Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Renaissance Style

The celebration of my birthday did not end with a night on the town Saturday evening. Since the wearing of a heavy medieval costume is far more comfortable on a chilly autumn day than on a sweltering one, I chose Sunday to don the habiliments of 15th century England and venture south to Crownsville, where the Maryland Renaissance Festival is currently in full swing. It is my good fortune to have as my neighbor a man who is a longtime member of Faire staff, and he graciously presents me with tickets to the Renaissance Festival as a birthday gift every September. I couldn’t be more pleased, as visiting a local Renaissance Faire is a birthday tradition I’ve enjoyed since I lived in northern California over twenty years ago.

Indeed, the costume I lovingly pulled on for yesterday’s event has been assembled piece by piece over several decades. Way back in 1989, when I lived alone in a four-bedroom home I owned in northern California, I advertised for a roommate and ended up with a delightful young computer repairman named Jonathan Howell (www.TechnicalWizardry.com) who moved into my home with his german shephard, Bruno. Jon and his girlfriend, Susan Morgan (she used only the name "Morgan"), were veterans of Northern California’s Renaissance Faire, then held within the deep canyons of Black Point Forest in Novato.

The rules of California’s period festivals were very strict in those days: no costumes could be made of any fabric or mechanism that was not in existence at the time of the festival’s lineage. So… no buttons or Velcro or polyester in a Renaissance costume. For the Dickens Christmas Faire in Sacramento, buttons were allowed – those ingenious fasteners had been devised by the Victorian era, but still no zippers were permitted as they had not yet been conceived in 19th century England. And the rules were just as stern for role players. Participants at both festivals were forbidden from speaking "out of vernacular" at any time they were on site, whether they were on duty or not. It made for a wonderfully authentic experience for the many visitors, like me, who ventured to these fetes every year, but it was rigid and often frustrating for the staff and hundreds of vendors.
Jonathan Howell in costume

Jon was a dancer in a folk troupe at the California Renaissance Faire and Morgan played the mandolin in an accompanying quartet. Through the late 1980s and early 1990s they held periodic rehearsals at my house to prepare for the Faire’s six-week run, and the haunting strains of medieval music, accompanied by the jingling of bells attached to the dancer’s legs, wafted across my yard to create a magical ambience I will never forget.
Morgan and her mandolin
In honor of my birthday in 1990, Morgan, a talented seamstress, made me an authentic Renaissance bodice. She took numerous measurements, created a pattern and crafted the garment entirely by hand over the space of several months. I was thrilled with the beautiful blue and burgundy result and have worn it to every Renaissance festival I’ve attended since. Because the clothing sold at these events is not inexpensive, it took me many subsequent years to collect the skirts, shoes, belts and assorted accessories that comprise a completed costume. But finally I have a finished look that is exceptionally "vintage" and I adore the tremendous sentimentality of the entire ensemble. Such memories it stirs!
So it was with great pleasure that I laced up my custom bodice yesterday and fastened on the various accoutrements of my outfit. Once on the Festival grounds, I proceeded directly to a hair-braiding booth and watched in wonder as a talented young woman wove my tresses into an artistic spiral adorned with tiny rosettes of burgundy satin.

From there, I ventured across the grounds, taking in the imaginative costumes and the eager faces of children experiencing the wonder of theatrical audience participation for the first time. I stopped at the "Dragon’s Den" where I had my picture taken with "Feather", a sixty-pound serpent who allowed me to drape her smooth body across my shoulders and around my arms. The seven-year-old red-tailed boa constrictor is one of several animals housed by Virginia Reptile Rescue (VARR). I was pleased to see that they rotated snakes frequently, not allowing any creature to become stressed or over-stimulated.
Me with David Boulet, IT specialist
Example of Satyr costume
From the Dragon’s Den I meandered among the numerous shops displaying their fanciful handcrafted wares and had my photo taken with a mythological beast whose costume transformed his lower half into amazingly lifelike goat legs. By day, the handsome satyr pictured with me is mild-mannered David Boulet, a federal IT specialist from College Park, Maryland. But here, he was a devilish faun with a great smile.

Later, I found myself greeting the royal party as they made their way down the central promenade. King Henry VIII, played by Fred Nelson, and his lovely consort, Queen Katherine of Aragon, played by Stephanie Offutt, were bejeweled and resplendent in their heavy regalia. I was betting they, too, were thankful for the crisp fall weather.

In all, my day at the Faire was a wonderful adventure, a perfect conclusion to my prolonged celebration of a middle-aged birthday. I milked it for all it was worth… and I have no regrets.

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