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Period Clothing in the SCA
by Lady Marcele de Montsegur, OMWhen 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 defenseMany, 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 commitmentYour 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:
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:
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/QualityThe 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 outfitA 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:
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 habitsEven 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.
This page last modified March 21, 2003.