Long day's journey ... ... into knights: The costumes and culture of the Maryland Renaissance Festival

Grown-ups play dress-up each fall at the Maryland Renaissance Festival.
By Rebecca Bengal
Sunday, October 25, 2009

Near a tall oak by the jousting field stood a guy in a black leather vest, with metal-studded epaulets over billowy, cuffed pants in a deep shade of purple. Huge spider medallions hung around his neck and were affixed to the leather straps that held his tankard. His voice was loud and nasal, his expression fixated and intense, framed by a set of woolly eyebrows. A redheaded woman in harem pants and pointy-toe slippers had apparently sought his advice about her husband, who had refused to don a costume or even accompany her to the festival that day.

"Dude, that's so messed up!" he said. (He identified himself as Kilsek, which is the name of the dark elf character he plays in the medieval warrior reenactment game Darkon.) "You can't have any fun in street clothes! I mean, what's he going to do, sit there in a frickin' Budweiser shirt? Get him in the garb! It's so easy to put something together. Just pick up some hose thing, some breeches, and he's good to go."

"I know," she said. They stood there for a moment in silence, thoughtful.

"It's all about adapting to your environment," Kilsek said. He paused to call out to a man strolling by in a black kilt spangled in metallic buttons, "Kickass dress, dude, I'm digging it!"

I was at the Maryland Renaissance Festival in Crownsville observing the wildlife. Bands of adults with heavy metal hair, in full armor, with gauntlets and knee-high boots seemed to have arrived straight from a Nordic den and marched past entire families in costume, princesses in pink tulle with a gypsy for a mother and a knave for a dad. Never mind that the actual Viking raids on England predate 1543 by several centuries: The Renaissance Festival seemed to accept all eras, however fashionably or unfashionably late or early to the party. Women with brass-cupped breasts heatedly discussed the Powerball lottery; an elderly couple in peasant dress promenaded grandly past, arm in arm, like medieval mall-walkers, and a teenage Goth couple pranced lightly across the grassy field, black eye makeup somehow intact in the heat, their long black dusters fanning out ever so slightly behind them. Where else but this place would a hard-core teenage Goth willingly pay money to go hang out with a middle-aged mom and dad?

Here are some things you can do at the Maryland Renaissance Festival: You can drench a wench. You can hurl hatchets at tree stumps with red targets painted on them. You can ride elephants. You can participate in a game called rat-pucking, punting stuffed-rat toys across a lawn toward the gathered apron skirts of a matron assigned as the target. You can buy little puffy-tipped horns and walk around for the rest of the day with them attached to either side of your head, and no one will look at you funny. You can coast down a long wooden slide. You can't carry a sword, or even a realistic-looking fake, but you can buy a dull-edged wooden one to go with your knight's hood. You can attend lectures about Tudor-era crime and punishment, or medieval fashion. You (meaning you, legal adult) can walk around drinking a beer in what feels like a small town.

For many, though, there is a pull greater than this, something that drives grown women to squeeze themselves into tight bodices and inspires men to package themselves in codpieces for a day, to briefly escape to this bizarre and anachronistic world. But precisely what that draw was, I couldn't yet say.


The first public Renaissance fair in the United States was held in a Los Angeles back yard in 1964, and subsequent early fairs tended to be nomadic in nature -- hippie-ish campouts where travelers flocked and pitched tents. The exact number of Renaissance festivals in the United States appears to be a fluid thing, but most directories peg the total at around 180. Of the American fairs, the Maryland Renaissance Festival, which is in its final weekend of its nine-weekend season, is one of the largest and most popular in the country. In recent seasons, 300,000 visitors have passed through its gates. Annual sales come in at $19 million.

The Maryland Renaissance Festival's wooded imaginary village covers about one-fifth of a vast 130-acre expanse of land off Crownsville Road. It was the opening day, and I thought I had arrived early, but a good 300 vehicles had beat en me there, and their owners were putting the last touches on their costumes. High school students jumped out of a minivan and began accessorizing their personalities for the day.

"You're Jesty," one of them declared, not terribly radically, to the most hapless-looking among them, he of the multicolored, multipointed, bell-adorned jester hat.

Jesty was one of two jesters in my midst. The second one stood with his parents and his brother, who was outfitted in a heavy brown hooded cloak. "I was going to be Gandalf again, but the wig gets in the way," the friar said. "All that wizard hair."

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