Monday, September 16, 2013

Garb on ye cheape

In a couple of weeks, Brian and I are going to the Maryland Renaissance Festival with some friends. After a bit of cajoling, Brian agreed to go in period garb (or at least, an approximation thereof) if we could put together an outfit for him that would look reasonable. I already had a shirt for him that I thought would suit the purpose; I spotted it on the racks at our local thrift shop last year and grabbed it thinking that it would come in handy for this kind of event in the future. (It was technically a woman's blouse, but in a size large enough to fit him.) And he already had a couple of different belts that would fit over it. So from the waist up, he was in pretty good shape; we just needed something for the lower half.

I started combing through Renaissance costuming guides to get an idea of what would be appropriate. I did know roughly what the men's fashions of the Elizabethan era actually looked like, but I also knew that strict historical accuracy isn't exactly a requirement in a Renn Faire setting. We are talking, after all, about a place where fully armored knights can come stomping out onto the jousting ground and suddenly begin singing, "Rock the Casbah." So what I was really after was some sort of general consensus on how it's appropriate to dress for this kind of event.

I found a couple of costuming guides produced by individual Renn Faires, as well as websites belonging to dealers in Renaissance garb, and they seemed to offer conflicting information on what sort of pants (breeches, hose, etc.) are appropriate. Some sites claimed that full-length trousers are an absolute no-no; others, including one specifically about the Maryland Renaissance Festival, said that ankle-length breeches are suitable for peasant garb if they are worn cross-gartered (tied close to the leg with overlapping laces between the knee and ankle). I also noticed that the Renaissance breeches sold by vendors such as Medieval Collectibles and Pearsons Renaissance Shop typically included full-length, loose-fitting trousers that looked like nothing so much as modern sweat pants. So I figured, if it was good enough for them, it should be good enough for us.

With a little experimentation, we found that Brian's old sweat pants would stay on just fine when hiked up to the knee or just below—a style that should pass muster even with the most persnickety of critics. We then dug around in his sock drawer and found some brown socks that would reach nearly to the knee, with the elastic neatly hidden under the hem of the sweats. That just left us the feet to deal with. Modern-looking shoes would spoil the look (that's the kind of thing that really will get you laughed at in a Renaissance Faire setting). However, a little more browsing led me to another costume guide that recommended a pair of "Renaissance canvas shoes" that looked just like the basic kung fu slipper sold for $7 a pair at fine discount stores everywhere. The local C.H. Martin, it turns out, no longer carries these, but it did have several other cheap shoes that looked like they would pass muster as Renaissance footwear. Brian tried on a $13 pair of leather sandals that looked reasonable, but they didn't feel very comfortable, so they wouldn't be ideal for a festival where you basically spend the whole day walking around. Eventually we settled on a $6 pair of corduroy slip-ons that were technically bedroom slippers, but looked neutral enough not to call attention to themselves. Though still not very supportive, they were more comfortable than the sandals for less than half the price—and they could still serve as actual slippers when the Faire was over, while the sandals would probably just sit in a closet gathering dust.

The outfit was now basically complete, but it was lacking a key accessory: some sort of belt pouch for storing such modern-day necessities as wallet and keys. However, I figured that even my (extremely) limited sewing skills could handle something this basic. And the project suddenly became even easier when I remembered a trick I'd used in the past: I made myself a makeup bag by cutting off the end of one leg from an old pair of velour pants and stitching it closed at the top. This left a nice, neat hem already sewn at the cuff, and all I had to do was attach some Velcro tape for fastening it. So I figured a variation on this technique would be the easiest possible way to whip up a little drawstring pouch.

I rummaged through my scrap fabric bin and found a pair of black cotton/linen pants that had worn out at the thigh, but still had plenty of good material in the legs. These seemed ideal for the purpose, since linen is actually a typical period fabric. So I hacked off about six inches from the bottom of one leg and quickly hand-stitched the cut end closed. (I do have a sewing machine, but I'm so incompetent at using it that it would have taken me longer just to set the thing up and thread it than it did to sew the piece by hand.) Then I went digging through our collection of shoe-repair materials until I found a pair of black shoelaces long enough to serve as ties for the bag. The cuffs of the pants had already been taken up with a very loose stitch, so it was a simple matter to push the rigid end of a shoelace in between the stitches and, keeping one finger on it, gradually work it along under the fabric until it was halfway around and push it back out at the other end. Did the same thing on the other side, tied the loose ends together, and presto—a simple drawstring bag that's period-appropriate, large enough to hold a wallet and keys, and easy to knot around the belt for carrying.

So here you see the complete ensemble:
  • shirt ($1 at thrift shop)
  • breeches (free from closet)
  • belt (free from closet)
  • belt pouch (free from scrap fabric)
  • stockings (free from closet)
  • shoes ($6 at C.H. Martin)
Total: $7 for a complete (or at least passable) men's Renaissance outfit. Considering that the cheapest (and cheapest-looking) men's Renaissance costumes sold online start at around $35 and don't even include the shoes, I'd say that's not bad at all.
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