A Guide to Renaissance and Medieval Costumes
Renaissance Faire Costumes
Okay, I’ll admit it—I guess I’m a renaissance fair geek. I love a good renaissance fair, renaissance faire, or renaissance festival. Whatever you want to call these events, they’re loads of fun! Hubby and I always try to attend the big renaissance fair in Atlanta every year, and sometimes we’re joined by friends and family members. When I was still teaching at our local high school, I coordinated a renaissance fair every year, too. Many of the students and teachers dressed in renaissance costumes or in medieval costumes. At renaissance fairs and medieval festivals, you see the same thing. In addition to great entertainment, good food, and unique items available for sale, visiting a festival lets you get a look at some medieval costumes, renaissance faire costumes, and replica renaissance clothing. Believe me, some of them are pretty darn amazing! These costumes provide for some fascinating “people watching.”
Generally speaking, the Renaissance is the period in Europe that occurred from the 1300s through the 1600s. The word “Renaissance” means “rebirth,” and the period was certainly a time of awakenings. Most people associate the Renaissance with the arts, but it was also a movement that involved music, literature, social issues, science, diplomacy, religion, philosophy, education, politics, and music. It was a time in which man used a combination of intellect, reason, and emotion to better understand the world and the human condition.
The earliest beginnings of the Renaissance were in Florence, perhaps in part due to chance events. For one thing, the rich and powerful Medici family were true patrons of the arts, and they encouraged other wealthy families to encourage and support worthy artists. It also happens that some of history’s most famous artists lived in Florence when the Renaissance was born. These include Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and Botticelli.
Thanks to the invention of the printing press, news and ideas were able to spread rather quickly. By the 1400s, the movement had spread over much of Italy. After that, it didn’t take long for the concepts to spread to Spain, Germany, the Netherlands, England, France, Portugal, Russia, Hungary, and most of the rest of Europe.
Among non-historians, there’s sometimes a lot of confusion about the middle ages, or the medieval period, and the Renaissance. There’s a good reason for that. The history of movements doesn’t usually deal in absolute dates. People didn’t wake up on January 1, 1300, and say, “Okay, now the middle ages are over. It’s time for the Renaissance!” Modern historians often assign periods their names and estimated dates years later. This becomes even more confusing when you realize that there was some “overlapping” between the medieval period and the Renaissance.
The medieval period is often the name given to the years starting with 600 and ending in 1500. Many historians divide the middle ages into three ages: the early middle ages, the high middle ages, and the late middle ages. The early medieval period was from 600-900, the high middle ages were from 900-1300, and the late middle ages were from 1300 to 1500. Since the Renaissance began in the 1300s, you can see that for some 200 years, it’s sometimes difficult to distinguish between the late middle ages and the Renaissance. You’ll see where I’m going with this once you arrive at the costumes section.
Renaissance clothing varied from country to country and from the lower classes to the nobility. Also, some Renaissance clothing embraced the new styles, while some items were more influenced by the medieval period. Some elements of Renaissance fashion seem strange to us today—the cod piece, doublets, men’s hose, funnel sleeves, stomachers, and elaborate headwear.
Color was an important element in Renaissance clothing. Dyes were often expensive, so only the wealthy could afford to wear certain colors. Peasants usually had to wear dull colors or natural colors. The poor were much more concerned with durability, warmth, and function. The upper class, on the other hand, dressed to impress. Flowing, voluminous dresses, rich robes, fur capes, embroidered socks, puffed sleeves, ruffles, silk, and velvet were some of the most popular trends in Renaissance clothing.
Some renaissance dresses were one piece, but others were actually a combination of different garments. Of course, Renaissance dresses were long, and most had long sleeves. A typical outfit for women during the Renaissance and the medieval period might include stockings, bloomers, a long or hip-length chemise (blouse), a gown or skirt, and a bodice. The bodice was usually cinched tightly. The skirt was usually full, and it might be split in the front to reveal the underlying chemise. Over all these, a cape or cloak might have been worn. Renaissance dresses and gowns, especially those for the wealthy, might be embellished with embroidery, brocade, fur, ruffles, smocking, pleats, jewels, or elaborate collars.
Men’s Renaissance Clothing
For the upper classes, men’s Renaissance clothing was just as ornate and impressive as the outfits worn by women. In fact, when you consider the cod piece, the men’s might be even more outlandish. Typically, men’s Renaissance clothing included several layers, just as the women’s clothing did. The shirt was often made of silk. Sleeves were long, and they were sometimes slashed. Shoulders were often padded to make the shoulders appear broader. Over the shirt, a doublet—a tight waistcoat—was worn. A padded jacket or a robe was usually worn over the doublet. A skirt, hose, footwear, belt, and headwear completed the ensemble. Men’s Renaissance clothing for peasants, of course, was much more coarse and simple.
Renaissance Faire Clothing
For diehard renaissance fair attendees, there’s a big difference between renaissance faire clothing and renaissance fair costumes. Most of us might think of the two terms interchangeably, but the serious fair-goers don’t. I’m talking about those individuals who go “all out” and spare no expense in reproducing authentic renaissance clothes. Such devotees might spend more than $1,000 on the items included in their renaissance dress. We met a couple one year at the Georgia Renaissance Festival who fit this description perfectly. The two had spent more than $8,000 on their outfits.
Renaissance faire clothing is made from the same materials and by the same methods used during the Renaissance. In other words, most of these outfits are handmade from natural fibers, including wool, cotton, linen, fur, or silk. The shoes might be made of the same fibers, are they might be hand-sewn from leather.
Renaissance costume wear is different, strictly speaking, from Renaissance clothing. For the most part, these are just-for-fun items that can be purchased in costume stores. Also, many medieval costumes can be observed at a typical renaissance fair. Renaissance fair costumes and medieval costumes are mass produced, often from modern synthetic materials. You’ve undoubtedly seen such costumes every year at Halloween, in retail giants like Walmart and Kmart. If you want to buy a cheap renaissance costume, check discount stores in October. For even cheaper renaissance and medieval costumes, wait until after Halloween, when the costumes are marked down.
If you want something more authentic to wear to a renaissance fair, check with the festival staff or website before you purchase a costume. Oftentimes, you can rent a suitable costume at the fair, near the main entry gate. Also, the fair you’re attending might offer quality Renaissance costumes and medieval costumes for sale.
Renaissance Costumes – Women
We’ve seen all sorts of Renaissance clothes, Renaissance costumes, and medieval costumes at the Renaissance Festival. These have ranged from a simple peasant costume to very expensive, very detailed renaissance dresses and gowns. As I’ve already mentioned, some of the attendees are serious about their period clothing, while others wear imaginative or whimsical outfits. We’ve seen Anne Boleyn, nuns, noble ladies, tavern wenches, gypsies, evil queens, sorceresses, fairies, Snow White, Juliet, Mother Goose, and Irish lasses. Some women have been pretty creative turning traditionally male costumes into renaissance costumes for women. One I really liked was a huntress, sort of a female version of Robin Hood. The same is often done with pirate outfits.
Renaissance Costumes for Men
Since men had more roles during the medieval period and the Renaissance, it’s usually easier to come up with Renaissance costumes for men. Again, some males are super serious about the authenticity of their dress, while it’s obvious that others just want to have fun. Some of the Renaissance costumes for men that we’ve observed included knights, Henry VIII, wizards, hobbits, Robin Hood, monks, friars, fools, court jesters, farmers, shepherds, swordsmen, and musketeers, just to name a few.
Renaissance Costume Ideas
Are you wondering where to get some Renaissance costume ideas? If you’re not set on “authentic” period clothing, there are several good sources for ideas. I suggest movies like Lord of the Rings, Braveheart, Anne of the Thousand Days, King Arthur, and Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves. For more Renaissance costume ideas, below are some examples of Renaissance festival costumes we’ve seen over the years.
Renaissance Costume Ideas
Red Riding Hood
A peasant costume is easy to put together, especially for men. All you need is a long, loose-fitting white or cream-colored shirt with long, full sleeves; a pair of tight-fitting brown pants; a plain dark vest; and a pair of boots. The pants legs should be tucked into the boots for the best effect. If the shirt is really large, you might want to tie a simple sash around your waist. If you have a leather bag or pouch, carry it as part of your outfit.
Of course, females can wear the same peasant costume, or they can create a more feminine look with a peasant blouse and a long, full skirt in dark or neutral shades. A lace-up bodice or bustier and a handkerchief worn in the hair completes the look.
Georgia Renaissance Festival
Sorry, but I can’t leave without saying more about the Georgia Renaissance Festival. It’s held every spring in Atlanta, and it’s awesome! The event is set in a “village,” with wooden buildings and facades. All sorts of shops line the dirt lanes, selling swords, knives, sporrans, kilts, boots, shoes, skirts, shirts, chemises, blouses, dresses, perfumes, jewelry, coats-of-arms, handmade toys, pottery, hand-blown glass items, hats, caps, scarves, furniture, animal hides, and novelties. Entertainment at the renaissance fair includes comedians, acrobats, birds of prey exhibitions, jousting knights, musicians, storytellers, singers, horses, herding dogs, and more. There are also plenty of games, competitions, and contests for all ages. The food is amazing, too! If you’re ever in the Peach State on a spring weekend, check out the fair. You’ll have a blast!