Last summer, a friend of mine suggested we head to the Sterling Renaissance Festival in Summer 2010 decked out in period garb. “Yes, yes, yes!” I cried in my head, “Wheee, I get to make a costume!!!” So, I’ve been spending some spare time researching Elizabethan clothing. A pair of my earliest projects were “Faire Gowns,” actually—you know, the ones that look kinda like a romanticized version of 16th century clothing and are very anachronistic. So, I put a constraint on myself for both authenticity and improving-my-skills sake: create this costume based on period research and design, not Simplicity/McCall’s/Butterick patterns. Ah, and what a chore it is—not the sewing, but figuring out what is authentic!
There is so much debate about how authentic you should be when it comes to historical costuming. It’s a heated, sometimes vicious debate that I dare say will never have any resolution. So, to be perfectly clear as I begin chronicling this project, this first post will discuss a bit of my stance on authenticity. And keep in mind that in this case, I plan to be a mere spectator at the fair, having no connection what so ever other than a paying customer who loves the chance to sew something up and then get dressed up for a bit.
Because this project is being constructed for a specific event, making something appropriate for the setting is important. After all, you wouldn’t want to show up at a 1920s flapper event dressed in an Edwardian gown, or a 1960s gogo dress, would you? Time (both historical and current seasonal), place (again historic and modern location) and event are all concerns when choosing the design. In this case, the costume is for the Sterling Renaissance Festival in north-western NY. According to their Web site, the festival is
a dramatic recreation of an Elizabethan village at festival time. That’s pretty open, allowing for a span of almost 50 years of vastly evolving fashions. The Wikipedia page narrows it with a claim that the fair is set in 1585, so I’ll work with that in mind.
Additionally, there are a few more restrictions: the festival is set in a village, so they won’t have the absolute latest fashions seen at the Queen’s court—it takes time for fashion to travel, after all. With that in mind, I’m going to allow my designs to trend more toward the ’70s, for reasons I’ll describe below in My Stature. That may be assuming a little too much leeway, but it is far more reasonable than if the setting was the royal court.
The setting of “festival time” doesn’t narrow it down much, as there was a church festival almost every month. However, we do know that the Queen is visiting the village (or, the local Noble’s estate), as Queen Elizabeth is present at the festival, and she was more likely to travel during the summer months, so we’ll say the festival probably takes place in late June (Midsummer), July or August. This coincides with the modern summer setting, allowing us to forgo heavy coats and the like. There’s no helping the fact that NY is generally warmer than England, so I’ll likely be sweltering regardless.
So our complete setting: an Elizabethan village circa 1585 celebrating a summer festival while the Queen is touring at the local Noble’s estate.
Now that we have setting, stature needs to be taken into account. How gauche would it be to arrive as a guest dressed to the nines as the Queen (hmm, battle of the Elizabeths anyone?). Instead, I’m aiming for middle/merchant-class. For one, creating a middle-class outfit will be far cheaper in modern money than creating a noble gown—I am middle class after all, with a limited budget for the costume. Additionally, there are fewer pieces to construct—the higher the status, the more layers you wear. Fewer layers sounds like less work and far more comfortable for a NY summer, if you ask me.
The downside to this status? A dearth of resources for lower– and middle-class clothing in Elizabethan England, especially for the ’80s. The few solid graphic resources that exist are from the late ’60s and early ’70s (unless I want to be a Flemish ex-pat; unlikely for a poorer class). However, working with the setting and stature, we can make a bit of an assumption: a middle-class villager is not going to be up-to-date in fashion. It’s actually reasonable to believe that she might be as much as 10-15 years behind the times in fashion—her clothing would not have changed as rapidly or as extensively as the court’s, and anything purchased would have been older castoffs from higher-status women.
Financial stature isn’t the only concern: age is also a consideration. Someone of my age and unmarried state would not wear the same thing as an old widow, for instance. However, at this point in history, general dress seems appropriate for a wide range of women, so it’s not a large concern of mine.
As a middle-class woman circa 1585, my choices for fabrics are linen and wool. That’s it. Silk, fur, gold, silver and pearls are out of the question because of my modest income and sumptuary laws. There’s some debate about cotton being available, but from what I can tell (I’ve lost most of my sources), it was unlikely for a poorer person to have access to cotton, even if nobility might have been able to procure some toward the end of the 16th century. It certainly wasn’t a crop in England. Wool would have been quite available as a staple of the economy.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t easily jive with modern common fabrics. Middle-class citizens these days are more likely to be wearing something fully synthetic or cotton. This consideration causes one of the most intriguing arguing points in the authenticity debate: can using non-authentic fabric be authentic? The Dreamstress, author of a blog I love, argues this point wonderfully. Now, don’t get me wrong, I think striving to use historical fabrics, if possible, is great, however status should be taken into account: lower class used what was cheap. In their time, linen and wool were cheap. Today, cotton and synthetics are cheap. As a middle-class character, is it really that out of line to use cheap, readily available fabrics for my reconstruction, especially ones that drape like more “authentic” ones? It seems pretty in line with what the renaissance tailors were doing at the time.
But, for those authenticity nuts out there, quell your growing distaste a bit—I actually am using wool and linen. See, the absolute best argument you can make to me is “natural fibers are cooler in the summer than synthetics are,” and bam! I’m all about it, especially when the budget will allow. Not to mention I really like linen anyway. See, modern synthetic textiles can often look like an authentic, drape like an authentic, and feel like an authentic, but when it comes to breathing, the textiles that fit those first three criteria hardly ever breathe and wick away moisture like the authentic.
“What about your budget,” you say. “Sales, sales, sales,” I reply. I grabbed some 100% wool and medium-weight linen off of Fashion Fabrics Club for $4/yd a while back. I’m still looking for appropriately cheap handkerchief-weight linen for a smock, however. The closest I can readily find is a cotton-linen blend, which I may resort to despite the fact that while fustian was probably available in England at the time, it would have been a bit out of my price range, I imagine. But, then again, I’m middle-class—fustian is the more affordable these days (though not at cheap as cotton).
I dislike hand sewing. Some days I venture toward hate. I’m not all that good at it, find it tedious, and just prefer to use my machine as often as possible. Because of that, my quest for even 50% authenticity goes out the window. I will use my machine as much as possible, authenticity be damned. However, just because I plan to use my sewing machine
as a crutch, that doesn’t mean I won’t give any attention to period drafting and construction techniques (the latter will be influenced by abilities of machines). And that my friends, is where the research gets muddy. There are very, very few extant garments from the period and place. And those few garments are largely noble ones, which are constructed differently than my target in style, materials, and pattern. The latter is especially important: while tailors for the nobles weren’t going willy-nilly wasteful with the expensive fabrics, they had some level of waste available allowing for more bias cuts, stranger shapes, etc. A poor(er) woman, however, would be using every inch of fabric possible—something that can drastically change composition and layout of a pattern.
…is saved for part two.