This past summer my son wanted to learn to fence. At six he was still too young for most of the area fencing classes and camps taught by people who actually know what they're doing, so all he had was me. We bought some used fencing gear, watched a ton of old swashbuckler movies, read a lot of really old fencing manuals, and poked at each other with practice foils just about every day all summer long. You can learn just enough from youtube to have a lot of fun. What we lacked in actual skill and professionalism we made up for with panache. We backed each other up tower staircases and knocked over Louis XIV chairs and brought chandeliers crashing to the floor. We got into arguments over who were the greatest swordsmen of all time. Scaramouche? Zorro? The Scarlet Pimpernel? Inigo Montoya? No, no, no, I said. All great swordsmen, true, but have you heard of Cyrano de Bergerac? He once defeated one hundred enemies with nothing but his rapier and his wit. (I might have waited to mention the nose. And all the unrequited love. And the poetry recited by hunky proxies under balconies). That story of one hundred enemies defeated in combat caught fire in his brain like a Flemish tapestry under a spilled candelabra: Cyrano de Bergerac fought off a hundred attackers as though they were ants! Did I mention he has a huge nose? Who cares! Do you think Inigo Montoya could fight off one hundred enemies all by himself? Inconceivable.
We went to the amazing Colonel Hecker house on Woodward Avenue to take some pictures. It's one of the only true French Châteauesque houses in the city, and I couldn't resist. Right now there are law law offices there, and the lawyers just scurried away when they saw him.
There is a very short window in a man's life when he is willing to dress like a seventeenth-century fop. For most men this willingness probably peaks at about six-years old. For the rest, well, I suppose that is why there are renaissance faires. I was not going to let this moment in my son's life pass without exploiting it. When it came to the actual costume we did a lot of research. We visited art museums and actually paid attention to the Dutch paintings. I was always very nerdy about seventeenth-century history and literature so I excitedly showed him pictures of Charles I and we pinned details of Rembrandt's Night Watch. I bought lace. He let me buy him tights.
Other than those tights, that latex nose, and the wig, every part of the costume is hand made. I was going to go to a costume shop to buy him a wig, but then I remembered I live in Detroit. Detroit is not a wig desert. We walked over to the neighborhood wig shop but none of the wigs had prices. The lady asked me how much I wanted to spend. I said $20 and it turned out every wig cost $20. I wish I had said $15. It turns out all wigs have names. Together we (the wig shop lady, my son, my daughter and myself) agreed upon a model called "the LaToya."
I sewed the quilted tunic, the breeches, and the wool cloak. I sewed those freaking doilies on the sleeves. The tunic sleeves are made from leather I get from Cadillac upholstery remnants. I added some scrap leather to his old shoes to make the boots. I made the hat out of some really thick oil-tanned leather I had sitting around and he actually found those pheasant feathers in a field where we were playing baseball. Talk about panache.
I made that sword over the summer on a whim. I had this beautiful piece of purpleheart sitting around and I wasn't sure what I was ever going to do with it and I saw a picture of a rapier that belonged to some German prince and decided it was so beautiful I had to make a wooden version for my son as a reward for all his hard work learning to fence (he really did practice every day). I wanted to learn how to do wood inlay so I crushed some lapis lazuli and figured out how to inlay it around the hilt. Now I want a lathe.
Yeah, I went a little crazy on this costume but I figured most of it could be used for all kind of imaginative play well after Halloween. He will spend many hours as a well-dressed pirate, a musketeer, Zorro, Inigo, and whoever else he can imagine himself to be. But today he was Cyrano. At one point while I was taking these pictures he stood on the sidewalk looking up at the "French castle" and he said (in a very serious voice) as the rush-hour traffic buzzed behind us: "I just really feel like I am Cyrano de Bergerac right now!" And he was.