The Renaissance Faire: Beer, Breasts & Sexual Harassment

We've spilled a fair amount of virtual ink on the increasing slutification of Halloween, but as an article in this Sunday's Washington Post shows, Halloween is not the only time for skin-bearing fantasies. There's also the Ren Faire.

Anyone whose been to a Renaissance Festival has certainly seen the wenches. They're a staple of festival life and pretty hard to miss, due in part to the popularity of low-cut bodices and corsets. According to Pam Taylor, owner of a shop called Bullseye Designs, bodices are by far the best-seller. "If it weren't for breasts, I'd be out of business," she says.

The breast-baring styles of Ren Faires gives the fantasy world a strange feel, according to Rebecca Bengal, who chronicled her visit to the Maryland Renaissance Festival for the Washington Post. Bengal points out that the surreal world of the Ren Faire can often come to feel like walking through a beer ad that has been hastily dressed in medieval garb:

For men, a reimagined Renaissance era becomes more quintessentially American than English, a little like wandering around in a beer commercial: corny jokes, scantily clad women and, of course, beer. For the Renaissance wenches, as Madam Flo said, it is a little different: a chance to exhibit a part of themselves that they are unable to display in normal life.

While there are many different reasons one may want to dress up in a bodice decorated with mice and fox tails, some women are just happy to have a socially acceptable place where their cups can overfloweth. College student Todd Chappell helpfully explains why this is so great for the women folk: "These are women who are a little larger than most, but they come to the festival, and they feel beautiful."

Chappell's statement about the wenches of the Faire reflects both sides of the bodice-schism. On one hand, many women do appreciate the chance to let it all hang out, but on the other, many of them don't appreciate being constantly ogled by men like Chappell. The previously-mentioned Madam Flo finds the sexy outfits straight up empowering. "Here I get to let my hair down, figuratively, and actually I think people just take it as mutual flirting. They don't think, 'Oh, my God, I'm going to bed with her tonight,'" she says. "Back in the Renaissance, we would have been barmaids or trollops or whatever. We're reclaiming the name." I think many of us have, at some point or another, enjoyed dressing up in costume for exactly this reason. Ren Faires, like Halloween, give many women a chance to be much more overtly sexual than they normally would feel comfortable, and because of its status as a sort of suspended reality, judgment is often suspended as well.

But the feeling of safety may be as much of an illusion as the rest of the event. One woman admits that she no longer dresses up for the festival because of all the unwanted attention she received. "I got too many comments, things that were inappropriate, beyond what is okay in everyday life." Some men take the Ren Faire as an opportunity to go much further than they normally would. She continues, "I feel the wench thing gives some people a license to be creepy—or at least they think it does." Which is, I suppose, a sort of unsurprising problem. Ren Faires provide a temporary space in which people can act out certain fantasies, and for an unfortunate number of men, the cave-man mentality fits all too well with the escapist theme.

Long Day's Journey.... Into Knights [Washington Post]
The Lure Of The Renaissance (photo gallery) [Washington Post]