An array of renaissance faire costume character looks can be seen at ren festivals across the U.S. Because 16th century European clothing styles varied depending on factors such as social class (lower, middle and upper-class), current fashion trends, occupation (jester, king, etc.), occasion, region (England, Ireland, France, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, etc.), age and personal taste, there are endless character look possibilities. You can get really specific and put together a renaissance faire costume based on the exact character you wish to become or you can do your best to replicate a character look that is commonly seen at ren festivals. Of course, you can do a little of both. You can also dress according to the ren festival's theme you are attending, rules or recommendations (if any) and time period; most ren festivals in the U.S. are set in the Elizabethan Era (1558-1603) in England while others are set in earlier time periods.
Below are a few of the most common, generic, ren garb character looks starting with 'the peasant', which has to be the most popular renaissance faire costume of all, and a brief overview and photo of each look. To learn more about 16th century clothing styles, get more ideas about what to wear and shop for quality renaissance faire costumes refer to the list of websites at the end.
The lower-class rural peasant was very poor. They couldn't afford fine clothing, but did their best to mimic the fashion trends of their day. A peasant woman's wardrobe might have included a smock (a white, shirt-like undergarment of varying necklines usually made of linen worn to protect outerwear from oil and sweat), bodice or pair of bodies (corset), petticoat (skirt), hose, ruff (choker-like collar), overdress, cap (hat), detachable sleeves, stockings, kirtle (over gown) and partlet (neck and shoulder cover). A white shirt worn under a lace-up bodice or vest attached or tucked into a skirt worn under a second skirt cinched into the waist is part of a common renaissance faire peasant costume (see the woman pictured to above to the right).
A peasant man's wardrobe might have included a long white shirt, loose trousers, jerkin (sleeveless vest) and tights. The 16th century painting The Egg Dance by Pieter Aertson 1557 to the left depicts a peasant scene that gives an accurate depiction of what a peasant man wore during the 16th century. A common renaissance fair peasant costume for a man consists of a white roomy shirt, vest, loose trousers, hose, hat and rustic shoes.
The merchant was part of the middle-class and could have been male or female. The carpenter, weaver, shopkeeper, banker, bureaucrat, and wives and daughters of businessmen also made up the middle-class. The 16th century European merchant middle-class wore attire very similar in style, but not in quality, to the upper-class. The middle-class had grown considerably in number during the 15th and 16th centuries and enjoyed displaying their accrued wealth through their fancy attire.
Early dresses from the period were empire-wasted. Late 16th century dresses consisted of a V-shaped bodice a-top a flowing, voluminous skirt that would've looked similar to what the woman is wearing in the photo to the right. Common clothing pieces for a middle-class woman included a smock, ruff, petticoat (skirt), corset, bodice, bum roll (small undergarment worn around hips), over skirt (commonly slashed) and accessories such as feathers, rings and necklaces. Common pieces for a middle-class man included a jerkin, doublet (sleeveless jacket), slops (short pants), breeches (lower body garment), detachable sleeves, flat cap (hat), feathers, gloves, jewelry and a pouch. Fabrics could have been made of fine silk, velvet and cotton.
Men and women always wore a hat in public during the Elizabethan era. The couple in renaissance faire costume pictured above to the right with their decorated hats represent what a middle-class couple might have worn. To see historical paintings of the middle-class in 16th century Europe in historical paintings see: http://www.elizabethancostume.net/mappeople/
The King and Queen as well as the prince, princess, duke and duchess made up the highest social class of all... the royalty. The nobility (the baron, baroness, count, countess and knight) came in second in status. The most formal of renaissance faire costumes are the King and Queen. The highly ornate, luxurious clothing only worn by kings and queens of the 16th century distinguished their royal social status. English Parliament of the late 16th century even passed laws to maintain social structure called sumptuary laws regulating who wore what.
An upper-class woman's dress was very complicated and a servant was usually employed to help put her clothing on. Pieces included her fine linen white smock, stockings, bum roll, over skirt (usually split up the front), corset, Spanish or French farthingale (hoop skirt), petticoat (underskirt), ruff, partlet and fine accessories such as feathers, cuffs, earrings, rings (usually worn on every finger except the middle) and necklaces. A Queen Elizabeth I character in renaissance faire costume is pictured to the left.
An upper-class man's dress was equally complicated and decked out in decorum. Pieces included a fine linen shirt, jerkin, cloak, doublet, hose, gown, stockings, cloak, coif (a hat), ruff and accessories such as feathers and jewelry. A Henry VIII character in renaissance faire costume is pictured to the right.
Gypsies in Western Europe were nomadic and made a living doing work such as seasonal farming and clairvoyance. A popular North American version of a renaissance faire gypsy costume consists of colorful peasant clothing in addition to accessories such as head scarves, ornate Indian-inspired jewelry and, for women, a shawl wrapped around the waist. Musical instruments like the tambourine are sometimes seen used as props. To see how gypsies or Roma people and their clothing were depicted in historical paintings see: http://www.larsdatter.com/romani.htm
Pirates were criminals of the sea. The stereotypical pirate look is popular and worn by both men and women. There were a few women pirates of the 16th century such as the famous Irish pirate Grace O'Malley. A very popular renaissance faire costume for women is the pirate wench, which usually consists of peasant garb in black, red and white fabrics adorned in pirate accessories like gold jewelry and head scarves.
A common pirate renaissance faire costume for a man or woman consists of a white, loose shirt under a vest, trousers, boots and pirate accessories such as swords, head scarves , tall boots and bold pieces of jewelry like big, gold hoop earrings. The pirate character pictured above to the right looks a little like Pirate of the Caribbean's Jack Sparrow with his dreaded, beaded beard. His bright red trousers, brown boots, white, lace-up shirt, suede vest and headscarf complete his easily recognizable pirate outfit.
Court jesters came from different social classes and worked for the royalty or nobilitiy as entertainers. Since there were female jesters from the 16th century an authentic renaissance fair costume jester for a woman exists. Jane the Fool and Lucretia the Tumbler were famous female Elizabethan I jesters. A famous male jester was Richard Tarlton, Queen Elizabeth's favorite jester. Jesters wore very distinctive, clown-like, colorful clothes and usually a funny-looking, pointy jester hat like the man is wearing in the photo to the left. For historical paintings of Jesters see: http://www.larsdatter.com/foolwear.htm
The Catholic Monk
The famous Martin Luther became a catholic monk during the 16th century in 1505. Monks were the most conservatively dressed. Ren monk garb is the easiest to put together. It's a common renaissance faire costume and consists of a long, plain brown robe with a hood (see monk character in the photo to the right). Monk accessories include a belt chord and cross necklace.
Fairy ren garb is artistic and fun. Ethereal, organic, glittery fabrics and large wings distinguish the fairy renaissance faire costume (see woman in fairy outfit to the left).
Pointy ears define the elf renaissance faire costume. Flowy, organic fabrics help make up the beautiful outfit seen on the woman to the right. The man pictured is wearing a masculine version in brown armor accented by patterned, whimsical, gold swirls. The style of the elf renaissance costume is natural and otherworldly.
Etsy.com (under category select 'costume' then 'renaissance') and Artfire.com: browse through beautiful, handmade renaissance faire costumes for sale.
Elizabethancostume.net: learn about the history of ren garb and shop for quality renaissance faire costumes, accessories, patterns and more.
Reconstructinghistory.com: shop patterns for making homemade renaissance faire costumes.
Ageofchivalry.com: online medieval and renaissance faire costume store.
Festiveattyre.com and Lynnmcmasters.com: observe photos of beautiful, custom renaissance faire costumes and read historical articles about 16th century fashion.
Elizabethan-era.org.uk: learn about Elizabethan era clothing.
1. Eras of Elegance, Inc., Retrieved September 16, 2010, from http://www.erasofelegance.com/history/renaissancelife.html
2. Leed, Drea. Overview of an Elizabethan Outfit. Retrieved September 18, 2010, from http://www.elizabethancostume.net/overview.html
3. About the Roma. Retrieved September 18, 2010, from http://www.romarights.net/v2/about-the-roma/
Flickr.com author usernames of each renaissance faire costume photo are: Main fairy photo- dawn_perry, Fairy- skeggy, The Middleclass- Meryddian, The Jester- Phae, Queen Elizabeth I- One lucky guy, Henry VIII- Wigwam Jones, The Gypsy- Photo Folio, The Pirate, Monk and Peasant Woman in yellow dress- Alaskan Dude, The elves- One lucky guy