If you are planning on going into historical costume in more detail, this should be considered just a place to start, or some tips on getting dressed and starting as soon as possible while you work your way toward more well-researched period clothing. If you are looking to dress up for one evening, though, or are concerned about learning how to manage strange clothing in a short period of time, you probably will want to start here.
Because the idea here is to simply give a clearly anachronistic look to your outfit, many of the ideas mix and match between periods, and offer an extremely simplified version of some of the historical styles. Find something that you are comfortable with, and practice your bows and curtseys!
Wench gear consists of, at minimum, a chemise, a bodice, and a skirt. The chemise is very similar to what is popularly known as a peasant blouse, with puffy sleeves that can be adjusted to fit off the shoulder, a gathered neckline that can be adjusted up (or down!) as desired, and a loose-fitting body that can either be long enough to tuck into a waistband or long enough to serve as a petticoat. The bodice is a stiffened kind of vest, much like the bodice of a lady's elaborate Elizabethan dress, but often cut a little lower and with narrow shoulder bands to allow the shoulders to be seen if the chemise sleeves are pushed down. Many bodices are boned or otherwise made of fairly stiff material to produce an uplift and the famous Elizabethan bosom. (Bras are not worn with a bodice. The bodice does all the work, and a bra really only gets in the way. If you wish to wear a corsolet - a bodice that has no shoulder straps - make sure it comes up high enough to provide some support.)
To the bodice and chemise, you then add a skirt or skirts. Even though, if you are wearing a long chemises, your legs are covered, you are still only half-dressed, no matter what the Museum Replicas catalog says. A skirt is usually of a heavier fabric than the chemise, but not quite as stiff as the bodice. It can be pleated into a waistband or gathered with elastic or a drawstring, but it should be as full as possible. Several skirts can be layered atop one another, with the upper layers tucked up into the waistband or in some other fashion so that all the colours can be seen. Length is a matter of preference, although the longer the skirt, the more period. Women who actually did a fair amount of work tended to wear their skirts at about ankle length, to keep from stumbling over their hems.
If the image of a wench is not for you, you probably will want to look at garb that is more in keeping with that of a lady. For a generally "medieval" look, you will want a dress or gown that is of fairly clean and simple lines; today's princess-seamed dresses have much of the same silhouette as many middle-period gowns. Again, you will want your skirts to be as long as possible; since the gown automatically implies that you are a lady of some means, you would be much less concerned with your skirts getting in the way of your washing-up buckets or the barn floors.
The fabric of your dress should be either a solid colour or some pattern that can reasonably be described as medieval (Check out the online images to see some examples. Floral patterns are generally not suitable, although there are exceptions. Decoration and ornamentation tends to be fairly bold; metallic edgings, while very pretty, are often more suitable for Eastern and Byzantine garb. Pastels are a very late fashion; bold colours are far more common. The lower your social station, the more you will want to stick to dyes that could plausibly come from nature, such as browns, russets, and dark golds. Iridescent, neon, and other eye-popping colours are largely derived from chemical dyes, and are hence not appropriate.
The most obviously modern detail on many dresses is the neckline; covering it can go a long way toward making a modern dress look much older. A mantle (a small cloak much like the bottom of the medieval hoods seen in the Accessories pages) can be put on over the head or buttoned around the shoulders. You can also take the idea of a veil and wimple and use them to cover the neckline of a dress by draping and fastening a fluid piece of fabric around your head and neck. (If you want to more closely approximate the veil and wimple, the wimple is a rectangle that is wrapped under the chin and pinned together atop the head, with the veil a larger rectangle that is draped atop it and pinned or held in place with a circlet or wreath.) Remember that, except for very young women, women ordinarily wore their hair covered; since this is fairly uncommon for us today, it will help change your appearance significantly.
Simple flats will work quite well for shoes, as will the flat fabric slippers known as "Chinese slippers." These shoes, which buckle across the instep and look a bit like Mary Janes, can be obtained very inexpensively. Any slipper sort of shoe will work just fine, actually. Simple, relatively unadorned boots also look nice. Avoid heels; not only are they not very appropriate, many events for which you will wear garb are outdoors, and heels will get you promptly stuck in the grass!
Such clothing can be dressed up or down with different materials and decoration. A very plain tunic made from a coarse material is very everyday, while a fine linen or wool tunic with extensive trimming or embroidery could serve as feastday garb. Like the women's clothing mentioned above, decoration tended to be bold, with strong colours and an absence of metallics.
Later period men's clothing tends to be more of a shirt-and- pants variety. The style known as a "poet shirt," with voluminous, flowing sleeves and a deep, gathered yoke, is a reasonable approximation of the silhouette. When looking for one, however, remember that a shirt that buttoned all the way up the front was fairly uncommon; ties at the neck or lacing were far more usual. Similarly, sleeves that laced or tied at the wrist were more common than those that buttoned.
If you decide that you will be more comfortable in long pants than in the short pants and hose that are more usual (hose are necessary; only Celts go barelegged - in North Europe, that is), loose pants are more appropriate. Jeans are not really even a close approximation of anything in period, while dark cotton martial arts pants are. (If you want to wear a hakema, however, pair it it with the appropriate Far-Eastern clothing.) Visible pockets should be covered, most easily by a long shirt. Choose your shirt so that it is at least long enough to reach to the tops of your thighs, and belt it over your pants.
Men wore hats or head coverings nearly all the time. A hood pairs nicely with a tunic, while a floppy hat is suitable with a renaissance shirt and breeches. A triangular "Robin Hood" hat can be worn with either. The wide-brimmed hats with a turned-up side and plumes are more properly Cavalier, and therefore post-1600, but do look very dashing with the shirt and breeches.
Slipper-type shoes and "Chinese slippers" are appropriate with tunics, and with the short fashions of the 15th and 16th centuries. Short boots pair well with those same styles, while a taller boot can finish off the shirt-and-pants style, especially if you are aiming for a Cavalier sort of look. Boots should be flat, unless you are using engineer boots to tuck in your breeches; cowboy boots are strictly a phenomenon of American devising. Sneakers just don't go with anything. In a pinch, you can use loafers (but not the tasseled or penny-loafer kind) or casual laced-up shoes.
(Actually, I must amend what I say about sneakers. I have seen slashed-and-puffed sneakers redone in the Tudor style, worn by a certain Ansteorran Don, but in my opinion, those have really ceased to be sneakers.)
Like all these resources, this is intended to be a quick overview of some possibilities for quick and easy garb. By all means, consult the other costuming resources for more information. The pages directed toward renaissance faire staff can be particularly helpful for those looking to quickly assemble something.
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