clothing Pieces

Bloomers and Underpinnings
Jerkins and Doublets
Ladies' Gowns
Shoes and Footwear
Belts, Jewelry, and Other Accessories
Cloaks and Capes

Specialty Costumes

Gypsy Costume Guide

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Some Final Advice

This page is written with the assumption that you have some sewing skills already. If you are learning to sew (as I did) through making your costume, I recommend starting with a bag hat, then making the pants and shirt (or blouse and bloomers, for women), before moving on to the more complex pieces. If you set out to make a gown for a duchess as your first project, you will regret it, I promise. I learned this one the hard way! While sewing, if you get stuck or frustrated, put it down for a while, or ask someone with more experience for help. There are a bunch of us who will gladly give you some good advice and tips on technique, so please, feel free to ask any questions you might have. Good luck!

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Other Resources

General Period Costume Sites:
Elizabethan Costuming Page - This is an excellent site that covers a variety of topics, and is updated frequently.
Renaissance Costume Page - This is another general information page, and is part of a larger site, "The Costumer's Manifesto." If you're into costuming, this site is a treat!
Get Dressed for Faire - Yet another general-purpose site. Links to some patterns, and a section on blackwork embroidery (for more on that subject, try Blackwork Embroidery).
The Renaissance Tailor - This is a rather advanced site, but with interesting research.
Elizabethan Costume: History and Technique By Margo Anderson. Pages describing the clothing of various classes, and a neat page describing period trimming techniques.
Dawn Pages -- Costume Guide - The source of many of the patterns I link to from this site. Excellent instructions and illustrations!

Sites for Costumers:
You may have noticed that those of us who make costumes exhibit, upon occasion, a fair amount of attitude regarding our work. It has been said, in fact (although not by me), that the more cantankerous the costumer, the better the costume! In addition to The Costumer's Manifesto, the following sites are wonderful examples of the wit and wisdom of costumers, as well as containing some good tips and tricks for my fellow surly stitchers.
One Tough Costumer - The name says it all. The Elizabethan Costume page has some interesting insights into historical costuming for Festival. Be sure to check out the rules for the Bad Elizabethan Costume Contest on the Costume Humor page!
The Costume Design Page - Still more good tips and tricks, and riddled with wit!

Picture Sites:
One of the best ways to get a feel for what's appropriate is to look at some pictures from the period. It's also a great way to gather inspiriation for your own designs. In addition to the picture links at The Elizabethan Costume Page, the following sites have some good pictures:
The History of Costume by Braun & Schneider
Images from Caroso's Il Ballarino (1581) - Includes a link to images from Arbeau's Orchesography, a period dance manual.
Tudor Dress Portfolio of Images - Portraits and period paintings.
La Couturière Parisienne - More portraits and period paintings.
Habitus Praecipuorum - Plates from a 1577 book purporting to show the dress of all nations.
Renaissance Fashion - Another good portrait site. Includes several good images of lower/middle-class women.
Costume Drawings by Albert Kretchmer - Plates from a commonly-used reference book. Shows lots of different classes and professions.

There are a lot of good costume books available. My favorites are listed here.

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