Monday, March 28, 2011

The Medieval Rennaissance

My days in rentals frequently go like this:
Me: "Hi, how may I help you?"
Customer: "Fine, how are you?"
Me:......."I'm well, thank you.  How are you?"
Customer: "I need something Medieval."
Me: "That's great, we have lots of Medieval costumes!  What is your project?"
Customer: "Oh, I'm in a play, that's why I need a Renaissance costume."
Me: "Wait, so you need a Renaissance costume?"
Customer: "Yeah."
Me: "Oh, I'm sorry, I thought you said Medieval."
Customer: "I did, I need a Medieval Renaissance costume." 

That tricky Medieval Renaissance, it gets us all at some point in our lives.  Like using apostrophes in non-possessive plurals, the terms medieval and renaissance are frequently erroneously used interchangeably to describe the centuries in Europe somewhere around 1100 AD and 1600 AD (sweet! That sentence sounded smart).  I am here to tell you my friends, Romans, and countrymen, that the years considered Medieval and the years considered Renaissance are not the same, and it's important to know the difference.  Why, you ask?  For similar reasons it's important to recognize the difference between the American Revolutionary War and World War Two.  Or to just sound smart at parties.

Let me paint you a picture of life in Medieval times.... the year is 1100 AD in a place someday known as Europe.  Your neighbor, Rome, is just getting over a whole slew of problems and has basically left you to your own devices.  You're still trying to figure out why this guy called the Pope thinks he's the king, the Islamic community is telling you that IV is really 4 (whatever that means, since you probably can't read), while you're still trying to grasp the concept of this crazy thing called "the button".  You can build some pretty cool cathedrals, though.  And you're excited to join your friends on a little trip they've dubbed The Crusades.

It was a very dark age.  Things were not very technologically advanced.  Clothing wasn't complicated, so when trying to determine if a costume piece is medieval or renaissance, ask yourself if it looks hard to make.
Look for tunics and simple silhouettes, as well as cyclas (basically a rectangle with a hole in the middle for the head, worn down the back and chest).
Women wore full length, loosely fitting dresses with tight wrist length sleeves as well as the cyclas.  Eventually flared sleeves were added to the tight sleeves.

For good medieval clothing movie references, watch "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves", and "Kingdom of Heaven". I make no promises over how good the movies themselves are, just the costumes.

Now for Renaissance!  Its picture is much rosier.  Renaissance roughly means "born again", and is sometimes referred to as the age of enlightenment.  The year is closer to 1500 AD, and thanks to the Italians, Europe has grown an unquenchable thirst for knowledge.  They've just survived the plague and are feeling pretty good about life.  Nearly every aspect of life is flourishing from this fresh approach to study; philosophy, science, politics, literature, religion, and especially art are advancing, and fast.  Famous renaissance artists include Michelangelo (the statue of David and the Sistine Chapel), Da Vinci (the Mona Lisa), and the Bard himself, Shakespeare.  Queen Elizabeth the first occupied the throne, and life was a peach.  

Renaissance clothing is all about extravagance.  Corsets for women came into vogue, combined with hoop skirts giving the silhouette a very exaggerated look. 

Men wore linen shirts under doublets (a kind of fitted jacket), with a jerkin over that (another fitted jacket but without sleeves).  Codpieces made their appearance (if you don't know what that is, I'm not going to tell you), and hose for the legs.  Yes men, you were the first to wear pantyhose. 
In the picture above, Geoffrey Rush is wearing a doublet (the long dark sleeves) and a jerkin (the matching bodice piece), with short puffy pants and hose.  This comes from the best movie I can recommend for appreciating Renaissance clothing, which is "Shakespeare In Love".

Here's a run down of the basic differences between Medieval and Renaissance.   
Medieval: Dark Ages.
Renaissance: Age of Enlightenment.   
Medieval: Slim silhouettes.   
Renaissance: Exaggerated silhouettes.
Medieval: Tunics.  Lots of 'em.   
Renaissance: Very structured doublets, jerkins, and puffy pants for men; corsets and hoop skirts for women.   
Medieval: Robin Hood and King Arthur.  
  Renaissance: Shakespeare and Queen Elizabeth.
These two time periods really are tricky to differentiate when faced with costume upon costume, though it is important to know the difference.  This only skims the surface of these two very different times, but hopefully this gives you some kind of guidance the next time you're in search of a costume.  Or need to sound impressive at parties.




  1. The second Amanda saw your title, she said "Rennaissance and Medievil are different." As if to warn Aunt Holly might have it wrong. Turns out yer both SMART! Great post!

    Kim :)

  2. YES!! Tell Amanda that I have never been so proud of a niece as right now. :D

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