The lord payor and the ladies in waiting were a trifle hot last weekend. And one of the queens sprayed her ruff with water to help cool her off. This weekend's forecast might drench a few velvet skirts. But when you have only one set of proper Renaissance clothing (they didn't have cruise-wear in those days) and it's made of velvet, brocade and ermine weighing 20 pounds and costisng up to $1,000, you shimmy into the layers of petticoats, doublets, bun rolls, ruffs and pansied slops (a kind of mini-skirt for men) and imagine yourself in the 15th or 16th century.
You do, that is, if you are among the almost 1,000 people working at the Maryland Renaissance Festival, being held weekends until tomorrow in Columbia, or if you one of hundreds of visitors who choose to get into the spirit of the times by dressing in 15th- or 16th- century clothing.
"More and more people are coming to the festival in costume," says Marlene Weinberg, the coordinator of the fourth annual festival who is responsible, among other things, for getting voluminous petticoated duchesses unstuck from the portable toilets and helping wizards out of Toyotas.
"The clothes help them get into the spirit of things," says Weinberg. "And though it has been very hot this year, people just decide it's mind over matter and drink a lot of fluids. But they get such pleasure from the costumes, it's worth it."
The increasing number of guests coming in costume has been so great that this year a booth was set up on the festival grounds where guests can shed their Jordache jeans and T-shirts and emerge as citizens of the Renaissance. tPeasant garb rents for $5 a day and merchant outfits $7-$10. "Wearing the costumes just makes you feel so much more a part of the festival -- it's part of the whole spirit," says Mary Lynch, who has set up the rental service.
Most of the entertainers, shopkeepers, ticket-takers and food vendors at the event are responsible for putting together their own outfits, but many of the more elaborate and historically accurate costumes have been designed and sewn by Leslie Harris. Harris, 29, is currently working on costumes at the Folger for its forthcoming "Measure for Measure" production. She also designs cloths for her local Elizabethan dance group, Primavera, and is working on a collection of Edwardian dressed for the Clara Barton House in Glen Echo.
Harris, who majored in English Renaissance literature in college, and who dances with her group at the festival, says, "I feel like a million bucks in my costume, even though it can be very hot. My posture improves, I stand up straighter and act more regal. Everybody starts being their character.
"The men suffer the most in their clothes because they don't have a hoop skirt to get a breeze up the legs. I understand that the English climate was really much colder, which is why they wore so many clothes, but basically the elaborateness of it all was their way of trying to outdo everyone else." Harris cites the case of one Beverly Sills Queen Elizabeth costume which duplicated a portrait but still ended up weighting 70 pounds despite the use of plastic jewels.
Most of her designs weigh 10-20 pounds, not including the polyester fiber or T-shirts that men have to stuff down the fronts of their stomachs (unless they have enough natural padding). Back then, men used to stuff their fronts with beans or grain to give them that imposing look, she says. Her own costume is made of silk brocade, velveteen and hand-sewn "phony" pearls. It took her 100 hours to make, and takes her half and hour to put on. For various participants in the Renaissance Festival, she has created lady regent, lord mayors and Henry VIII costumes, most of which took a week to complete.
Harris has taken only one formal course in costume, but mainly gets her ideas from a collection of prints, notebooks and books. Ruufs -- pleated stiff white collars of the time -- are Harris' passion. "I'd like to become the world's living expert on ruffs," says Harris. "There are many theories on where they originated. One of the more interesting is that they were invented to keep head lice from getting into your clothes. In those days, a handmade lace ruff could take up to a year of labor to make." The cleaning of ruffs is a special consideration -- "to clean a ruff you have to undo the stiching, blech it, soak it until stiff as a board in laundry starch and then resew it. I clean it about once every two years or when I get too many mead stains on it.
"This was one of the most stiff and unnatural periods in the history of costume," says Harris. "But in the old days, people had very few dresses, and each was special and had a lot of man hours in it and was supposed to last."
For a quick home-made Renaissance outfit, Harris suggests, "it's better to see a good peasant costume than a lousy aristocrat." She says a home-made version could consist of a full blouse, a long skirt pinned up on one side to show a petticoat underneath and maybe a lacy apron or vest. For men, it's tights with a belted tunic.
Why do grown men prance around in tights and feathered velvet hats chomping on turkey legs? "It's merrie olde England," says Harris. "It's the same reason people like 'Masterpiece Theatre' and 'Fantasy Island' -- escapism."