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Period Clothing in the SCA

by Lady Marcele de Montsegur, OM

When you discover the fun and creativity of the SCA and decide it's for you, your first concern is usually clothing. Since this is a participatory group, you can't simply stand around in your modern clothes — what some SCAdians call 'mundanes' or 'being naked'. So, that said, how can you jump right in when to participate you need period clothing at the very minimum?

For every person out there, there are that many different ways to go about clothing and accessorizing the body Medieval-style. For the purpose of this article, I'll describe a few of the easiest and most beneficial ways to tackle this creative challenge.

Gold Key — your first line of defense

Many, many newcomers rely on a local groups’ collection of donated period clothing, known as Gold Key garb, to on-the-fly clothe newcomers at events. Some people find the SCA by walking up, feeling enthusiastic, being thrown into some borrowed garb, and diving in from there. Others hear about it from friends or family and agree to attend an event with some advance warning, but usually not enough to make a whole set of garb from scratch. Both types of newcomers, as well as any other type of newcomer, are candidates for use of the Gold Key garb, which is usually administered by the group‘s chatelaine or chamberlain. Sometimes the garb offerings from Gold Key are a good fit, other times the pickings may be slim, but it will often be enough to get you through your first day(s) at an SCA event.

You can use Gold Key a few times before folks will expect you to generate your own clothing, so don't expect to use it regularly for yourself. It’s a service provided as a booster step into the greater world of period garb.

Decide your level of commitment

Your reason for taking part in the SCA could be as simple as "Fighting with a rattan sword and shield looks really cool" or as complex as, "I'd like to put this PhD in Medieval History to more immediate use." The best decision to make first is settling on what level of research, work, money, and time you are comfortable committing to this venture. If you view period clothing as a distracting but necessary evil on the road to other things, such as fighting, fencing, cookery, illumination, heraldry, etc., then you should probably not begin by hunting down pricey or hard-to-find research tomes and painstakingly hand-stitching a St. Louis tunic from hand-spun and woven wool. On the other hand, if the re-creation of clothing is the first thing that caught your attention, you would probably be quite disappointed with a cotton broadcloth all-purpose tunic and a pair of sweatpants tucked into boots.

Let’s take a look at the range in commitment you can make as a new SCAdian. An example of a high level of commitment would be the following:

  • Taking trips to the library to pour over any and all historical costuming books available. This would include note-taking, photocopies, and if possible, checking these books out for detailed reading at home.
  • Reviewing of your kingdom’s newsletter and website as well as local newsletters, websites, and mailing lists for all upcoming SCA scholas, workshops, and events dealing with the topic of clothing in some form or another. Making plans to attend as many of these gatherings as possible, notebook in hand.
  • Signing on to the multiple garb-related email lists available on the internet today, mostly through Yahoo Groups. Reading through the previous postings, files, photos. Placing polite, succinct questions to the myriad experts available on those lists and carefully reading the replies, storing information as it appears useful.
  • Tapping the help of local experts willing to share their knowledge in their free time. Most people, unless they’ve had previous sewing experience, don’t know how to operate a sewing machine or how to hand-stitch. Most folks is a little hard to do, you could always sign up for a class at a sewing machine supplier or a fabric store.
  • Building a library of resources at home, beginning with useful websites, including fabric suppliers, SCA-related portal pages for various garb instructions, and scholarly sites offering up historical artwork or texts online. Included in this library would also be books, periodicals, color reproductions of pertinent period artwork, and handouts from classes on historical clothing.
  • Taking the time to settle on a period and place (like, 12th century France, or 15th century Germany) and then focusing your learning on this time period and geographical spot as much as possible.
  • With your extensive research bouncing around in your mind, drafting a pattern for an appropriate outfit befitting a gentleman or lady of that era and location, keeping in mind fabric and color choices, as well as the style of seams and sewing techniques used at that time.
  • Creating your authentic, well-researched, and carefully stitched outfit, taking care to create head wear if it’s appropriate, and to make or find footwear that would also be correct.

Of course, this could take months and months and a LOT of money!

On the other hand, an example of a very easy level of commitment would be:

  • Seeing what a whole bunch of folks are wearing at the first event you attend. Taking a broad look around, you see a lot of simple T-tunics, which get their name from their shape, like the letter T. You also see what looks like baggy drawstring pants, tucked into leather boots. Around waists, you see long leather belts tucked through a metal O-ring in the front and hanging towards the floor.
  • Going over to a merchant at that same event, seeing similar tunics, drawstring pants, and belts for sale, you buy your first set.

You have just achieved an acceptable level of garb to attend any SCA event, with minimal effort and modest expense.

These are two extremes, of course, and most people fall somewhere in between, depending on their interest level. Still, it’s up to you to decide how much effort you want to put into your first few outfits. Later, you can increase or decrease your commitment. After all, the commitment is to no-one but yourself.

Time/Cost/Quality

The good news is that even if you are creatively ambitious and want to delve in as deeply as possible at the very start, you can usually manage to do this on a reasonable budget if you’re willing to substitute time for money. You may have seen this diagram before:

To achieve quality you either need cash or time, or both. You can make due without a lot of money if you’re willing to put in time — time for research, design, shopping for bargains, getting lessons in sewing and historical accuracy. Conversely, you can make due if you’re short on time but have enough cash to throw at the challenge.

A quick start to a period outfit

A good compromise between over-the-top perfection and generic, not-so-period tunics and pants, is to pick an outfit that is known to be authentic, but is also not too hard to make. A good example of this would be found on the Your First Set of Clothes page of the Reconstructing History website, written by Kass McGann. This article gives concise information about:
  • Selecting fabric — what’s period, what’s not, how to tell what you’re looking at,
  • Figuring out how much fabric you’ll need
  • Creating a pattern on the fabric,
  • Sewing the fabric pieces together to make a complete, period tunic.

Kass mentions, and it bears repeating, that the tunic she outlines can be made for both women and men, with the primary difference being that a woman’s version would be somewhere between ankle- to floor-length.

Another page with a thorough examination of clothing for newcomers is called Introduction to Garb: A Seminar by Cynthia Virtue.

Starting your clothing adventure with good habits

Even if you are not prepared to go into great details of research to create your clothing, it's useful to know what drives the engine of Medieval/Renaissance re-creation. The SCA is primarily an educational organization that sustains people’s interest by encouraging learning and teaching on many aspects of period life, be they artistic, practical, sporting, or philosophical. This means that scholastic effort is integral to the vitality of the group.

Without individuals’ efforts in research and reportage, we would wither or morph into something rather Stepford-like, eventually losing the wonderland of historical effort undertaken by unique artisans and achievers. Part of the fun of our group is that you can look around and see diverse feats of artistic and scholarly achievement, whether in clothing, heraldry, vinting, brewing, armor, cookery, performance, embroidery, wood-working, whatever you can think of.< h4>Using the web to bolster good habits, garb and otherwise Before you find your creative niche, you may find the following articles useful. They discuss ways to keep on track and pitfalls to avoid.

Good Research Techniques by Kass McGann. Kass goes over basic tips for figuring out how it was done in period.

Source of Confusion by Cynthia Virtue. This article describes the differences between primary, secondary, and tertiary sources in research.

Fabric for Bachelors by Cynthia Virtue. A series of articles covering basic fabric principles. Although designed for mundane use, many articles can apply to making period clothing at home.

Medieval Clothing Pages by Cynthia Virtue. Cynthia’s collection of useful period clothing articles.




Disclaimer: This is the Newcomers Page for the Shire of Hartshorn-dale of the East Kingdom of the Society for Creative Anachronism, Inc.  The maintainer of this page is Lee Ann Posavad.  It is not a corporate publication of the Society for Creative Anachronism, Inc. and does not delineate SCA policies. In cases of conflict with printed versions of material presented on this page or its links, the dispute will be decided in favor of the printed version.
This page last modified March 21, 2003.
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