I like to show somebody how one item can be so many different things.
I’m a costumer. I sell costumes at the Renaissance fairs and a number of other types of reenactments. I do a stretch of about 2,000 years, with a heavy emphasis on the Viking age, Medieval, Renaissance, Victorian range. But I’ll dabble in whatever I run across. If I see something when I’m out looking that I know is great for some period that I don’t do a lot of, I’ll still pick it up because it’s a nice piece. I also do some stage stuff; it’s mostly school shows but it’s a lot of fun.
I got started by playing dress ups as a kid. I just loved dress ups and my parents always made sure I had a handful of really interesting things. It’s amazing how many different ways you can put a handful of pieces together and it makes a completely different outfit. I was in a couple of theater programs at the Laguna Playhouse when I was growing up; I was the walrus in Alice in Wonderland and I still have my walrus costume but it’s about two feet too short now! My dad made that. He made the tusks and he made this very funky big, fat-body bottom… it was pretty neat. For Puss in Boots, my mom made this pretty blue taffeta princess-y outfit. And as a quick-change thing, we had peasant clothes and then fancier clothes, so just I switched and I had a sash on or I had an apron – it was the same general thing but suddenly a whole new person. And that idea stuck with me. I like to show somebody how one item can be so many different things just depending on how you do it.
I did a little bit of sewing, not a whole lot. I kind of jumped in with both feet a little bit outside of high school. I had done drama in high school and I helped my mom a bit when she was doing costumes for me, but she was the one doing the majority of the sewing. And then when I went back to the Renaissance Faire as an adult, I started sewing costumes for myself. I made a small handful of things and then decided, “I need a German noble dress!” I think the third or fourth item I made was a 200-hour project. It wouldn’t have taken anywhere near that long if I’d had more experience, but it turned out really nice. It’s very pretty. I can’t fit in it anymore, but it’s still hanging around, I’ll never get rid of it.
About the time I made that dress, people started asking me to make things for them, so I made a handful of things that way. But it was kind of a weird kick from that over to doing events where I was selling things. That jump involved becoming a garland girl at the Renaissance Pleasure Faire, which is the big fair and the first fair. I went in as an adult and got work running around with the garland pole. If you do Faire, you’ve seen girls carrying a pole full flower garlands to wear in their hair. The neat thing about that job is that you can go and watch a show or wander anywhere on the site and still be working. If somebody wants something, or if you want to pause and hawk and call to people to try to get the sales, you can. But if you’re really into the show, you can just watch the show. I did that and the next year I started making garlands for the booth and selling them to the booth. After that, I started going to other events and I sold my garlands but I also sold anything else that I had that would work for a reenactor or for costuming in general. And that just exploded – I kept going and finding more events.
I sell a mix of new and “experienced” garb and I source it all over the place. People will bring me trade-ins… I love trade-ins, it’s a lot of fun. I find things in resale shops out in the real world. I also have bought stock from other stores that are not carrying a certain line anymore. I bought 2,000 items from a costume shop when the couple who owned it retired. I’m just always looking for different things so I have a really wide range of possibilities.
I can be hard core, but I do the whole range: I do historical, I do theatrical, I do outright fantasy. If somebody wants me to make them an all linen, perfectly historical Viking tunic, I have patterns that are taken from pieces that were dug up in Greenland. I can do that. If somebody wants to be a fairy princess, I can make them a fairy princess and they’re likely to be in some iridescent lamé fabric.
Downtown LA in the fabric district is a really good place to start. It’s a whole lot cheaper than it is going into any of the resale places around. It does really help if you go in just saying, “I want linen” and not saying, “I want it to be this color linen.” Because if you go in with a more open idea in your head, you can save a lot of money. If you really need it to be forest green, there may be one vendor there that has forest green in which case you’re going to pay whatever they’re asking and that could be $20 a yard or $25 a yard for linen. I like the whole “I found this funky color of yellow and if I overdye it, it’ll be a neat color of green,” so that’s my preferred way. But I also don’t do as much sewing for people as I used to because I’m so busy running my shop that I don’t have a lot of time to sew. I’ll do a custom piece once a year at this point.
In the Faire, there’s dozens and dozens of merchants. And let me throw in there that there’s a lot of Renaissance fairs; there’s the original Faire, the Renaissance Pleasure Faire. Then there’s been just a huge spread from there across the country, actually across the world, of other Renaissance fairs. I do a circuit of the little fairs. Some are big, they just aren’t as big as that Faire. They all have a whole lot of merchants there, that’s part of how we build the village. We make them look like they’re something from the Renaissance. That’s interspersed with different acting groups that portray different segments of society. So you might have the Queen’s Court and the Pirate Guild over here and down there you’ve got the Celts, somewhere else you might have a military camp. So we’re all mixed together and that makes it so that the customers coming in can spend their entire day and be entertained by things that they don’t normally see as they travel all the way to the site. There’s stage shows all over the place, there’s street actors, so you could easily have some ogre or fairy or magician, wizard, noble, peasant, religious fanatic get in your face and start doing whatever they do that makes them that character. I like to interact with whoever else is acting because it makes the environment more real for any of the patrons coming in. I have bought dried fish and then as soon as that actor is done, they come back around someplace where I can hand it back to them so they still have their prop and they’ll give me back my coins. And getting harassed by the Puritans? There’s nothing that compares.
The most I’ve done in one year was 25 weekends, which was a lot and there were not very many in the same place in that particular year. I have an event coming up in Tulare in a week in a half and I have several others in that same area; there’s Hanford’s Renaissance of Kings Faire, there’s Kearney Park up in Fresno – there’s a pirate fair in Kearney Park that I’m going to check out and see if I can get myself a space there. There’s the Vista Viking Festival, which is in September. I have gone as far east as just beyond Phoenix and I have an event coming up in June that is north of Phoenix by about an hour and a half or so, that’s going to be an interesting jaunt.
Huntington Beach Civil War is in September; that one is free and it’s one of the biggest historical reenactments in California, at least for Civil War. There’s an American Revolution reenactment in Huntington Beach, also free, and that’s President’s Day weekend every year. Some people get kind of antsy, “If you’re playing a southerner, then you’re racist and you’re pro-slavery.” Most of the reenactors are like, “I’m playing a southerner because they were the first people to invite me to dress and loan me clothes.” There are a few people who have expressed things where I think, “That’s really nasty.” But later when I found out who they were portraying, I think they were in character at that moment. Jefferson Davis would say that kind of garbage, wouldn’t he? The people that I have talked to directly, which is hundreds of reenactors, I have never picked up anything that tells me that they are living that time period. They are here to teach the history. Everybody that I have talked to, it’s about teaching so that the kids don’t grow up unaware.
And I go all the way down to the border of Mexico to an event called Potrero War. The wars are a little different than the Ren fairs because they’re for a private club rather than a performance put on for the paying public. That’s for the group called the SCA, the Society for Creative Anachronism. They’re a big dress-up club, really. Some people call them LARPers; they resist that title. It’s basically a group of people who dress up and portray some persona they’ve built and then go out and either fight or do arts and crafts, various sciences, a whole lot of social interaction and just have a lot of fun learning the history and playing with various aspects of reenactment. It’s crazy fun. And watching grown people beat the heck out of each other with padded sticks is endless fun.
I am addicted to books. I have more books than I have pieces of clothing. I usually am looking for art books as a way to get pictures of things that just don’t exist very much anymore. I have hundreds and hundreds of books that show Renaissance art; I’ll look at a portrait, and this person is wearing a doublet with the sleeves attached in this way. Look at the aglets, which are those little hard bits on the end of a lace that help you get it through the holes. I’ll look for stuff like that: where are the seam lines, does that look like it’s a heavy woven fabric or a napped fabric like a velvet, is that leather? I’m trying to find out as much as I can. I’m always searching for books that have photographs of existing clothes, that’s what we’d call a primary source, getting to see the real garment. For me, getting to see it in person is fantastic, but not very common. Getting to see pictures, that’s the next best thing, and then for those of us who are doing the older time periods, quality paintings or sculptures. All those have some issues. We didn’t know that the Romans wore all sorts of really bright contrasty intense colors until they started doing some testing of the surfaces of all of these beautiful white marbles. They realized, “Oh, there’s paint on these.” The Parthenon was painted, and it was pretty gaudy by our standards. So we’re starting to figure out that it wasn’t all of these beautiful white togas, they were crazy colors! The fact that they wiped out a seashell that provided a purple color dye tells us that purple was a pretty big deal, but it certainly wasn’t the only dye they used. We can think that we’re being historical based on what we know today, and then find out there’s a whole lot more we don’t know.
I’ll look at a painting and try to figure out, is this a painting of real people or is this a painting of somebody’s fantasy? I have a book with paintings by Hans Holbein and we consider him to be a primary source for the Renaissance because he does photorealistic paintings. Absolutely amazing. Well, there’s a painting of a lady who’s wearing this beautiful red velvet dress, and there’s another painting and it’s the same dress, except it isn’t. I don’t think that she necessarily had two completely different bodices to wear with this dress. It’s possible, but I think instead he said, “Ok, instead of having three slashes across here, I’m going to have six slashes and I’m going to finish them in this different way.” Because he could make that realistic of a picture, he had the skill and he knew what to do. I don’t really think she had two nearly identical dresses in an incredibly expensive fabric like velvet. Even the peasants would have something that was their festival clothes, something fancier, but nothing like we have today where we’re like, “I have to walk through the closet to figure out what I’m going to wear.”
People also didn’t throw something away when it was damaged; it was repaired, it was reworked. There’s a series of books by a woman named Janet Arnold. She has gone to museums and looked at garments and then drawn them out and given exact dimensions. She’s looked at the insides, here’s the seam line, here’s where the seam was let out to make a little more room… it’s a fantastic resource for getting a reality check. These garments that were preserved were for nobles. There’s this outfit that was worn by someone who was clearly at the top of the food chain, and it has been let out. They didn’t just go get a whole new fancy set of clothes, they made this work. There’s a piece that’s made with a fabric that’s got nap, like velvet, but instead of having the nap running all in the same direction, there’s a piece set in there that has the nap run the other direction. It’s not that he couldn’t afford to have somebody make him nice clothes, but you wouldn’t waste that piece of velvet just because it wouldn’t fit in the other direction, you just cut it and put it in there. So learning that kind of thing, that fabric wouldn’t have come in that kind of width so there really would have had to have been a seam in here somewhere… that kind of detail is important to know if you want to be really historical.
My favorite movie for having a really historical outlook in a couple of places and the single most historical piece I’ve ever seen is actually A Knight’s Tale. I laugh in my head when I say that because so much of it is absolute nonsense. But they have a Holbein hat in there! There’s this white hat and it looks like it should be a Devo hat; it has these funky pointy sides to it and it comes to a point on the top and it’s just weird. But it’s in a Holbein painting and it is, as far as I can tell, an exact reproduction of one of his pieces. So I revere them for going that extra step. And then you look at everything else like, “That’s sort of got a Dior flavor going… I don’t even know what that is… ok, sure!” And it’s funny and they weren’t trying to make it historical because otherwise it would make us all twitch. But there’s also a line of dialogue that I thought was fantastic, which is when the bad guy says something along the lines of “I’ll tell my grandfather he can start wearing his old armor again.” The attitude is, you’re obviously lower class because you’re wearing something that’s out of date. He can afford to have new armor versus his old armor. Armor’s expensive now; it’s a couple thousand dollars for a decent harness of armor. I don’t doubt that it was similar or more of a fraction of somebody’s budget then.
I have two storage units. I have a 10’x25’ and then a 10’x20’. And every bit of space I have is crammed full of something. I have to unload and move and rearrange things to get to what I want. I have most of my stock in boxes, on hangers, labeled for what it is. I weighed a handful of boxes and averaged them and found they were 35 pounds apiece. Then I counted how many boxes I was loading, and I moved more than a ton of stock. Loading it and then unloading it, then setting it up then packing it up then reloading it, and unless the next event is soon enough that I can leave it in the vehicles, then I have to unload it again. And if I’m switching time periods, then I have to deal with that. So it’s very labor intensive.
I have, I’m going to guess, 10,000 garments. It’s a lot of work pulling out specific things. But if I know where I’m headed, that’s fine – you don’t want ruffled skirts if you’re at the Renaissance Faire, but ruffles are perfectly reasonable for the Civil War. They’re also reasonable for the Revolution. So you just kind of pick and choose which things are going to go where. If I do an event that’s a bridge between time periods, I may have to open a box and pull certain things out. If I’m going to go to a Californio event, which is 1840s California, that’s got some of the things that I use from the Ren fair and some of the things from the Civil War. But there’s a distinct “No” line in there, too, so you have to pull out things and if there’s too many things that make it in from the wrong time period, part of the group that does this event will not see past that. “That’s not period,” and they won’t look any further. So it helps to have the waters not get too muddied with the wrong things. On the other hand, when I do the American Revolution events, a whole lot of my customers are kids who are doing A Walk Through History which is a really interesting school program where they get to play a character, they have to memorize some information, there’s a game show contest between the different groups of kids and they’re given points for being in a costume. They don’t have to be in a meticulously correct historical costume; we have to hit the stereotypes that tell someone, “They’re from the Revolution, we know what that looks like.” So I’ll have those costumes there and if somebody who is a hardcore reenactor gets thrown by that, I point out to them, “This is for you, that’s for them, the price difference is significant, too.” They’re usually fine with that.
That’s really important to me: I don’t want anybody to leave unhappy with something – I don’t want them to get home and think, “I shouldn’t have done this.” I want them to be really tickled with what they have but they’re also welcome to bring it back for trade-in value later. If they decide, “I’m not going to play that character,” or “I want something that’s more serious now,” they can bring something around and I’ll work out some sort of credit with them depending on what the item is and the condition it’s in at that point. I try to make sure that people are really happy to come back and I have quite a few people who have made a point of telling me that they love my shop and that it’s their favorite shop, which makes me feel so good! That’s the best part of it: when somebody tells me that, I think, “Ok, I’m doing something right here, this is good.”
I try to find out, how historical do you need to be? Are you doing it for fun, you’re going to go do a bunch of fairs as a patron, or are you joining one of the regiments in one of the really serious reenactment groups? Totally different needs there. I won’t always have everything for both people. I may not be able to get somebody dressed head-to-toe in the historical items that day. But I can usually find a whole bunch of things that they can work with.
It’s a really neat way to make a living; it’s not a fabulous living. It’s incredibly hard work setting up, it’s even more work tearing down because by then I’m exhausted. It’s one of those tough-it-out-and-do-it things. But once I’m actually open and playing dress-ups with people, it’s fantastic. I get to talk to fun, interesting, creative, curious people who are adventurous and who have some image that they want to build, and I get to help them play. Watching people get really excited when they see, “There’s the pirate I’ve always wanted to be!” It’s just so much fun.