Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Oops, I did it again....

In a moment of weakness, I went back to join Ren Faire History Snobs. I'm not entirely sure it was a good idea. I'm trying to be pleasant and productive, but the nature of the thing may just bring out the bastard in me, and I may decide it's just not healthy.

I'm monitoring the situation.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Ren Faire Costuming Do's and Do Nots

An excerpt from "Costuming for the Lower and Middle Classes, Elizabethan England 1570-1580" composed by myself and Claudia Laughter, for use as our general costume standards at Much Ado About Sebastopol. It is our hope that these standards will be widely adopted in the community.

These standards have been deliberately kept brief and simple so they are not seen as intimidating or overly burdensome to less skilled costumers. We believe that all Elizabethan-themed events would be much improved if special attention were paid to these following items.


Costumes are Character-Driven:
They should reflect the stations, incomes, occupations and personalities of the characters wearing them. Cut, color, fit, fabric choice and accessories can all tell a visual story that will intrigue the audience and draw them in. Is there some kind of “hook” or quirk that might say something unique about your character?

Clothes Reflect Income:
Find out how much somebody of your profession made and calibrate your costume to that. A person making twenty shillings per year cannot afford opulent jacquards, fancy Italian rapiers, or precious jewelry. On the other hand, we’d like to get away from the image of common laborers looking like ragged beggars. While the lower orders might not have fine fabrics and expensive dyes, their clothes fit, are clean and neatly mended, and they’re proud of the way they look. They’re not laboring on the farm or in the fields, but are attending the social event of the season and should be wearing their “Sunday best.”

Men wear a shirt and a doublet at all times. Only if they’re hard at work they might strip down to a shirt or roll up their sleeves. Women, avoid excessive cleavage. Unmarried women might show more, but married women covered up with high-cut bodices or kerchiefs and partlets. The bust should not spill out over the top of your bodice unless your character is a prostitute.

Coifs and Headcloths for Women:
While women did wear hats, most commonly they wore elaborately tucked and folded headcloths or linen caps called coifs. A hat might be worn on top. Going without any kind of head covering was unacceptable.

We’d like to encourage everyone to wear sleeves at all times except where health and safety dictate their removal. For the most part, Elizabethan’s sleeves were attached and not removable. Sometimes the fashionable had additional sets of sleeves they could change - but they’d always be seen wearing them in public. When hard at work in the fields, men might wear only a shirt, or a jerkin and shirt, and perhaps roll up their sleeves. If you choose to make your sleeves detachable, make sure that the attachments cannot be seen.

Men, in spite of 21st century fashion that dictates that you wear your pants down around or below your hips, Elizabethan trousers are worn up around your natural waist. The front should hit you above your navel, or an inch below your ribcage. Your belt should not ride any lower than that either.

Ruffs are the quintessential Elizabethan fashion statement and were worn by more than the nobility. In period sources, they’re visible on people high to low. They may be either separate garments or attached to the shirts and shifts and are made of fine white linen (and no other colors). They may feature blackwork embroidery for wealthier people. Ruffs are essentially a gathered starched linen ruffle which is ironed into regular setts (usually figure eights).  For a tutorial on making ruffs, see “How to Construct an Authentic Ruff” at

Proper Hats:
Flat caps, woven straw hats, shaped felt hats, knit caps, biggins are all acceptable. Flat caps should have fairly narrow brims - two inches at most. Avoid hats that are so wide that the brim distorts and flops about.

Avoid wide-brimmed cavalier and tricorne “pirate” hats. Neither of these styles is popular in our time and “telegraph” later periods. Unless you’re upper class, avoid the showy plumage often associated with these hats - try more common feathers such as cock, pheasant, or goose feathers, which should be less than 7” long.

Proper Footwear:
Many a fine costume is spoiled by a shoe that looks too modern or too medieval. We understand that some people require special shoes due to podiatric trouble, but any effort made to look as period as possible is appreciated.

Men’s boots should fit closely to the leg, come up over the knee, and be supported by garters of some kind. Boots are generally worn only by people who are riding, though there are a few images of rustic fellows wearing somewhat rougher, cruder boots.

Coats and Jerkins:
Elizabethans wore a whole lot of garments. Coats, surcotes, cloaks, robes and jerkins over doublets make a very period statement.

Hand Sewing:
While it is not expected that your garments be completely hand sewn, it is asked that all visible finishing seams be done this way. Much of our work is done up close, and details like this help maintain the illusion. If it can be hidden, then machine sewing is recommended for durability. Avoid top-stitching. Machine embroidery is rarely acceptable.

No Metal Grommets:
Do not use metal grommets in your clothing. If you do, they will need to be completely covered by stitching around them, obscuring them with thread. It is just as simple to create hand stitched eyelet holes in your clothing.

Over time some particularly egregious abuses of historical costuming have developed among Renaissance faire enthusiasts and they have no place among the cast at any event that claims to be a representation of history. Some faires may accept these without comment, but the following are items and styles which are to be avoided:

Animal tails
Bondage gear
Any garment made of upholstery tapestry
Body art such as henna designs, tattoos, facial and “primitive” piercings
Hair colors not found in nature
Mohawks and other obviously modern haircuts
Modern “slogan” and logo pins
More than one or two “favors”
The triangular flap used instead of a codpiece
Bag hats on men – it’s a non-period women’s style

About “Pyrate” Costuming:
In recent years, the pirate theme has grown very popular at Renaissance-themed events among both the patrons and the participants. While the oceans of the 16th century were certainly infested with corsairs and cutthroats, they did not resemble the classic Hollywood pirate of the 18th century. Seafaring men looked very different from landsmen as a glance at these images will demonstrate.

Those wishing to portray amoral crewmembers for hire should ask themselves why their characters are attending a country faire in a landlocked region. If the intent is to portray a bravo “badass,” there are plenty of other options available. Out of work soldiers and masterless men were notorious layabouts, rioters and thieves, and they may be more suitable for the environment.

A Proviso:
We’d also like to remind everyone that, just because you purchased something at a faire or on a website that says “Authentyk Tudor Garbe,” it doesn’t mean it’s appropriate. If one is careful, one may find some items that do work, but those are more the exception rather than the rule. There’s really no substitute for constructing the garment you need based on solid research.

Thursday, May 10, 2012


So much to learn, so much to know. However will I stuff it all into my cranium?

Relax. Some people have already sifted through stacks of books for you, and have distilled from them bite-sized, easy to digest nuggets of knowledge for you to nibble on.

Visit the Resources page of the Northern Chapter of The Guild of St. George, Inc.

Astound your friends with your sudden eloquence on a variety of 16th century subject matter!

Monday, May 7, 2012


A couple of posts ago, I mentioned that there had been some trouble which caused me to resign from the Ren Faire History Snobs Facebook group.

Not only that, but several incidents have happened in the last few weeks to cause me to reassess my entire attitude, my public face, and the manner in which I participate in the faire community.

The group, and the group on before it, were often contentious. We enjoyed a bit of heated debate now and then. While we all wanted a better representation of historical reality at faires, sometimes we'd disagree over exactly where the line should be drawn between fact and theatre. Or maybe we'd clash over notions people had received through their experience at faire, which conflicted with what our independent research had shown us.

Sometimes we were highly critical of less enthusiastic faire participants who we felt had their priorities wrong. People outside the group often thought we were way too critical, and that our sniping amounted to unnecessary bullying, and in some cases that was true. As a moderator, I preferred that people refrain from focusing on and ridiculing individual or naming names. I occasionally had to admonish the group to "hate the sin, not the sinner". 

But something shifted recently in the group. It seemed that the unity we shared had begun to fragment, and a kind of polarization developed. One one hand there were people who, while they didn't care for the commercialization and dumbing-down of their faires, they didn't care to challenge themselves, and clung to outdated notions and faire traditions. On the other hand were uncompromising precisionists, especially in the field of costuming, for whom anything except absolute adherence to period materials and construction techniques is unthinkable. I call them "stitch-counters".

These groups rubbed each other the wrong way, and simple discussion over the appropriate shape and manner of wearing a straw hat became a battleground that extended far beyond the initial topic. As the people on both ends of the spectrum got more dug in to their positions, the shouting increased, people stopped listening, and things started getting personal. 

Due to my more moderate views, I ended up arguing with people on all sides of the conflict and I got pretty fed up with the whole thing. It had got to the point where the group was no longer a thing of pleasure, but a source of stress, and I dreaded logging in. I felt we had strayed from our purpose, and in a fit of pique I exited the group.

Soon thereafter, I got involved in a discussion on somebody else's wall about nasty attitudes and bullying by self-proclaimed experts in the faire and costuming communities. While many of the responses there reflected the annoying point of view that participation in a faire was supposed to be about something other than theatre or history, some of the responses there gave me pause to reflect on the impression made by immoderate speech, how much an unkind word can hurt, and how far the damage done may travel. I realized that due to my advocacy of historicity, I had been lumped-in with the overzealous, but socially-challenged precisionists in those communities, who take delight in nit-picking and tearing people down.

The next weekend, I traveled to RPFS to attend a reunion of court participants, and I was truly excited to have the opportunity to spend some time with old friends and mentors, some of whom I may never get to see again. While I was happy to attend the reunion, let's say I was less than impressed with what my beloved event had become. The contrast between the memories my friends evoked, and what I was seeing was jarring. Most of the faces there were new, and they really had no frame of reference for what it had been, or could be, and most likely didn't care anyway. This was their reality, and they did their best under their circumstances. There were yet some brave pockets of resistance, but I left at the end of the weekend feeling sad and defeated.

I had come face to face with the slickest of the commercial beasts that was methodically sucking the soul out of the faire concept, and considered whether or not I was fighting a losing battle, and that all my rage and frustration was for nothing, and might even be unhealthy for me. Between my disappointment at RPF, my abandonment of the Snobs, and the forces of laziness and complacency I observed in my friend's conversation, I wondered if my participation was even worth my while anymore. I wondered if my point of view had become obsolete, and that I was captaining a sinking ship.

After much reflection, I decided I needed an attitude adjustment. As the Champion of Historicity, many people in the community admire my courage and conviction, and look to me for leadership. My exit from the group had caused many of them to contact me personally and encourage me to return. They said the movement really required my passion, experience, and eloquence. They brought me around to soldiering on, but I realized that coming from a place of rage, frustration, and derision didn't help me or my cause in any way - that as the basis for my actions, it would poison them and be reflected back at me in the form of fear, hostility, and resistance. I realized that my efforts should come from a place of love and enthusiasm. I'm already an intimidating figure. I don't get it, but I'm told that my demeanor, reputation, and talents inspire fear in people, so it takes some work for me to reach them through all that. It doesn't help if it is compounded by an air of negativity, and a reputation for snark.

So, I've made a decision to dispose of the negative, and focus on the positive, and do what I can to aid the willing and those who need guidance, without looking down on them, or giving them cause to retreat in fear or embarrassment. I will cease to allow the unwilling to draw too much of my attention, nor tarnish my view of the show. There are areas in which I can effect change, and places I cannot, and I must learn to discern one from the other. I'm not sure if I will return to the snobs group, but I will continue my battle here, and wherever (and only wherever) my opinion is welcome or requested.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

2012 Renaissance Symposium

This coming weekend, May 5th and 6th, Renaissance Productions (Valhalla, San Jose, Ardenwood, Folsom Faires) is presenting the 2012 Renaissance Symposium at Folsom City Lions Park in Folsom.

Your truly and Mrs. Porter will be teaching two separate classes:

Improvisation for the Interactive Environment
Part lecture, part activity. This class covers the principles of improvisational theatre, adapted for the interactive, historically-based faire environment. Concentration on establishing a premise, supporting and building on it, listening, timing, staging, and involving the audience.

Characterization: Building a character for an interactive environment
The class will explore ways to make simple, clear choices about our characters that communicate easily and instantly to our audience. We’ll concentrate on how we look, what we do, and what we say, and how they all reveal our character’s basic drives.

Why in a park this year? In these rather challenging economic times, it has proven difficult to find event venues that are affordable for many faire participants, so this time is has been scaled down from a more convention-like event, to a couple of days in a shady and familiar park (where Folsom faire is held). It's extremely affordable (twenty bucks!) and offers everyone a chance to meet and hobnob with their fellow performers outside the bustle of a faire performance.

Hope so see all RenProd participants there!