When I was a kid, I didn’t care about clothes or fancy dress at all. Now, it’s literally a matter of life or death for me. Well, at least life of death for my character in the UK’s largest Live Action Role Playing Game (LARP), Empire. Four weekends a year, I and roughly 3,000 other nerds gather at a campsite, put on costumes, and do everything from engaging in battle, to baking homemade cake, to performing improv comedy in character. You sign up to not break character for three days straight, and essentially stay in a fantasy army camp constructed out of enormous tents. That’s not to mention all the subsidiary events run by players outside of the main game – weekend stays in castles, balls, fancy dinners run by matchmakers, food festivals, assault training courses, you name it. There are around 3,000 players attending a single event, so it’s fully possible for them to build a replica of a medieval army encampment town in a weekend out of tents. It’s the closest thing you can get to actually going to a fantasy world.
The specific piece of clothing you wear determines where your character is from, what cultural interests they have, what magic they can cast and what religion they follow. The armour you change into determines where you are actually physically protected as a character (you have to wear gauntlets if you want your hands to be safe!). There are hundreds walking around the camp in full plate. As a result of this my procrastination now involves sewing or painting runes onto a corset belt to make myself some magical armour. Whenever I go into a thrift store I’m not thinking about what I should get – I’m thinking ‘oh that long skirt would work for the in-character ball I’m going to – Maddala needs some formalwear.’
One thing that sticks out to me about costuming in Empire is that almost every piece of clothing has symbolic value to the person wearing it. It’s hard to be a character 24/7, so giving people around you visual tells really helps. For example, I was sent on a mission as a new player by one of the game masters (called the ‘Harlequin’ in my nation) to make myself a hat to fit into our nation’s costuming. I went to a trader (fully willing to conduct business in character), bought a purple base hat, but had to pin it up on one side to fit the bill for the slightly foppish fantasy Republic of Venice (called the League) my character was from. I chose a brooch to pin up the hat that looked like a few sapphire playing cards (after all, my character is a trickster magician), and a black feather as a decoration to match my jacket. The in game traders dress up like merchants, and sell racks and tables of clothes out of tents, and are there to help you customise your outfit to signpost your character as much as possible. My red gloves cover a cursed scar on my hand from when I broke a magical promise to my mother, my mask enables me to cast magic by playing a character while wearing it, every ring on my finger is associated with another player and an in-game promise I’ve made to them.
At this point I’ve stopped buying normal clothes as much as I used to. I have enough normal clothes. Sure I’ve worn the same long black coat for 5 winters in a row and it was cool to look like Sherlock when I was 15 and I should probably get another one… But if I don’t use my money to get some battle clothes… Maddala could actually die. Have you thought about that one, Isabella?! (Also if I hadn’t bought that leafy cloak last time, I might have frozen to death in the cold camping overnight). Right now I’m spending time sewing runes onto a corset belt my friend gave me for some magical warding. Under that I’m applying a rose applique to a sweater with phoenix-like flame decals along the sleeve I found from the closing down Brick Lane designer RAGYARD. My guild Ash and Embers has a phoenix emblem, and it was too perfect. I chatted with the store worker about the fact I intended to use one of their last bespoke ‘sacred heart’ pieces for LARPing and I have no idea whether they saw it as a past hurrah or spitting on the store’s grave. But catch me going into a fight as a battlemage next year in phoenix feathers, a ruff, corset, with wand and a custom-ordered foam rapier. Thanks for making me learn how to fence when I was a kid, dad. I’m so so so sorry this is how it’s getting used.
Everyone at Empire is so desperate to express themselves as a character, many take up sewing, embroidery, tailoring, painting and are in general the craftiest lot of people I’ve ever met. Oddly, it seems incredibly well gender balanced. I was at a Magic the Gathering tournament today where there were about 5 women out of 50, and it felt like a lot of women for Magic (queue the eternal 3% jokes). But at Empire no one outnumbers anyone else, with loads of female and nonbinary players. I wondered about this for a while – why are there so many more women at larping than any other nerd hobby I’ve been to? But then I started to see all the crafts items people produce, and realised this is the place where every kid who made fairy jewelry as a kid went when they grew up. Doing things like making necklaces and remembering trivia about monsters are equally valuable skills here, and everyone does a bit of both. Because you can get ahead through basically any talent, (performing your own plays, running a publishing house, brewing your own alcohol, buying votes for the Senate – or writing farmer erotica and drawing lewd orcs as my friends in the Smut Council do), there is an incredible atmosphere of inclusivity and equality. All grown up nerds know how to fight and to sew. I’ve always been more interested in the former, but I’ll be damned if I go into battle looking bad – I won’t be featured in the in-game fashion magazine The Looking Glass with an attitude like that.
Muddy, exhausted and sore from camping on the ground, I go home on the Sunday night of the long weekend eager to get back to Empire as soon as possible. But on the train home I see loads of people carrying their gear – those costumes which mean so much to them, and are used to express their characters boldly to the world. These people are more often than not just wearing jeans and t-shirts – a million miles away from the styles they’ve just been in and clearly spend so much time constructing. Probably only a fraction of the LARPers I know would consider dressing that way on a regular day, and it always makes me a little melancholy that culturally we don’t have that attitude towards clothing. It looks odd if you use a million accessories to telegraph who you are, and often we care more about trends and combinations than we do as using clothes as a way to express your real character. I wouldn’t wear my LARP clothes around (it’s hardly comfortable to drag a cape on the tube, and besides I need to be spending my daily life dressing in trashy space glam), but it has made me think a lot more about a world where every piece of clothing has personal meaning, and maybe in future in life I’ll look for clothes with a little more of a story behind them.
If you want to start with LARPing, don’t feel intimidated about the costuming – a lot of people turn up for their first time in just black trousers and a white tunic. The pieces of clothing, accessories and artefacts you assemble mean a lot more if you acquire them as a result of in-game interactions – turning up with next to nothing gives you flexibility, and I’d strongly encourage anyone reading to start playing!
Photos below taken by my request from the official Empire LRP photo forum, and permissions to present them online given by the players featured. Photographers credited beneath respective photos.