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.


  1. I love the images for the mean privateers...I mean sailors. Especially the thrummed caps.

  2. If you are interested in clothing then the new 35 volume series from Stuart Press on "Clothes of the Common Man in Elizabethan and Early Stuart England" may be of interest. The first 10 volumes are now out and the rest are due to roll out in batches of about 6 every 2 months over the next year.

    Contact for more details.

  3. I truly believe that ruffs need to make a comeback in modern fashion! So deliciously gorgeous!
    (and I make them too! )