Interview: Kris Jachens, Costume Mistress of the Northern California Renaissance Faire

This interview is of Kris Jachens, a longtime participant in the renaissance faires of California, costume workshop instructor, and recently minted costume mistress for the Northern California Renaissance Faire.  For those unfamiliar, a renaissance faire is a recreation of a sixteenth-century English (or occasionally Scottish) village or market fair, complete with the court of Queen Elizabeth I (or Mary, Queen of Scots), on royal progress through the countryside.  Renaissance faires often include period or period-inspired stage plays, historical reenactment, street theatre, sales of handcrafted wares, and, in the case of the Northern California Renaissance Faire, a jousting tournment and Saturday night celtic rock concerts.

Lauren Michel: How would you describe your personal experience and history in participating in renaissance faires?

Kris Jachens: I started attending RPFN (Renaissance Pleasure Faire-North)* at Blackpoint Forest in Novato, California 22 years ago when I was 15.  I had always loved dressing up and theater.  I was hooked pretty much immediately.  I attended as a patron for years.  For my twentieth birthday I convinced my mom to get me the whole peasant outfit.  I got it at The Dye Spot [one of the vendors at the faire].  Basic peasant faire wear: two skirts, chemise with a scoop drawstring neckline and cuffs, bodice—all made of cotton gauze (well, the bodice was twill).   I still have that stuff, it was great quality.

I started working small single weekend faires about ten years ago.  That was also when I started teaching myself to sew.  I knew I couldn’t afford the faire clothes I wanted if I didn’t make them myself.  So, I started researching Elizabethan clothing, picking up patterns, and making some disastrous articles of clothes, if you can call them that.  I started working at the Northern California Renaissance Faire when the Renaissance Entertainment Corporation deserted it and Play Faire** formed and took it over.

LM: How long have you been teaching workshops at northern faire, and what are they about?

I’ve been teaching the Basic Costume Guidelines workshop for three years now.  This year, I added a workshop titled “Commoner Couture: Taking Your Garb from Costume to Clothes.” Basic Costume Guidelines is exactly what it sounds like: the minimum you have to do to have an approvable costume for the Entertainment Department.  The guidelines are based pretty much on what is in “The Brown Bible”—Winter and Savoy’s handbook for renaissance faire costuming, Elizabethan Costuming for the Years 1550-1580.

But the costuming in Winter and Savoy, especially at the working and middling classes, bears very little resemblance to what we see those classes wearing in the few Elizabethan paintings that feature them.  The classic faire women’s clothes, in particular, is hard to move in and often uncomfortable.  But we don’t really provide people with the information they need to do better than classic faire wear.  That’s why I introduced the Commoner Couture workshop this year.  My goal was to provide some sources for construction techniques and materials as well as research and inspiration for creating clothes that are driven by what a person like your character would have worn, rather than an impractical costume.

LM: What was your experience in deciding/discovering what actual 16th century English people would have worn? Where did you first turn for research and information? Where do you go for research, inspiration, supporting documentation, et cetera?

KJ: I hesitate to say that I’ve discovered or decided what actual 16th Century English people wore. There are almost no extant examples of what commoners wore, since clothing was so expensive and so often either remade or sold to other people used.  There are more existing garments that belonged to the nobility and the very rich, of course.  Mostly what I’ve done is extrapolate what I think is logical based on paintings, the construction of the extant examples that we do have, documents such as wills now available via the internet, and the research of the very talented people who came before me.

When I first started researching this stuff, I relied very heavily on some of the American amateur historical costuming rock stars: Drea Leed***, Jen Thompson, Sarah Lorraine, and later the fabulous Laura Mellin. Their research got me pointed in the right direction until I was able to invest some time and resources on my own.

Within the last couple of years, I’ve discovered the English folks who are doing serious reenactment at Kentwell Manor and similar sites. The pictures on their websites are great, because they show common working people actually working in their clothes—milking cows, cooking, smithing—so you can see how they wear.  I’m not sure they get it exactly right either, but the difference between what they wear and what we wear as actors at the faire is very stark.  We are clearly a more theatrical, rather than historical, event.

LM: What do you do as costume mistress? What are the biggest, but most allowed innaccuracies? What are the best examples of things that are being done well and period? What do you like about being costume mistress?

KJ: This is my first season as costume mistress and I came to it fairly late in the prep period.  I was asked to take it on in June and we started workshops in August, so I’m still exploring the limits of the position.  What I did mostly this year was just approve people’s clothes or tell them what they needed to do to make them work.  I heard stories that people were very nervous about me, like I was going to change everything in one fell swoop.  While eventually achieving more historical accuracy is important to me, I believe in baby steps, especially when dealing with a 40-year-old entity with its own long standing traditions and standards.

Probably the biggest inaccuracy, but also the most allowable and understandable, is fiber substitution. For common folks, clothes would have been made almost exclusively out of wool for outer garments and linen for underclothes.  Nowadays, most people substitute cotton for linen because it costs less, and wool is commonly thought of as hot and itchy.  I really encourage people to try linen and tropical weight wool, though.  It’s a fairly big expense at the outset, but the comfort, especially in the warm temperatures we deal with, is so great and they really wear like iron if you care for them properly.

In terms of what’s being done well, I’m seeing more ruffs on the courtiers and I’m hoping it will trickle down to the commoners as well.  I love ruffs!  Pretty much everyone wore them and there are few things that will send the “you’re in a different time and place” message to customers better than ruffs.  I’m also seeing evidence of more people reproducing looks they see in paintings, which I love.  Things like aprons with creases pressed in them, partlets worn over bodices by working women, and fitted doublets even on farmers.  Those details make all the difference when it comes to establishing a sense of reality.

What do I like best about being costume mistress?  Being able to share my geekiness with everyone! I can talk costume for hours, so this is just about the perfect job.  There are a lot of faire actors out there who, I think, want to create period clothes if they have the information and support to do it.  That’s what I aim to provide. Because when everyone is comfortable in their clothes, when they wear them like they wear them every day, the show just looks better.

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*The first renaissance faire began in southern California in the 1960s, and a second faire held in northern California began in 1970.  They were known as the Renaissance Pleasure Faires.  In the 1990s, the two faires were sold to a publicly traded company, Renaissance Entertainment Corporation, and the northern faire was later moved from its location in Novato, California to Vacaville, California, and later to its present location, Casa de Fruta, between Gilroy and Hollister, California.

** REC, Renaissance Entertainment Corporation, made the decision to close the faire at the end of the 2003 season. The faire was immediately resurrected by its community and is now owned by a group called Play Faire Productions.

***Drea Leed was featured in a previous Worn Through post, here.

Photos:

1.  Kris Jachens, photo by Jim Dowdall

2.  Detail from Le Temple de Paradis de Lyon, c. 1565-1570.

3.  Detail from Fete at Bermondsey by Joris Hoefnagel, c. 1570.

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