Finding the Reality in Fantasy

Finding the Reality in Fantasy: Garb


Thirdly, we come to problem of garb. This can be the biggest potential fantasy-influenced area for members of the MMCG. Why? Simply put, it is easier to allow modern sensibilities concerning what looks good to intrude upon attempts to recreate medieval fashion. In addition, many of us have much stronger images in our minds concerning the “right look” for medieval clothing than we do about weapons or armor.

Historically-authentic garb is covered at length in the Medieval Clothing for Beginners article. In this article, we’ll try to show how you can take a fantasy costume design that inspired you and adapt it to be appropriate for use in the MMCG.

Below are some fairly common fantasy ranger costumes.
Larry Elmore's rendition of Tanis Half-elven, and the movie version of Faramir.
Fantasy Rangers

Here you can see a fairly common theme shared between these two “ranger” designs. Both are cloaked in green, carry bows, and wear mostly cloth and leather. Both characters wear soft leather boots over trousers, and bracers to cover their arms.

While both designs certainly include medieval themes and elements in their design, and are even practical, neither is entirely medieval. The Dragonlance design on the left features a Native American motif in the headdress, belt hangings and fringed leather. The Lord of the Rings design on the right features a mix of cultural motifs, as well as a mix of knightly and common dress.

Just as with weapons and armor, follow the steps to find the basic characteristics of these costumes in order to find a medieval equivalent.

Step 1: Look at the clothing. I mean, really look at it. More than with armor or weapons, time-appropriate garb can be defined by very minor details, so take a while to soak in the details of the fantasy costume that inspires you. What are its defining features? What stands out? Material and color are both important considerations here, so make note of both (this can be as basic as “cloth and leather” or as detailed as “wool, linen, silk, rawhide and thin deerskin.”)

Ask yourself, “If this was real clothing meant to be used by real people, what would its purpose be? What is absolutely necessary for this clothing to function, and what is pure decoration?” Don’t think of it as a costume—you will need to move run, fight and live in this clothing, just as medieval people did. From the criteria you develop, think of a basic design. Sketch it out if that helps.

Step 2: Place the clothing in its cultural context. Who wore clothing like this? Based on the purpose this clothing must have served, what would a person in these clothes be expected to do? In the case of the rangers above, who were the “real” rangers of the Middle Ages? Foresters and woodsmen tended to come from the common classes, although they could sometimes be attached to a noble of important status. Kings kept Royal Foresters and Masters of Hunt, so foresters’ clothing wasn’t necessarily of poor quality.

Where did the people who wore this clothing live? In the case of foresters, the answer is obviously “Anywhere there was a forest,” but the answer won’t always be the same for each archetype.

Step 3: Now that you have a place and a cultural context in which to base your clothing, find a time. When was this clothing worn? Forestry as an occupation in medieval Europe existed for the entirety of the MMCG’s focus-era, so it will be up to you to pick and choose the time period you want. For the sake of the example, we’ll choose 13th century England.

Since neither of the fantasy costumes above were too far off to begin with, little work will need to be done in order to make them correct for the medieval period. Hosen, shoes or low boots, a linen shirt and wool tunic, hood (and perhaps a cloak as well), leather bracer and belt will make an authentic medieval foresters’ outfit.
Don't you worry, never fear. Robin Hood will soon be here. Although an amalgamized legendary character, Robin Hood is protrayed in historically accurate dress of the time.
Robin Hood

Look familiar? The most famous medieval forester of all is depicted here at the Sherwood Forest Visitor’s Center in garb appropriate for the early 13th century. Add a cloak and some bracers, and you’re not too far from the ranger pictures above.

Step 4: Now that you’ve found a culturally and period-correct version of the fantasy rangers’ garb, add medieval flourishes to it. Medieval clothing can be either very basic or ornate to the point of ridiculous in some cases. Try to make sure that the embellishments are medieval in nature. Feathers, fringes, celtic knotwork, and excessive leather tend to mark fantasy garb apart from historical clothing.

Example Fantasy Garb Conversion: Link

Anybody who has read the History section of this website knows that Legend of Zelda played a pivotal role in the steps that led to that fateful 16th birthday party, so of course the hero of that series would find his way into any discussion of fantasy archetypes.

No, I don't know what guard that's suppose to be, either. I guess in Hyrule they don't teach proper defensive positions.

Defining Features: Link’s garb consists of white shirt and hosen, a green tunic and cap, leather boots, belt, bracers and gloves, and mail which is, for some reason, worn underneath his tunic. The baldric, back-scabbard, sword and shield finish the outfit.

Narrow down the Culture: Throughout the series of games, Link is generally portrayed as a villager, and sometimes as a descendant of a line of knights. Either way, it is clear that his present position is not that of a wealthy noble, nor of an impoverished outlaw. We can fairly safely put his cultural class in the medieval version of the middle class (or slightly lower). As for geographical location, we can happily choose from just about anywhere in medieval Europe, since there were towns and villages everywhere. His shield is of a knightly type, which won’t do. However, if we exchange it for a buckler, then the costume and weapons will be consistent with those of a commoner.

Narrow down the Time: The biggest clue for narrowing down the time period here is the presence of boots, and the presence of a sword in a commoner’s hands. Boots—contrary to popular belief—didn’t tend to be worn any more in the Middle Ages than they are today. Shoes far outnumbered boots in use. So we can downgrade Link’s high boots to low ankle-boots, and then we have a pretty consistent time period—the late 13th century.

His sock-cap is appropriate for the 15th century (although it's a bit pointy). To keep it consistent with late 13th century garb, we can turn the cap into a pointed hood with a long tail.

Armed with these clothes, this cultural origin, and this time period, we can find a fairly reasonable approximation of Link’s garb in the late 13th century. The gloves need to have fingers on them, and the back scabbard (never in use in medieval Europe) needs to go. After that, this is the result:

Hey, it's this guy! I couldn't resist.
The Scholar

With a little color for help with the imagination on the right side, you can see that with some shortening of the tunic and a belt, the scholar from the I.33 manuscript is a fairly suitable stand-in for Link.

Decorations: Belt pouches, sword belt, etc… would all go well with this garb, and still be true to the design of the original fantasy template. Once again, be sure to use medieval decorations, and try to avoid the temptation to plaster the Triforce all over the shield and gauntlets.

One final note about adapting fantasy costumes to historical garb: if anything, medieval clothing tended to be simpler than its fantasy counterparts, which often make use of modern fashion sensibilities, or add unnecessary belts, straps, buckles, etc… in an attempt to look exotic.

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