Preparing for Ren Faire Season # 3!

The Mid-South Renaissance Faire has relocated to a more scenic corner of the Shire of Shelby! (actually the Shire of Tipton now, but it doesn’t have the same ring to it) Still the last two weekends of August, and it will still be fantastic! Huzzah!

This year Mad Queen Beth (Beth Kitchens, our fearless leader) and Good Queen Bess convinced me to leave behind my peasant roots and be promoted to a lady-in-waiting to Her Majesty. Which of course involves a lot more quality time with my sewing machine.

Designing a noblewoman’s persona and costume for fair is a whole different kettle of fish from a more everyday persona, and comes with some unique concerns.

  1. $$$$$$ An accurate Elizabethan noble costume, purchased from a seamstress, will run between $550 and $1,200 dollars in labor fees alone, and the fabric runs between $12 and $30 per yard for the 12-18 yards needed for the various layers of the outfit.  The nature of these costumes with their fitted bodices means that every dress has to be custom, and the price that goes with that. To see what I mean check out the stunning works of sewing artistry at Venifica’s Corsetry and Designs from Time. The materials for my relatively modest dress and accessories will set back hopefully less that $300, which is still double what my peasant costume cost.
  2. I can’t outdress the Queen! Our fair is still in its early days and our Queen’s costumes aren’t as over-the-top as some others fairs’. I can’t dress like the decadent ladies of the court at the Bristol or SoCal Faires, but I still want to look convincing and pretty. I can’t go overboard with the gold trim or brocade trims, though.
  3. Don’t get heatstroke / natural fibers rule! Noblewomen wear a LOT more fabric than commoners, and our fair has daytime temperatures in the high 90s. Polyester brocades are gorgeous, shiny, and feel like a portable sauna in the heat. In order to avoid heatstroke, I have to stick to cottons, rayons, and linens. I’m also making my sleeve detachable, and putting boning in my dress instead of making a separate layer.  An Elizabethan lady would never have dreamed of going outside without dress sleeves over her chemise, but this 21st century Memphian has different priorities.
  4. Why am I here? Gone are the days of being a comfortable anonymous peasant, just at the fair to get a glimpse of the queen and introduce children to the joys of the craft booth. As a member of the more visible cast of the fair I need to have a character with some set personality quirks and goals for other cast members to bounce improv acting off of. In my case, I’m a lady-in-waiting to Queen Bess, charged with entertaining the queen and keeping her company. If I have to pick a historical character, I might be Anne Russell, Countess of Warwick? I’ll be running errands for the Queen and running after my errant Spanish friend Lady Jacqueline, whose backstory is a hoot that I’ll cover in a future blog post.

Have I mentioned that Pinterest is addicting and wonderful? In order to wrap my head around the options for a noble dress, I surfed through existing portraits and costumes to see what caught my eye.

My inspiration board can be found on this pinterest board here.

dress doodle
Here’s my initial dress design – a sleeveless, back-lacing dress in a navy blue cotton jacquard, with blue velvet ribbon trim on the front flanked by gold-colored satin piping. I’ll wear a high-necked chemise, a underskirt with decorative forepart, and a hoop slip under it.

I’m thinking that the forepart and possible tie-on sleeves would be robins-egg blue or champagne-colored, but don’t quote me on that? They may end up being bright red depending on what Joann’s has on sale.

color palette

I’m going to try to use view A of the Simplicity pattern 3782 as a base, with some tweaks.

I'll use this pattern for the skirts and general bodice layout, but will probably fudge some different sleeve poufs and make the sleeve tie-on.:

(OK first off the hairstyle on the model is ridiculous, what were you thinking, Simplicity?! Andrea Schewe worked too hard on a remotely accurate pattern to top it off with 1980’s prom hair)

  • I’ll use my custom bodice block that I made for my peasant dress to make sure the  bodice pattern really fits.
  • I’ll cartridge-pleat the overskirt onto a front-opening waistband and keep the back-lacing bodice separate.  While researching the pattern I found that the most common complaint was that it was exceedingly frustrating to sew ALL of the layers or bodice, interlining, lining, skirt, skirt facing, and tabs together at the waistband. I might as well skip that drama entirely.
  • I’ll make the sleeves detachable.
  • I’ll leave off the waist tabs.  I can’t find a single historical example of tabs on a french-style gown like this, only on a doublet worn with a non-matching skirt.
  • I’ll use a different trim pattern and hand-sew it on.
  • I’ll fuss around with the sleeve puffs to make them a softer shape that won’t look ridiculous on my scrawny shoulders.

In addition to the main dress I’ll need a french hood, attifet, escoffion, or some other kind of arcane Elizabethan head wear to top off the outfit, but I’ll cross that bridge when  come to it.

I’m thinking of making a second underskirt and set of sleeves to change up the dress between days at the fair, which the rational part of my brain is trying to dismiss until the first set of everything is done.

So far, I have the chemise cut out and ready to sew. That’s it. But it’s a start! I’m looking forward to my newfound my upward mobility and to learning to sew an entirely new kind of garb!