Volume 12, Issue 41 ~ October 7 - 13, 2004
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Tailor to Kings and Queens
At the Maryland Renaissance Festival, Cynthia Andersen Will Dress You, Too
by Louise Vest

King Henry VIII, aka Fred Nelson, arrives at the Maryland Renaissance Festival grounds on a muggy summer evening, parks his car on a vast, empty, sun-baked field and makes his way to the backside of the property for his costume fitting with designer Cynthia Andersen, who waits for the actors at the costume house.

During the festival season, the site teems with thousands of people, but pre-season it’s eerily silent, the quiet interrupted only by twittering birds and the humming of the air conditioner at the costume house. It’s a squat, non-descript building, but inside it’s the receptacle of reverie, where fantasies hang by the hundreds, wardrobes fit to give festival followers a few hours’ ownership of a different life.

If the Renn Fest is a good fit for 225,000 guests every year, it’s been a great career for Andersen, who fashions bolts of brocade and velvet into magic-carpet clothing that can send anyone with a half-penny’s worth of imagination careening back to the 12th century.

How to Wear Armor
“Armor really hurts if you don’t have the right clothes under it,” said Andersen, who’s been with the festival for 17 years and learned about the underpinnings of armor because she once spent time on a jousting field, or “the list,” portraying a squire, who takes care of knights and their equipment.

She stepped on her life path when she was 17 years old and joined friends to see the movie Excalibur.

“After that, I was hooked. But while my girlfriends wanted to be princesses, I wanted to be a knight,” said Andersen, who lives in Millersville. So she set about learning to fight with steel weaponry, became “steel certified” and also gained experience with chain mail. As these were talents not exactly on every resume, when a Shakespearean Theatre in D.C. needed help with a costume, they called on Andersen.

“They had an actress who needed her chain-mail costume modified, and nobody there knew how to work with steel,” Andersen explained. After working for the theater for five years, she came to the Maryland Renaissance Festival. Today, she’s a designer developing costume ideas, then shopping for material that falls within the festival’s wardrobe budget.

As costume mistress, Andersen was fitting the king, appearing in T-shirt and shorts as he talked about the upcoming season and the king’s 2004 storyline.

“This year I get to kill eight people and have three wives,” said Nelson, a jovial gleam in his eye.

“Ah,” responded Andersen, as she slipped a sleeve on his outstretched arm, “But did you hear? Next year, you’re going to be a bachelor king.” Andersen then held up his costume’s hat.

“Wow! Nobody else has a color like that,” he exclaimed admiringly. “I lost 15 pounds wearing last year’s costume,” he complained. “It’s like sauna.”

Most of the actors have to tighten the waistbands of their costumes during the last weeks of the festival.

“We were on the South Beach Diet,” said Andersen, “but it seems like wearing these costumes works just as well.”

After he tried on the pale blue skirt of his costume over his shorts, Nelson looked down at himself, laughed a hearty, kingly laugh and allowed: “I feel like Little Miss Muffett.”

Dressing for Fun
“Some people think the festival is about hippies and weirdos running around in costume, but it’s not like that,” said Andersen. “All the employees care about what they wear and what they do. People are treated well here, even the kids who pick up the trash. Our vendors say we have the nicest, most well-run festival in the country.” No volunteers work at the festival, she explains, only paid workers, which allows for training and costume control.

The extravaganza, held every year on 125 acres under the oak-leaf canopy in Crownsville, pulls in more than a few farthings. Still, it takes some 600 workers to create the illusion of stepping back in time, and most of them wear costumes provided by the festival. Andersen is one of the company’s six, year-round, full-time employees in Maryland. This year she was responsible for building 21 new costumes for Crownsville and 10 for the Canadian festival, a sister venue owned by International Renaissance Festival Ltd. Andersen works from her home studio with one assistant, stitcher Susan James. Three weeks before the festival opens, Andersen’s work day stretches to 15 hours.

As head costume designer, Andersen not only wears many hats. She also makes them, because included in her assignments is the job of milliner. Once the festival opens, she hands out costumes every morning to both street and stage actors; she then opens the costume-rental booth. During the week she washes and mends costumes.

“We want people to have a complete fantasy day, dressing up and getting away from everyday life,” she said. But people can get into it on many levels.”

Some come to see artisans, others to shop, eat and play games, while a number are intrigued by the storylines of the festival’s theater productions.

“One year we featured Jane Seymour. A woman who missed coming that year wanted us to redo the play. She didn’t want to miss a queen,” said Andersen.

Many festival aficionados arrive for the day wearing their own costumes. Among them are the Sickle family of Brooklyn Park who, like many festival-goers, have season tickets and wouldn’t think of coming to the festival in civilian attire.

“Dressing up makes the experience better,” said Brad Sickle, who dresses as a pirate. Sickle also dresses up his voice, adopting a British accent so convincing that Brits visiting the festival have asked him, where he’s from in England.

Unlike the staff, festival-goers may mix their dress-up centuries. A guy wearing a kilt also wears a T-shirt advertising surfboards under his plaid sash. Peeking from under the hem of a woman’s long, hooded cape are a pair of pink flip-flops. For most who visit, wearing costumes is about fun, not perfection.

But there are those who enjoy the challenge of trying to get their costumes right and as close to period as possible. Amy and Marcus Lucachick, Anne Arundel countians who have their costumes custom made, enjoy walking around as a perfectly dressed lord and lady in matching blue velvet outfits.

As they stood among hordes of commoners Amy explained, “I feel like the costume is a work of art that I’m displaying.”

“It’s more fun in costume,” said Marcus. “And I like the attention.”

Cindy Andersen fashions bolts of brocade and velvet into magic-carpet clothing that can send anyone with a half-penny’s worth of imagination careening back to the 12th century.
On to the Next Century
“I get paid to do what I would do anyway as a hobby,” said Andersen.

Becoming a costume designer, however, was not a lifelong dream. As a teen, she played the drums and guitar in a garage band. She adored Kiss and wanted to be a rock star. Just in case record companies didn’t come knocking, she attended Anne Arundel County Vo Tech, taking hospitality and tourism courses, reasoning that if she didn’t have a career in music, she’d be a travel agent.

“Funny how your life works out,” Andersen said, noting that her career’s evolution has provided unique entree into the entertainment world as her schemes-to-seams work contributes vastly to the drama of the festival.

“I like the creative process,” said Anderson. “If you’re creative and you don’t have a release for it, you’d go crazy. I like the people I work with. I’m the luckiest girl on the planet.”

And the work never stops. The Monday after the festival closes for the season, planning begins for next year. In Andersen’s realm, that’s also the beginning of cleaning and storing hundreds of costumes.

The festival’s end may allow Andersen a toe out of the 16th century, but she doesn’t return full-time to the 21st century because her hobby is reenacting. Like her career, it too is a good match, and her weekend transformations have both breadth and depth. With several reenacting groups she portrays an American Southern Civil War soldier, a World War II WAC, a Belgium Resistance fighter, a WWII Soviet soldier, a Snow Trooper in a Star Wars group and an American cowboy. Her costumes for each character are at the ready, stored in the Reenactment Room in her home.

During the run of the Renaissance Festival, however, she can’t attend any of those weekend reenactments.

“That’s the worst part of my job,” she said, “missing all the fall weekend events. but we’re entertainers and that’s the nature of the beast.”

© COPYRIGHT 2004 by New Bay Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.