Everything You Need to Know About Renaissance Faires
Want to party like it’s 1499? Summer is the season for Renaissance Faires and festivals, and they are absolutely some of our favorite events here at BuyCostumes – as if we needed more reasons to dress up!
Our huge selection of Renaissance costumes has something for everyone, whether you’re a knave or a knight. Keep on reading to learn more about the history behind these “ye olde tyme” events, how you can participate, and how you can have a great time in costume!
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What is a Renaissance Faire, anyway?
Renaissance Faires can take several forms. Some are one-and-done weekends; others are months-long extravaganzas. Either way, the constants involved generally include music, food, arts, crafts, and games, all as they were in the 1500s. Performers and vendors dress up and stay in character for the duration of the event – and although dressing up is usually not required for visitors, it’s definitely encouraged!
When was the first Renaissance Faire?
The first true Renaissance Faire, as we know them today, was the Renaissance Pleasure Faire of Southern California in 1962. Originating as a one-off fundraiser event for a local radio station, the RPFS is still alive today, having grown into a massive festival that attracts a quarter of a million visitors annually.
That’s the singular event responsible for the main Renaissance festival movement in the United States today, but medieval-themed historical reenactments have been around since the 19th Century. The Eglinton Tournament of 1839 brought 100,000 spectators to the Scottish countryside for an afternoon of jousting and general revelry.
To go back even earlier still, it can be said that modern Renaissance Faires have their roots in the Gothic Revival of the middle 18th Century. Known for a rise in architectural style mimicking genuine medieval-era castles and cathedrals, the period also saw jousting competitions and similar events being held as early as the 1770s in Europe.
Where can I find Renaissance Faires?
What should I wear to the Faire?
That’s the real reason you’re reading this, isn’t? We can’t blame you – we’re all about the costumes too!
An appropriate faire costume can be as simple as this Renaissance dress or this tavern maiden getup, or as complex as this noble knight. Ladies may choose to take the sexy route, as a racy Robin Hood-style archer or drop-dead gorgeous dragon slayer. Most pirate costumes are accurate for the era too, and donning one can be an excellent way to create a fun character for yourself to portray.
Winter isn’t coming yet (thankfully), so there’s no need to brace yourself. But, you can definitely add some Game of Thrones costume inspiration into your Renaissance gear. As with any costume event, pop culture references will always draw great reactions. You can even go with Assassin’s Creed costumes, since Ezio and Connor’s games are set around the correct time period.
It’s always important to accessorize your costume. For Renaissance Faires, this means getting just the right boots, belts, and hats to match your look. Additionally, many venues will not allow real weapons (e.g. swords, shields, and daggers) inside the fairgrounds, unless you’re a performer. Costume weapons and armor are good-looking alternatives that are completely safe to wield at the faire!
What was Renaissance fashion really like?
Now that we know what Renaissance fairs are like today, how accurate are they to what people really wore during that era? We could fill hundreds and hundreds of books with facts and information about real Renaissance fashion (historians and scholars already have), but this is only meant be a brief overview of a few major points. Consider it to be a little extra inspiration for those that prefer to enhance or make their own Renaissance costumes from scratch, or simply want to be as authentic as possible.
Women (and men) have used makeup and cosmetics to accent their looks for thousands of years. Ancient Egyptians are known have used primitive eyeliners and mascaras, as well as skin creams and balms to provide sun protection, for example, and just about every time period and culture has had some sort of defining makeup movement.
In the European Renaissance, pale skin was very sought-after. This trend was set, or at least greatly pushed, by Elizabeth I of England, whose reign lasted from 1558 until her death in 1603. As a woman of already naturally pale complexion, Elizabeth used bright white makeup to cover blemishes and scarring that resulted from smallpox, and of course other women followed. The white makeup used to achieve the desirable effect was typically made of a lead powder, occasionally with a mercury additive. Not surprisingly, Elizabeth (and likely, many others) died of heavy metal poisoning – the chemicals in the makeup may have actually caused much of the skin discoloration they were meant to hide.
For both men’s’ and women’s’ clothing in the Renaissance, the colors of garments worn had significant meanings. Generally, darker, vibrant colors were attributed to wealth and high society – not only were the dyes required to create these fabrics much more expensive, but darker colors tend to accentuate the shine of gold and jewelry.
Red was a color of high social status and royalty. Not only did Elizabeth I wear it in several of her portraits, but it was also a color of gentlemen, judges, and government officers. Orange, by comparison, was associated with the poor. We hate to talk about our favorite color like that, but it’s true – peasants would attempt to copy the upper class, but cheaper dyes resulted in oranges instead of reds. Browns, beiges, and grays were also “low class” colors for the same reasons.
Purple is a color associated with royalty and power. In the Renaissance, it was frequently worn by the Medici and their followers, but the color has had a similar status as the favorite of various kings and emperors, dating back hundreds of years further – Tyrian purple was made from snail shells, and very difficult to come by in Renaissance Europe. By contrast, woad, used in blue dyes, was very common, which meant that blue clothing was typically associated with commoners and servants.
Other colors were less tied to social standing, and carried subtler meanings. Green represented youth, spring, and love. Yellow was a neutral color in some regions, but indicated prostitutes in Renaissance Italy. White symbolized purity and black symbolized mourning, as they mostly do today.
Shapes and Sizes
A big point of men’s and women’s Renaissance fashion was to modify the body’s natural silhouette – an aspect that isn’t always faithfully recreated in modern Renaissance fair costumes, save for the die-hards among us.
Beginning around the 1490s, huge padded sleeves and stockings started appearing in Northern Europe, and German-influenced styles included lots of puffs and ruffles around necks, shoulders, and backs to change the shape of the human body. German design also contributed a lot of rich colors and bold, vibrant patterns to Renaissance fashion, as well as more luxurious materials like furs and velvets. This voluminous style gave way to a lot of Spanish-influenced, tighter-fitting garments in the 1550s, though, when Mary I of England married Philip II of Spain. Accessories like neck ruffs and farthingales still served the purpose of modifying body shapes, but into a more rigid and less flowing look than before.
Men’s clothing often opted for a slightly more geometric look, too. Knee-length tunics and jerkins (a type of short jackets) were common, and created squarer silhouettes, accentuating the torso. Pads were used to widen shoulders, and some men even wore corsets to appear slimmer.
A coincidental, yet useful, function of all the extra layers and padding was warmth. Global climate, especially in Europe, was a lot cooler in the Renaissance than it is today, due in part to the Little Ice Age. If you’ve ever sweltered in the summer heat at a Renaissance fair and wondered how they put up with it back then, that’s how.
Pirates? In my Renaissance? As it just so happens, the very beginning of the Golden Age of Piracy coincides with the tail end of the Renaissance period, the middle-to-late 1600s. Does this mean that Renaissance fairs are really just the same as pirate festivals? No, but you can totally still wear pirate costumes to a Renaissance fair and be completely on the right page as far historical accuracy goes.
If you want to learn more about pirate costumes and how they really came to be and evolved through history, check out this article for more info.
Are you ready to Renaissance it up this summer? What’s your favorite style of Ren Faire costume? If you liked this article and want to see more like it, share your thoughts with us on Facebook and Twitter @BuyCostumes! Check out our Pinterest boards, too, to get amazing costume ideas for any occasion.