I dressed as quite the dandy for the New York Renaissance Festival. I wore purple crushed velvet riding pants that hugged my calves and billowed out at the thighs with a sash across the pelvis to sustain the pure thoughts of female attendees; a scandalously unbuttoned silky pirate shirt that was technically a woman’s blouse; and heeled leather Italian boots with bright orange socks.
You couldn’t get away with such an outfit anywhere other than a gay pride parade, but it was par for the course at the Ren Faire (yes, that is the correct spelling), which is a kind of oasis for nerds.
I drove the 90 miles from Hudson to Sterling Forest, a whimsically named hamlet in the south-east corner of Orange County, with my girlfriend Jody and our friends Megan and Peter. Unbeknownst to me, Megan and Peter had squirreled away a water bottle of vodka in their bag, which they clandestinely swigged while we drove down the Thruway, their banter becoming louder with each belt. Jody eventually turned on the soundtrack for Les Misérables, and the trio crookedly brayed show tunes while arguing about whether Hugh Jackman was a good Jean Valjean.
I must admit, this was not my first time at the Ren Faire. During my late teens I took a yearly sojourn down to Sterling Forest with the group of theater folk I hung out with in High School. There’s a huge overlap between theater folk and Ren Faire attendees, and the entire thing feels like a cast party for Romeo and Juliet.
As we turned off the Thruway, we saw not one, but two official New York state highway signs pointing us in the direction of the Faire, misspelling and all.
As we entered the festival, two men in full armor clanked by us, the summer sun reflecting violently off their breastplates. A skinny teen girl with glasses and a stooped back minced by with her mom, horns spouting out of their hair. An overweight woman plopped into a pink fairy costume complete with lace wings rolled by on a Rascal scooter. People wore fox tails on their rumps, broadswords on their hips, steel daggers in ornate leather scabbards, technicolored Victorian hoop skirts, full animal pelts, henna tattoos, peony and orchid crowns, chain mail, helmets, facepaint.
There’s a level of kink at these things. Dress up is sexy, and all the women seemed to have cleavage pressed up to their necks, no matter how attractive or appropriate it was.
Our group wandered into an open-sided shop selling bustiers and corsets. Jody tried one on, and the attendant who fitted her into the bust-accentuating leather was a guy in his late teens, who I felt very much enjoyed his job.
She ended up not getting it (boo), as it was $300 and the only appropriate place to wear it were other ren faires. Peter was talking to the attendant, who suggested Peter try something on.
“Oh yeah, guys’ll buy stuff,” he said. “I fitted a guy for a wedding just yesterday.”
The attendant suggested an under-the-bust bustier.
“They’re great. When I fit you, it’ll really accentuate your boobs.”
Peter responded that, no, he would NOT want his boobs accentuated, as he had just spent the last several years sweating them off on the treadmill.
As we asked for directions to one of the Ren Faire’s shows, Peter kept calling the women around us “wenches.” A ren faire is the only place in the world where you can get away with this, so I suggest you use it liberally.
We trooped, beers in hand, down the winding forest path towards one of the faire’s stages to see a whip show. The show was conducted by a man whose actual, legal name is Aaron Bonk. While knavishly shooting double entendres into the crowd, he used two whips to (wait for it) …whip the crowd into a delightful frenzy, ending the show by lighting the two lengths of leather on fire and cracking them until they extinguished.
Next up was a jousting competition, where armor-clad actors charged at each other across an amphitheater with candy-striped lances. Peter thought the competition was fixed, which I disagreed with, arguing the actors and their horses didn’t have the necessary degree of control. Of course, they have the degree of control necessary to not ream each other through with lances, so I guess Peter had a good argument.
After the shows, we got food, including the classic ren faire meal of turkey leg. Meagan was the one to take the plunge, but the leg seemed to be from a 70-pound turkey, and it took three of us to finish it.
Ren faires aren’t really into historical accuracy. You see people dressed as characters from the Medieval Period to past the Revolutionary War. It’s more of a giant cos-play fest, with gamers and theater people taking another break from reality.
But reality is rather grim these days. At 7 p.m., when the faire closes, all the actors paraded to the entrance in song, some playing lutes, then gathered on a hill overlooking the faire gates as they ushered us back to reality.
Note: When going in costume to a ren faire, do not plan a brief errand in New Paltz on the way back. If you do, it will be New Student Day, and a bunch of freshmen and their parents will stare at you while you stand uncomfortably in line for the ATM.