So you want to be a re-enactor. You’ve decided on the historical period you’d most like to focus on, looked around and found a local group, attended one of their meetings or training sessions, swung around a sword or held a musket, and have decided that this is the hobby for you. Upon being welcomed to the group you may have been told of upcoming shows and training events, maybe even given a brief starters’ handbook, and paid up your membership fee (if you have one) and your insurance. If you have been given a handbook, and even if you haven’t someone will probably talk this through with you, chances are you’ll immediately be made aware of the equipment you’ll need to buy. Things like costume, weapons, armour, authentic eating utensils, shoes, belts, and all and sundry.
Looks expensive doesn’t it?
One of the first things that should come immediately to mind is: where do I get all this stuff from? How much will it cost me? What if I can’t get it all?
This is actually a rather lengthy topic, so I’ll be dividing it into two sections, first how to plan your kit so as to make it as cost effective as possible, and then advice on where to look for kit and tips on purchase.
First of all, as a completely new member, do not panic. No one is going to expect you to go out and buy all this stuff in one sitting, especially not if you’re a student or don’t have an income that can support such a splurge. A lot of this stuff costs and chances are it’ll be a season or two before you’ve gathered the basics of the equipment you need. Until then, you can rely on your group to help kit you out until you can acquire your own stuff; most re-enactors who’ve been in the hobby for a while gather surplus kit rather rapidly, of which they’d be more than happy to loan for shows or training sessions. Larger groups may even have a collection of group kit set aside precisely for that purpose, especially amongst Napoleonic, Civil War and Revolutionary War groups, where soldiers fought in specific uniforms.
Of course, such kit runs afoul of the One-Size-Fits-None nature that is typical of clothing and equipment being loaned out. It’s also less likely to be in good repair, although it should still be serviceable. As such unless you’re exceedingly lucky and just happen to fit the exact size of jacket or boot you’re borrowing, or if you’re able to make adjustments for a more comfortable fit, chances are you’ll never be quite at ease with the equipment you’re using. However that’s largely due to the fact that this is equipment is not intended to be a permanent arrangement; at some point you’ll be expected to start buying your own kit.
There’s no two ways about it. This is going to cost you a pretty penny.
Fortunately, as I’ve said, you don’t have to buy it all at once. At most all you’ll need to do is buy one piece of kit for every show you attend (assuming there are stalls there) and maybe some larger pieces over the Christmas season. Try to orientate your purchases to the show you’ll next be doing. For example, if you’re going to Templecombe, then look at getting a Templar-style bucket helm or some chainmail. If you’re doing Agincourt, maybe look at an open-faced salet or a breastplate. Spread out this way, you won’t feel the strain as much as you would if you tried to buy it all in one go. There is no particular period that is cheap, although there are periods that are easier to deal with than others.
The Napoleonic period, for example, requires a specific style of uniform, specific weapons that would have been used in the period and a specific style of dress. You can’t, for example, have long hair and a beard (unless you were part of a specific part of the Army or Navy). Sometimes you may also be required to be part of a specific regiment, depending on the group or show, which further limits how much improvisation you can do. Similar constraints surround American/English Civil War re-enactors and Roman re-enactors. If you have a group uniform, you will be given all the advice you need on how to procure it.
However Early Medieval (450AD-1000AD) is much more flexible; all you need is chainmail, a tunic, trousers, a belt and shoes, an appropriate helmet, and a weapon, most probably a sword and shield, a spear or a Dane-axe. Add a tabard and a slightly later helmet, such as a kettle helm, and you can carry that up to the High Middle Ages (1000AD-1299AD). This will cover most Western and Northern European countries of those periods. You can also have a little more freedom with your hair and facial growth too, although remember that no period before the 1970’s will allow for a giant neon pink mohawk. Most medieval groups also have a uniform tabard or design, but this is relatively cheap and easy to get hold of. EKHO’s cost around £15 for a simple sleeveless design, while a slightly more posh sleeved one was £30.
The first thing you should do before doing any planning is to do decide what exactly you envision yourself doing and role you intend to fill. If you want to be a nobleman, for example, you’re going to need a lot of nice looking and probably expensive stuff, as well as very good equipment if you’ll be doing combat. In addition, you’ll need to be aware of medieval fashion trends and plan your outfit accordingly. Before the 1300s, for example, robes and loose fitting tunics were very much in fashion, but the time of Edward III’s reign noblemen started wearing much tighter-fitting hoses and jerkins that emphasized their body shape. Peasant classes, meanwhile, didn’t see as much radical changes to their clothes and you can keep it a lot cheaper. If you want to be a priest or a monk, you can actually just buy one costume and leave it at that for the rest of your period. A Benedictine costume will last for the whole duration of the Middle Ages, whereas Franciscan and Cistercian habits come in a bit later around the 1200s and 1100s respectively. They’ve changed very little since their founding.
A great resource in that regard would be pictures and images from the time period you’re focusing on, such as the Bayeux Tapestry or medieval Bibles, or illustrated history books for children. Many of the later contain beautifully portrayed pictures of people in historical garb, all of which would have been painstakingly researched. Check out your local bookstore’s historical section and have a flick through; doing so will give you a good mental image of how your costume will look when completed.
Pictures like these are a fantastic primary source for medieval artefacts, costume and weapons
Once you’ve planned your role, you can start planning the things you need. A farmer’s wife, for example, will want a plain, homespun dress, headdress, a belt and shoes, whereas an ordinary foot soldier can get away with hoses, chainmail, a hauberk, a kettle helm, some shoes, a belt, a weapon of his choice and a padded coif.
Ultimately the key to purchasing re-enactment kit is learning to be utilitarian, to be practical and being able to get the most out of your equipment. Try to figure out what you can get away with. There are some cases where you can substitute authentic clothing for more easily acquired modern clothing. For example my group is fond of turning jogging pants inside out, so that the more fuzzy side of the material is visible and giving the impression of a rough, homespun fabric. Sometimes we might lightly bleach black ones to make a more natural-looking brown colour as well. Another member of our group buys women’s shoes, not because of some sordid perversion (I think) but because they look rather medieval in their design and materials. You can get plain leather belts from any clothing store, but remember to go with brown — black dye for leather didn’t arise until the Early Modern period. This won’t work with every group or event; a good number will demand clothing that is made with historical materials and methods, even going so far as to check the stitching to make sure that it isn’t machine-stitched, or that the pattern is in period. But for a group like mine, which is happy to cut corners, it’ll do in a pinch.
Another example of how to get the most from your kit would be my sword, sometimes called Mercy, which I chose precisely because it straddled between two different time periods. First appearing around 1050AD and being very simple in its design, I can reasonably use it for Early and High Medieval events, and it won’t look out of place in a Late Medieval event, either. Try to buy kit that gives you as much coverage as you can; go for the plain and undecorated. A plain white linen shirt with no specific patterns or decoration is unobtrusive enough to last from the Early Medieval through to the Regency period. Likewise medieval turn-shoes can last from the Viking invasions up until the Tudor period.
You don’t even need to buy kit specifically for re-enactment. LARP costume often contains many cheap and highly effective pieces that can be used to make your own outfit a little more unique, from tunics to belts to pouches.
Through such planning you can start to piece together a rough idea of what your final costume will look like, largely by deciding on the sort of things you’ll need to buy, whether there’s anything you can do to make your costume cheaper and getting an idea of what the final product will look like. Try to think of things for your costume that are easy and cheap to obtain while still looking good at a distance, and try to buy costume that can give you as much historical mileage as possible. Once you’ve got the basics of your kit down, you can start planning on how to branch out and add to it.