Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Elizabethan gown simplicity #8881: Ren faire notes

Well, I went ahead and did it. I actually wore this gown to the St. Louis Renaissance faire in late May. Yup, the whole thing, for the whole day. Geoff and I got into the parking lot at about 10:15. I was wearing an alternate outfit, chemise underneath, with the dress in the back seat, since the farthingale is very difficult to sit in when riding in a car. We put up the sun shade and I started getting dressed in the car. I will say that having the chemise on in the first place made things easier, since it's a lot more modest than some modern garments. Once people parked cars on either side of us and went into the faire I didn't have people looking into the car. It took about 10 minutes to get into the whole thing. I had a little bag to hang on my wrist with a few of my things in it. It is also worth noting that the week before I had sewn a guard to the hem of both the overskirt and underskirt. This guard in Elizabethan times was a strip of fabric sewn to the hem of the garment to keep them from getting soiled; those pictured on dresses in The Tudor Tailor are made from black velvet. My question was, if velvet was so expensive, why would you make it into long strips to keep your dress out of the mud? I wasn't sure, and I didn't want to spring for a couple of yards of black velvet if I was going to trail it in the mud, so I took apart an ugly 80's dress made of black corduroy and tore the skirt into strips 4 1/2 inches wide. I turned down one long edge and serged the other edge, then encased the bottom of the hem in it, thread-basting it down with long stitches in black thread. I figure this was at least accurate to the spirit of the times when they would recycle old garments into new ones. To protect the underarms of the bodice I put in disposable pit guards-- not historically accurate, but perfectly sensible, given the 89 degree weather. Also historically anachronistic but absolutely necessary was the blue Nalgene bottle filled with water. And my deck-stain spotted running shoes, but you couldn't see them unless I actually lifted my skirt.

I wore the dress the whole day, from the time we went through the front gate to about 6:00 in the evening when the faire wound down. We walked around most of the day, saw a few shows, ate a few snacks, and drank the entire contents of the Nalgene bottle at least twice. Yes, it was very hot. During the midday joust I did have sweat pouring down my face and dripping into my socks. Any sweat collecting beneath the bodice didn't really have anywhere to go except into the chemise, which is of course what it's there for. The bodice and sleeves felt a bit like a sausage casing. The hoops of the farthingale allow for some airflow if you can pick the edge of the skirt up to a cool breeze. The trick with all this sweating is, of course, to keep drinking water. However, you can't drink so much as to make you want to go to the privy, because the dress won't fit comfortably through the door. This is a very fine balancing act.

Socially, one of the first thing you notice if you go to a ren faire in a dress this big is that people start to assume that you are one of the actors. As such, vendors don't tend to try to sell you things, and lots of people want to take your picture. Geoff was in t-shirt and jeans, wearing his Aussie hat and carrying his camera. He didn't get approached much by anybody. Not quite sure why. If asked what I was, I said I was simply a traveller from far away. This evolved into a noble lady from Alsace-Lorraine by the end of the day-- the ren faire has a French theme. It wouldn't do to call myself Queen Elizabeth (even though some people thought that's what I was trying to do), and since I was not on the court I couldn't say I was from anywhere particularly close to Paris. Not having done any historical research into personages or political climates for the early part of 16th century France I kinda had to wing it. When people asked about my ruff, I said I had travelled to Holland. According to Janet Arnold's book, the first starched ruffs were recorded in England as early as 1546, having travelled there from the low countries. I'm assuming that ruffs were being made in Holland for years before that, but I'm not sure when they would have come into France. My gown was lighter in color than those of the court; darker colors denoted wealthier people because darker colors are harder to obtain, especially vibrant reds and true purples. I was, however, the only one using very fine linen and smooth silk. I noted some pearls on other costumes, some with quite a lot of pearls.

Since it hadn't rained for 3 or 4 days, the faire grounds were dry but not full of powdery dust. Some dust did get on the hem, but the guard seemed to keep it from rising far up the skirt. It was as if the corduroy sucked the dust into itself, so that when I came home and took the guard off to wash it, there was barely any sign of a dusty ring above the guard. It was a sunny day, so I wore a lot of sunscreen on my face. I figured that would leave a bit of a greasy ring on the partelette, but I think I got it scrubbed and washed before it set in. Since the partelette was between my skin and the neck ruff there was no visible soil on the ruff, so I didn't bother cleaning it. The sweat guards under the arms seem to have done their jobs admirably, because there were no sweat stains or odor at the end of the day. The chemise also seems to have done it's job well. It was interesting to note that when I took the gown off at the end of the day the chemise felt dry, despite all the sweating I had done. Linen is a remarkable fiber that will absorb up to three times its weight in water. I knew that when I made the chemise, but I didn't fully realize that would be the effect; I thought the fabric would feel moist.

So: velvet-types suck up dirt and keep it from going anywhere, and linen sucks up sweat and keeps it from going into more delicate fabrics.

The farthingale did give me some trouble getting through doors, and I didn't attempt to go into the privy with it, but it is possible to walk around in one for extended periods. When walking uphill I pushed the hoops forward from the back so I wouldn't step on the skirt. It's hard to get a good grip on the things while still appearing graceful because of the number of layers. Sometimes it's necessary, though, like when you try to sit down. The trick is to pull up a couple of hoops and sit on the edge of the chair, on the hoops you pulled up so your skirt doesn't flip up. This is rather uncomfortable for long periods of time.

Generally the response was positive. There were several nice people who took pity on me and fanned me. One nice lady helped tie my shoe (it's very hard to bend over in a steel-boned bodice). Even the court was nice and invited me to sit in the booth with them for the final joust. People were just generally interested and liked to strike up conversations about this big ginormous dress. If I do this again next year, I'll probably bring a recently aquired metal drinking cup, to get the Nalgene bottle out of the picture. I'll see if I can get ahold of some comfortable footwear that doesn't look too out of place. And I'd like to see if I can make Geoff an outfit he'll actually enjoy wearing. This will be challenging; he doesn't like to be too hot. Well, it bears thinking anyway.