Accessorizing the Renaissance Dress

By Sarah

This article was originally published in the Nagle Forge & Foundry newsletter between 2002 & 2003. Due to space constraints (& printing costs) the original article had to be heavily edited. As many people commented at the time that they found this article useful we have decided to revise and expand it prior to adding it to Notes. As this is an expanded edition of the original article the decision was made to include it in Topics rather than Archives

A Faire dress without accessories is like a fancy cake without icing –adequate, but not appetizing or satisfying. (It is also not ‘period‘.) Throughout most of the past two thousand years most humans (regardless of economic status) have used accessories to express themselves. Sometimes these accessories are purely decorative –a string of beads, a pendant, a necklace, or a ring– and their purpose is to bring joy to the wearer and inspire appreciation. Sometimes accessories are both decorative and symbolic –a religous token, a wedding ring, an engagement ring, a military decoration, or a family badge– these are objects that mean something to the person who wears them and also communicate a message about the wearer to observers. Many accessories are inherently functional –buttons, bags, clasps, buckles, pins, etc.– as well as being decorative &/or, symbolic.

During the Renaissance, accessories were an incredibly important part of the daily dress &/or wardrobes of people throughout Europe. An individual’s choice of accesories varied depending on her, or his, native region, religous background, specific role in society, access to resources, and personal taste. Successful Renaissance dressing requires an understanding of accessories: An understanding of what kind of accessories you need, what kind of accessories you want, and what kind of accessories you –or your faire persona— ought to have.

This article is for everyone who has ever slaved over a costume, agonized over fabric choices, and hunted down the best possible shoes (you are only as happy as your feet) and yet, still, does not look completely ready. This is also for experienced old faire hands who are always looking for new (old) ideas, and anyone looking to add a bit of polish to his/her period wardrobe.

State-of-mind is a key part of taking your costume to the next level. If you are fully dressed in your costume and something still does not look –or, feel– ‘right’ this is probably because you are still thinking of the outfit you are wearing as a costume, and not clothing. Wearing enough layers and enough fabric to redo your living room –and possibly part of your bedroom– is not enough to achieve the ambience of renaissance dressing. Renaissance people may have had limited access to many of the products we now take for granted –fine woven fabrics, exotic silks and cottons, incredibly cheap cutlery, color-fast dyes, ribbons, beads, and so much more– but they were not minimalists. A Renaissance era townswoman, or the wife of a minor knight, may have owned only one or two complete dresses but she probably had enough accessories to create three, or four, or more, different ‘looks’ for different occaisions. Renaissance dressing –as opposed to Renaissance costuming– involves much more than clothes. A Renaissance dress that strikes the ‘right’ note expresses something about the individual wearer. To express personality you need accessories: You need the shoes, the hat (or the hair), the bag(s), the belt, the spare sleeves, extra lacings, the miscellaneous belt appendages, and you need the jewelry.

My favorite way of accessorizing is with jewelry, but to do it right you have to have a plan and incorporate everything into your design concept. [In the post 20th century building a jewelry wardrobe can also be much easier and economical than expanding your other accessory collections. For the price of a good bag and belt you can generally buy at least 3 or 4 pins or a very nice long strand of beads. Jewelry also requires less storage space and is easier to transport: These are both major considerations for a travelling re-enactor or anyone with limited closet space.]

The real plus with Renaissance dressing is that there is a style or two (or three, or more) for everyone. Your dilemma, and your delight, is to decide what it is and then make it work. This can be the most difficult and the most enjoyable part of Renaissance dressing. Do not allow yourself to be put-off by some of the more extreme Renaissance looks. Modern styles and sensibilities should play no part in accessorizing your renaissance dress. However, there may be some cross over between your every-day jewelry and your Renaissance jewelry (or vice versa). The key in identifying possible cross-over jewelry is to avoid anything that would have been technologically impossible or stylistically unthinkable during the Renaissance. [No titanium jewelry. No elasticized metal bracelets or belts. No tennis bracelets. No channel-set stones of any type. No obvious plastics –and plastic is almost always obvious. No itty-bitty diamonds or other itty-bitty surround stones –prior to the 19th century faceting extremely small stones was incredibly difficult and time consuming. No clown jewlery. Humorous jewelry is fine –and often quite appropriate–but clowns, aliens, U.F.O.s, sunflowers, and other (obviously) modern icons destroy a Renaissance look.] However, once you have found appropriate Renaissance jewelry (or learned to look for good Renaissance style jewelry) you must still find a way to wear it in a Renaissance style in order to finish accessorizing your Renaissance dress.

By modern (western) standards, Renaissance-era people wore a lot of jewelry. During the Renaissance it was not uncommon for someone (if he or she could afford it) to wear two or three rings, two or three pins, and two or three necklaces simultaneously. [This was often in addition to a decorative belt, ornamental buckles, and other clothing fasteners.] When accessorizing a Renaissance dress less is less, and much more might be just about right.

But that doesn’t mean you have to clatter around looking like a cross between a Victorian Christmas tree and a Vegas headliner. You do not have to wear big jewelry in order to make a big impression. It is possible to create a great Renaissance look without abandoning your sweet little pins in favor of something that looks like a Chevy hubcap. During the Renaissance there were actually people who liked little jewelry –by little, I mean small in size, not small in quantity. [The fine detail on tiny ornaments and miniaturized weapons –which were popular as jewelry from the mid to late Renaissance– served as curiosities and were admired for their fine craftsmanship and artistry. The wearers of these mini-jewels were admired for their fine taste and their status as patrons of art and industry.]

To wear small jewelry in a Renaissance style it is important to choose a theme and develop a way to wear multiple pieces of jewelry as a set. [By ‘set’ I mean a set of complimentary jewelry, not a set of matching jewelry: True parures are more common in the Baroque and Roccoco periods.] Find a motif that means something to your Renaissance character, or that you like (castles, ships, thistles, birds, fish, flowers, leaves, faces, dragons, etc.), get three or four different pins featuring similar motifs, cluster them on a sleeve, hat, or bodice, and suddenly your outfit has a theme, and you have a new means of expressing yourself through your arrangement of accessories. (We have one patron who has a tiny rabbit pin, chased by a small fox pin, with both pins pursued by half a dozen small hounds across the front of her bodice.) Your friends may even pitch in and add to your collection as the gift giving events of the year roll around (and perhaps they will be grateful not to have to puzzle over what you would like to receive). Many of our patrons have several themed collections that they arrange artfully upon their persons. These accessory collections can quickly change the look of an outfit. Even a slightly different arrangement of the same jewelry collection can change the overall look of a Renaissance costume.

Depending on personal preference –either your own or that of your costumed alter ego– big & bold jewelry may be the best choice to accessorize your Renaissance outfit. Large jewelry can symbolize an assertive personality, an important event, or the grand position of the wearer. [Large jewelry can also fulfill a necessary functional role. For instance: A heavy cloak requires a large clasp, a Scottish Great Kilt demands a large pin. A big belt buckle or a shoulder brooch for a Scot will make the whole outfit hang together, literally.]

Whether a piece of jewelry is decorative, functional, or both, placement is paramount for large pieces. You want your dress and jewelry to enhance and compliment each other while they frame and glorify you.

Ladies, if you have a square cut bodice and an open chemise, consider wearing a necklace or medallion close to the throat (& sunscreen, otherwise you will end up with a very strange tan), a pin on your bodice, shoulder, or sleeve, a long string of beads or pearls, something for your hat or hair, a ring (or several rings), and a pair of earings. Do not limit yourselves to accessorizing only one portion of your body or dress.

Gentlemen, a hat is the perfect place to display a pin, brooch, or badge. A well-chosen pin can help individualize a hat. And, if you wear a hat with a brim, a pin can hold an upturned brim in place. Choose a symbol that suits you and a size that is comfortable. A shoulder pin, medallion with chain, belt buckle, decorative clasp, finger ring(s), &/or belt pouch decoration should all also be considered as potential accessories.

Color can also be a good way to accessorize your Renaissance dress –or quickly change the look of an outfit. Your dress may be a blaze of color, or a sedate shade of forest brown, or green, or the cool grey of a winter day. Your jewelry can add dashes of a complementary or contrasting color. Pewter or silver-toned jewelry can be particularly striking against green, black, and grey backgrounds. Gold and gold-plated jewelry are stunning on a red, dark-blue, or purple backround. Faux enameled pieces are another option. Enameling provides saturated color in period style. [White, blue, red, and green, were all common enamel colors of the Renaissance era. Black was a popular accent color for both yellow and white metals.] Gemstone accented jewelry –particularly cabochon jewelry– and glass, stone, amber and pearl beads are appropriate and versatile ways to add color, shape, and movement to an outfit. Matching drop earings to a fancy necklace and a colored ribbon or gemstone ring is a great way to spread the color and catch the eye. Think of your jewelry as easily detachable and changeable trim.

Regional, religous, and ethnic preferences are also important when accessorizing the Renaissance dress. Who are you? What is your Faire/re-enactment persona? There are many different regional dres styles and there are many different jewelry styles. English, Scottish, and German clothing styles all demand different types –and styles– of accessories. The Netherlands, Spain, the different regions of France and the city states of Italy call for different accessories. (For instance: For the Netherlands and the North German states, consider pins with animal motifs. The Protestant reformation made figural representations unpopular, and the growing middle classes wanted hat badges and shoulder pins in a wide variety of metals without the connotations of foreign royalty and/or Catholicism. For Italians, especially coastal Italians, pearls, colored stone and glass beads, and big cut stones are very bella. During the Renaissance, pearls and cut stones poured into Venice from the Ottoman East and the Italians promptly faked the luxury goods so that even women of relatively modest means could drip with pearls and beads. Germans, Poles, and Bohemians, loved big chains, and big fancy necklaces all hooked together like enourmous Renaissance charm bracelets. The Spanish loved gold and emeralds, or anything green, shell-themed ornaments, and crosses, of course. Renaissance France has every style thanks to lots of wars and frequent Royal marriages with trend-setting Spaniards, Germans, and Italians.)

There’s lots more to think about, so find a style, choose a theme, and have fun!

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