Renaissance Costume Guide for Women

By / 26th June, 2010 / Costume Guide / No Comments

Welcome! I’ve found that so many of you come across my website specifically through this article I wrote in 2010 (fourteen years ago?!), that it’s time for a rewrite. I’ve put together hundreds, if not thousands, more festival outfits at this point than in 2010, and even the Renaissance Festival world’s view of costuming has shifted over that time. So if you’re looking for help in styling your outfit for wearing to your next Ren Faire outing, you’ve landed at a great place!

First off, you’ll need to understand that Ren Faire fashions are historically inspired, rather than historically accurate. If you’re not sure of the difference, check out the video below by SnappyDragon! She does a GREAT breakdown of the differences, and why Ren Faire garb is different than historically accurate costuming.

Since Ren Faire costuming is more about enjoying yourself and having fun with a historical flair rather than attempting to recreate the processes and painstaking details of the past, you have plenty of leeway to embrace your interests and create an outfit that you get the most enjoyment out of! That said, there are some basic principles for creating a Renaissance inspired outfit, which we’ll touch on here.

Are you wanting to dress as a particular social class? Do you want to go full fantasy and go as a wizard or faerie? Do you want to blend your favorite character from television, movies, or comics into a Renaissance faire version of them? Your answer to these can start your path to deciding on fabric types and color schemes to use in your costuming.

Lower class ensembles have limited color ranges, with lots of creams and browns. Think of undyed fabrics created from linen and wool fibers along with leathers. Middle class ensembles would have more color selection, with the ability to afford more dyes. Silk fabrics would be introduced with limited decorations, along with cottons that are hand-painted or batik. For high class ensembles, linen, cotton, silk, furs, and wool would all be accessible along with elaborate embellishments.

Now if you don’t care about any of that, then the starting point is a base three piece outfit. A chemise, a skirt, and a bodice or corset. But Kitty, corsets are a Victorian garment! They don’t belong in the Renaissance! Guess what, you’re right! Thing is, corsets are fun, supportive garments that remind us of a time that has past. They’re not historically accurate to the Renaissance, but we basically just don’t care. We’re here to enjoy ourselves.

For those of you asking WTF is a chemise?? a chemise is an undergarment–a long shirt–that was worn beneath the main outfit. It absorbs body oils and is regularly changed out and washed to keep the wearer’s other garments fresh. It can also be referred to as a shift. Lengths varied from mid-thigh to ankle length. Modern Ren faire costuming chemises are typically hip to mid-thigh length to accommodate more asymmetrical skirts worn over it. Historically chemises were made of linen, cotton, or a blend of the two, and either undyed fibers or bleached white. Today, we can choose whatever color we like, out of whatever material we like, though the natural fibers are still the most comfortable. There are a variety of sleeve styles to accent the theme of outfit you’re building up.

Now if I have to explain what a skirt is–I will have lost all faith in humanity. Renaissance skirts are ankle to floor length, some with a train at the back, but all very full with lots of swish. Drawstrings and ties were a common finish at the waist to make a skirt fit multiple sizes. After all, fabrics were incredibly expensive to purchase or labor intensive to weave. Then add the labor of hand stitching, and you end up with a garment that needs to last for years. Plain fabrics would be appropriate for lower and middle class wear, while brocades, jacquards, and velvets would be appropriate in moderation for middle class and a necessity for upper class styles.

The last of this three piece ensemble is the bodice or corset. As we touched on earlier, corsets are anachronistic for the Renaissance era. Technically, bodices weren’t truly the style of the time either. (You watched the video, right?) But they are closer to the look than corsets are. Most currently available bodices have center front lacing, though sometimes are laced on both sides, with mild to moderate boning. Bodices are not meant for drawing in at the waist like corsets are, but the majority of bodices have bust coverage whereas corsets are split between overbust and underbust styles. You can even find cropped bodices that can be worn with corsets to give more of the historical silhouette. Go with the colors and fabrics that work for the look you’re creating, and always be sure that your bodice or corset is comfortable for you to wear in a festival environment–essentially, can you wear it for six+ hours at a time while you run around at an event? If your outfit is causing you pain, something is wrong.

With the basic outfit out of the way, the accessories you pair with it are key to achieving your aesthetic. You can of course add further garments to flesh out the ensemble. Jackets, additional skirts, cloaks, detached sleeves, hoods, hats, veils, are all potential options for your styling.

A pirate would have weaponry, a belt or baldric to holster said weaponry, looted jewelry, and fashions that can be utilized on a ship. (And yes, the pirate lasses of the Golden Age of Piracy would wear skirts aboard their vessels while they worked.) A bandana, a hat, and eye makeup would all be appropriate for protecting your eyes.

For fantasy characters like elves or faeries, shimmery wispy fabrics such as organza and chiffon are excellent to achieve an ethereal vibe. Tiaras with crystals, jewelry with moonstones, labradorite, and amethyst, cloaks that drape and flow as you walk.

If you’re doing a Ren version of your chosen media character, integrate accessories that you see the character with. And ask, if this item is too modern, what would it be like out of materials accessible during the Renaissance era?

No matter what aesthetic you’re going for, make sure that your shoes don’t wreck your look. Lace up boots are better than tennis shoes, leather sandals are better than flip flops.

Overall, the ensemble you create should reflect a part of you and give you an outlet to boost your confidence while you escape the everyday. You should look good, feel good, and be happy in your chosen look!

–rewritten and published January 3, 2024


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