Just inside the gates of Scarborough Renaissance Festival in Waxahachie, Kymberly Nielsen helps make magic by dressing and accessorizing a slew of dragons, fairies, nobles, woodsman, pirates and peasants.
“We try to create a show,” says Nielsen, whose family owns Suit Your Fancie, a costume shop that rents attire for 15 characters. “We call them 'My Lord,' 'My Lady.' They’re treated like they're royalty, and we're dressing them, lacing them up.
“You want them to feel welcome. If we’re the first place they’ve stopped, it sort of sets the tone for the rest of the day.”
Nielsen, who’s been in the business more than 20 years, says the average costume rents for about $40 for the whole day, with lowly peasant garb priced at $35 and royalty garments costing around $60.
“Right now, the most popular (costume) is our warrior princess,” she says. “It’s kind of where we’ve taken on pop culture a little bit.”
Nielsen says the outfit makes females feel empowered and not only pretty. She also noted that the shop doesn’t deal in shoes.
“If we do this right,” she says, motioning from her rib cage up, “no one’s looking at their feet.”
Nielsen lets costumers indulge their renaissance fantasies by offering choices like gypsy garb or a wench getup.
A costumer hikes up someone's skirt waist “ridiculously high” before tying on an array of pockets and trinkets.
“Since gypsies tend to steal things, we have to make sure we warn people you are coming,” she says, deliberating between a wreath headband and a head scarf.
“My lady, those colors are fabulous on you,” Nielsen says reassuringly, as the sage-colored bodice was laced tight and the blouse-like undergarment flounced out.
As you make your way past fairies, princesses and chivalrous knights, you'll land at Pendragon Costumes, where Renaissance clothing is sold off the rack. Festival spokeswoman Helaine Thompson explained that lots of people come to the festival in jeans and T-shirts but later opt to rent a costume and play along for the day. She says others rent costumes to try out different characters before “buying and building their character to immerse themselves into the world we have here.”
MaritaBeth Caruthers, who's been managing Pendragon for 25 years and creating costumes even longer, has a wealth of information about authentic, Renaissance-era clothing. The shop, owned by Nicole Fullerton, burned to the ground a few years ago but was quickly rebuilt. Caruthers points to the Phoenix statue out front denoting the store’s rise from the ashes.
While dressed as a middle-class merchant, Caruthers talks about earthy tones on fabrics, which would have been made from dyes found in nature. Colors like pink and burgundy were also seen then, because grape juice could be used as dye.
“I have on a nice, leather bodice that supports me as it should,” Caruthers says in appreciation of her clothing. “And I have on three skirts.”
Caruthers explains that the middle-class was fairly new in the 16th century and people tended to wear what they had. Poorer people would also sleep in their chemise or shift.
She assesses that not much has changed in a modern classist society.
“Much like our world today, there’s a giant separation between the haves and the have-nots,” she says. “You’re born in the royal noble blood or you’re not. There’s not much in-between.”
Caruthers explains the provenance of the fabrics used in the Renaissance fabrics, which came strictly from nature.
“In England, our primary fabric (at the time) is wool because there are sheep everywhere,” she says. “Everybody, even the poorest peasant, has a family sheep. Cotton is rare, but exists. Linen is also popular. Peasants are wearing wool underwear.”
Caruthers notes that silk was reserved for the upper class, and that the upper classes favored underwear sewn from linen.
“Everyone can get a hold of dead animals,” she says, explaining the era's abundance of leather attire. Purple dye used on silk material imported from the Far East was reserved for royals and came from a mollusk harvested so frequently that it became rare and thus expensive, Caruthers says. She also explains the way sleeves were designed for the weather.
“This sleeve buttons closed. So if the weather is very warm, the man wearing this can simply open some of these buttons and get more air flow.”
Caruthers says that while the costumes add an element of fun, there are no specific rules to play by at Scarborough.
“If having a good time means you stay in your jeans and T-shirt, then that’s what you do,” she says. But if you want to look the part of history, there are guidelines.”
A simple bodice is a best-seller, she says, as well as doublets and men’s jackets. A three-piece outfit consisting of a basic chemise or shirt, pants or skirt and bodice or doublet starts around $300.
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“We also sell extraordinary, elaborate outfits that run for $800 to $900 or more,” she says, adding that the shop, which also hawks lots of accessories, has plenty of repeat customers.
“We repair things forever,” she says. “It creates a lot of loyalty.”
Most importantly, Caruthers says Pendragon Costumes wants customers to feel like family and absolutely nobody is judged for his or her fashion choices.
“If they’ve got any costume on at all when they come through that front gate, they are playing the game and those are our people,” she says.