Fantasy Verses Historical Fashion: Renaissance Faire Dresses Fail the Period Test

by on December 27th, 2010
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Historical re-enactments, ren faires, and living history experiences are all the range right now. Increasingly people are marrying in what they think is historically correct medieval and renaissance clothing. Yet fantasy dominates so called “medieval” and “renaissance” gown options to the point where it is hard to trust what you see on the web. Most high traffic sites put money over authenticity with the above terms used as buzz words, not authentic markers. Yet there is one group of costumers whose passion for redacting and reconstructing truly authentic medieval and Renaissance attire is second to none. These are the costumers of the Society for Creative Anachronism. While my costuming skills fall way short of these gentles, being around them and seeing their work is truly inspiring. There is simply no comparison between what these costumers do and what your typical person at a Ren Faire will purchase and wear.

At a Ren Faire, you will typically see women wearing some sort of shift or chemise with a boned bodice, skirt, and sometimes a split skirt. Beyond the Ren Faire disregard for historical construction and layering, Ren Faire dresses notoriously feature bosoms spilling out of dresses. As one full-figured Pennsylvanian costumer in the SCA pointed out to me in 2007 (paraphrased), “if your bosom spills out of your dress, you get painful, sun-burned bosoms, especially if you are out of doors for any length of time.” Given the number of outdoor and camping events most gentles in the Society enjoy, the practical aspects considerations of keeping delicate areas like one’s bosoms covered becomes rather self-evident. No one wants a second or third degree sun-burn in a delicate area! The 16th century was a time before sunscreen lotions; keeping covered was the main way to avoid sun-burn!

So what would be period correct then? For SCA purposes, your average lady interested in wearing mid to late 16th century can typically wear an ensemble featuring a shift (often called a “chemise”), skirt, Elizabethan corset or fitted kirtle, and gown that may be back-laced or front-laced. Speaking with top SCA costumer Sarah Lorraine (, it is clear that while this works as basic late 16th century garb for the beginner/casual re-enactor, it is not entirely accurate. Drea Lead has composed an easy to understand, detailed, and highly researched description of what was worn in Elizabethan England ( that is a must-read for anyone interested in an authentic ensemble.

Fantasy is wonderful…but fantasy fashions and historical fashions are rarely the same thing. Brides in particular who want a true Renaissance feel for their bridal gowns and weddings would do well to consult top SCA costumers and their websites for beautiful, authentic gowns that will endure the test of time.

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