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Costume vs. Garb — well, which is it?

You’ve just discovered the joys of historical reenacting[1] and have joined your first event as a real participant, not a well-appointed patron, and during the course of the event, you find yourself engulfed in a heated dispute over what to call the outfit you are wearing. ACK! What’s a newbie to do? So, while you’re fending off some overzealous, self-appointed member of the costume police, please allow me to clarify a few points and answer that eternal question . . . The ultimate answer might surprise you. It did us!

Is it a “Costume” or is it“Garb”?

As much as some would prefer it to be the contrary, referring to your “fyne period attyre” as a Costume is not only grammatically correct, but proper as well, as I will explain.

A Costume as defined[2] is either “the attire worn in a play or at a fancy dress ball”; “the attire characteristic of a country or a time or a social class” or “unusual or period attire not characteristic of or appropriate to the time or place.”

So let’s examine the facts.

  1. You are a Participant and/or a Performer at your local Ren Faire.
  2. You’re wearing clothes are indicative of 16th century England.
  3. It’s the 21st century America.

First, if you assume the premise that “All the Faire’s a Stage”, then the condition of “attire worn in a play” is met, and thus, you are wearing a costume.

Second, the simple fact you are wearing clothing reminiscent of 16th century England and the calendar says it’s June of 2003 and you’re in Devor, California precludes that it could be anything else but a costume.

Therefore, with that being said, you are wearing a Costume.

Nevertheless, there are instances where not only are you wearing a Costume, but you are wearing Garb as well.

 Garb, as defined[3] is most commonly what we do, e.g.: “provide [someone] with clothing or put on clothes”. Think of that line from a well known Christmas Carole – “don we now our gay apparel.” Additionally, Garb is also “a particular dress for sporting,” and here lays our clue, the use of the word “sporting.” While the usage is somewhat Victorian as well as arcane in nature, and no longer in vogue, sporting refers to one’s participating in athletic endeavors. As any student of Biblical Hebrew will tell you, Garb is one of those words that gets as close to a verbal noun as we get in the English language.

Therefore, if you are participating in recreation of a period athletic event (ie: fencing, archery, horse tournaments, jousting and such), the specific period attire worn for such an event would most certainly as well as correctly be considered Garb. However, it is only Garb if you are a participant in the sporting event, not as a part of the combatants’ following or the spectators.

Regretfully, there is a “certain stigma” that has become associated with the word “costume.” Amongst certain factions of historical reenactors, there are those would rather die a thousand deaths than to have their labor of love be equated to that $40.00 special from the local volume discounter at Halloween time. I, on the other hand am not, but I am going to take the leap and speculate that this might have something to do with the readily acceptance of the word “Cosplay”[4] as a way to distinguish our labors of love – usually from a movie, television program, comic book or anime – from a fancy dress party outfit. [Yes, I used the British term for a costume party.]

So what is our answer to the question? We say Yes, it’s both – we just lean heavier towards the costume side of the equation.  But whatever you want to call it, it’s still just clothes from a different era than the one we are currently in.



[1]“Historical Reenacting” for the purposes of this paper is being generically applied to any and all activities which require the participant to dress and conduct themselves in manner appropriate to an era of history that is not the actual years in which they are living. Such groups include reenactors at such places at Kentwell Hall, Colonial Williamsburg, Plymoth Plantation; Renaissance Faire participants (“Rennies”), Dickens Festivals, and members of the Society for Creative Anachronisms (SCA) to name a few of the more prominent groups.

[2] The American Heritage College Dictionary, Third Edition, Houghtion, Mifflin Company, 1993, page 314

[3]The American Heritage College Dictionary, Third Edition, Houghtion, Mifflin Company, 1993, page 561

[4] “Cosplay.” Wikipedia. Wikipedia Foundation, Inc, 5 Mar. 2016. Web. 15 Mar. 2016. <>.

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