Newbie Garb That Doesn’t Look Newbie

14th-century shopping, from the Codex Manesse, Wikimedia Commons

14th-century accessorizing, from the Codex Manesse, Wikimedia Commons

By Lady Violet Ruthvene in the SCA

This is an accompaniment to a lecture and demonstration class I taught at the Province of Southern Shores’ Newcomers Tourney in May 2011. This is intended as a guide to help those starting out in the Society for Creative Anachronism to improve their costumes in easy, budget-friendly ways.

Two Easy Improvements to Basic Garb

You have a T-tunic, now what? How do you make it look more like a real historical outfit and not just a costume (or worse, a costume you borrowed from someone else)? Haunt the thrift stores, search on eBay and Etsy, and learn to sew or embellish your finds. Just a few additions can make your first garb look better than “first garb.” Refer to the image PDF and web links below for period examples.

#1 — Add Accessories

Medieval and renaissance people wore hats in public for practical reasons (keep off the sun, keep in the warmth) and to look good. Upgrade your hat, and you upgrade your whole outfit! Every period has a variety of head-covering styles for both genders to choose from: veils, coifs, caps, hoods, turbans, and much more.

Modern shoes easily ruin a historical look, but it’s easy to fake medieval shoes. Look for simple shoes in dark leather, with short lacing or a simple buckle, definitely no elastic/zippers. Thrift-stores are an ideal place to shop. Add insoles/orthotics, as needed; just don’t wear sneakers or white shoes.

Make (or buy) a pouch that you carry or fasten to your belt. Drawstring bags are a great first sewing project, and you can decorate them in many ways, as simple as fabric paints to as complicated as embroidery. All kinds of shapes were used for historical bags, so you can be creative. Put your watch, cellphone, car keys, cash, etc., inside.

Add a leather belt, simple jewelry, invest in some wire-framed eyeglasses, and you’ll look like you stepped out of a period painting soon enough.

#2 — Add Layers

Before 1600, people typically several layers of clothing, perhaps more than we might today. Even when the weather was very hot or someone was working in the fields, they’d wear multiple layers. You would wear a light tunic/shift/shirt next to your skin as underwear. This would get washed frequently. Then you’d have a main garment that was a bit heavier and then, depending on the fashion, add an outer, heaviest garment or even more. Skirts, hoods, sleeves, and other partial garments could be layers too.

All of the visible garments fit together purposefully and coordinated (or contrasted) in style, color, and type of fabric. Some garments or parts of a garment could be lined in a different material to be displayed, if a sleeve was pinned back or a skirt held away. You want to show off those layers!

Historical Images of Accessories and Layers

In this two-page PDF, I’ve gathered a selection of images from the 12th through 15th centuries. These show clothing of mostly middling class people and non-religious figures, as such types of clothing are typically easier to recreate for SCA newcomers. Still, these images show people wearing different types of accessories and layered clothing, and if you add these details, your first few outfits will look that much more historically accurate!

Sewing Your Own Garb

You want to get the most bang for your buck and the best results for your efforts, especially when you’re starting out. So plan before you sew. Get on the email lists for Jo-Ann Fabrics and any other fabric stores, so you find out about sales and you’ll get sent 40%-off coupons. Figure out what events you want to go to, and start working on garb a few months in advance.

#1 — Build a Wardrobe

You’ll get more out of your garb if you create mix-&-match pieces you can wear in different ways. So:

  1. Pick a time span and geographic place.
  2. Select a few coordinating colors that work with your own looks and are appropriate to the period, then make all your costume pieces in these colors.
  3. Construct a basic tunic/gown/bodice and coordinating hosen/pants/skirts in an unexaggerated style that fits the whole time period.
  4. Design winter/summer or fancy/casual options that goes with the basic starter pieces.
  5. Add fancy accessories like pin-on or tie-on sleeves, hats, belts, hoods, ruffs, veils, jewelry, etc., to extend your wardrobe.

#2 — Look for Natural Fibers

Wool, linen, and silk are accurate to Europe before 1600. Cotton is questionable for our period, but it can be a useful substitute. But it’s not just history that makes these fibers worth using. They can be more comfortable in warm or cool weather because natural fibers breathe when worn next to the skin. They are also durable and tend to look better after years of use than 100% synthetic fibers. So look for natural materials or blends made primarily of these fibers.

#3 — Use Trim and Details Where They Count

Always use the most expensive trim near your face and on your upper-body. Most people will look you in the face first while you’re in costume. Few people will notice your hem, and they won’t see your backside until you walk away. Focus around your face for maximum effect.

Look for clothing patterns and designs that draw attention to your face and upper body too. Use styles with interesting necklines, collars, and upper-arm designs to make the most of what people will see.

#4 — Beginner Patterns to Start With

Give these patterns a try for some simple first garb. The ones by McCalls, Butterick, and Simplicity are not historically accurate, but they should be easy and fast to make, plus they can be found inexpensively.

  • McCalls 4490 — Women’s fantasy medieval gown: Laces up the back and has three sleeve and two neckline variations, so you can “design” your own dress.
  • Butterick 4377 — Women’s fantasy medieval gown and cape set: Princess-seamed gown laces up the back, full cape has hood (good deal).
  • Butterick 4827 — Women’s fantasy medieval gown set: Princess-seamed gown and skirt, gives illusion of gown and undertunic.
  • Simplicity 3519 — Men’s poet / pirate shirts: Roomy shirts with yoked neck.
  • La Fleur de Lyse — Men’s and women’s medieval outfits for 1060-1150, 1240-1320, plus 11th-15th-century accessories: Complete and historically accurate wardrobe patterns for about $25/per pattern. Search online for various sellers.

URLs to Help Improve Newbie Garb

Medieval Inspiration:

Shopping Inspiration:

[Note — I do not vouch for these businesses; they are included as examples of the type of items you could buy, if you do not want to or cannot make your own.]

General Tips:

Clothing Instruction:

Accessories Instruction: