(medieval music) - [Josef] Imagine if there was a place you could travel to that would teleport you into your favorite fantasy movie.
(people shout) (horses neigh) Sure, you could go to the Renaissance Festival but you might still see spectators in modern clothing.
And then you'd remember that you're in the 21st century, not a fairytale.
I actually discovered a place where movies come to life like this.
And you might be surprised to hear that it's not a Hollywood set or an amusement park.
It's an underground event hosted on farmlands in the middle of Minnesota.
This underground renaissance festival wasn't created to turn a profit either.
These people simply get together for the fun of dressing up.
This is William Swift, a Minneapolis-based costume collector and stylist and the mastermind behind these events.
Using his collection of over 2000 costumes, he envisioned, planned and executed this magical spectacle.
(man blows horn) I had to see this with my own eyes, so I got on a plane and headed to Minneapolis, Minnesota to learn more about how this whole thing came together.
(upbeat music) Once I got to Minneapolis, William invited me to his home which he has transformed into a costume rental shop.
And when I walked through the front doors, I was shocked to find out that it's also somewhat of a museum where some people might have a kitchen table or a couch.
William instead has real movie props and costumes that he's accumulated over the years.
Does it make eating dinner difficult?
And that's the thing.
That's what I was getting to is, so we had a table in here.
No one would ever eat down here.
- Oh yeah.
Then William took me to the basement where he stores his costume rentals.
- [William] So I have around 2,500 individual pieces.
- [Josef] Wow.
(slow peaceful music) How did this happen?
How did you decide that you were gonna fill your basement with 2,500 costumes?
(William laughs) - That's a good question.
Well, so I was working in retail for a very long time and I just wasn't happy.
I'm a very creative person.
And I think working a corporate job was really hard.
I don't know.
I ended up going to the renaissance festival for the first time, was completely blown away by the fact that there's this whole, essentially this whole town full of just random people who dress in these amazing outfits.
And I go almost every weekend and I would go with friends and stuff and I had eventually gotten enough stuff for myself to do a character for myself.
But the issue was that I started looking so good and then I would have my friends with me (Josef laughs) and they would just be in jeans and a T-shirt.
- [Josef] Yeah.
- And that's no fun, right?
- [Josef] So you're like, no, you gotta be an entourage.
- You gotta be an entourage.
- [Josef] Yeah.
- So eventually, I started collecting pieces, not for me.
- [Josef] And then it grew.
- [William] And it just kind of grew and became this huge juggernaut of a thing.
- [Josef] During a tour of his costume-filled home, William shared a story about growing up in the foster care system and how it inspired his visionary imagination.
- My life wasn't easy growing up.
And the way that I dealt with that was watching films and reading books and escaping into all these different fantasy worlds.
So when I was 14 or 15, I kind of decided if I ever do get out of this, if I ever survive this, I really wanna pay homage to these worlds and these characters and these creators and artists who helped me become me and also help me stay me and kind of survive and whatnot.
(swords bang against each other) - [Man] Aha.
(swords bang against each other) - [Josef] Today, people all around the world like to role p play as historical and fantasy characters, many attend events like renaissance fairs, historical reenactments and live action role playing games, AKA LARPing.
I asked William if he would compare his events to LARPing and he said, no.
In LARPing, people still dress up and role play as fantasy characters.
But LARPing typically involves a gaming framework that includes rules, goals, and storylines, that players compete and play through together.
It's closer to a sport or a tabletop game like Dungeons & Dragons.
Renaissance festivals are also common across the world.
These outdoor gatherings are typically set during medieval times and include actors and attendees dressing character.
William says his festival is different because it's not a business.
It's just a group of friends that like to dress up.
- I think for me, there wasn't enough costume events that people could go to.
You know, you have the Ren Fair, you have Halloween.
And I've always kind of been curious about what something would be like if everyone was in costume, if everyone that you saw around you was in costume, what would that feel like?
And what would that be like?
- This whole journey started in 2019 after attending the Renaissance Festival for years, Will had the idea of creating a fantasy photo shoot of his own.
Do you remember who the first person you told the idea to?
- I think it was Majentah Bloom.
She kind of encouraged me to do them.
- [Josef] How did you describe it to her?
- I kind of just expressed interest like, hey, I want to go and get people dressed up and I want to go and do a photo shoot.
(laughs) (swords bang against each other) (ominous music) - [Josef] Then in 2020, the Minnesota Renaissance Festival closed its doors due to the coronavirus pandemic.
This left many people in the community without a place to escape into fantasy.
So when the gathering restrictions started to ease up in 2021, Will thought he could expand his photo shoot into more of a large event.
- [William] It just got better from there and just got bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger.
It went from 20 people to 250 people.
(man shouts) (ominous music) (people shout) - I really wasn't sure what we were doing.
I just knew there were a lot of people in fabulous outfits and photographers and people posing left and I'm just like, okay.
(Saeteesh' and Josef laugh) - [Josef] So you had five farms.
- [William] We had five neighboring farms.
- [Josef] Food trucks.
- [William] Food trucks.
When people hear about it, they think it's just like a photo shoot.
They don't get that it's way more than that.
It's a whole experience, because, you know, you have the music, you have all the costumes, you have the animals, you have all of these extra layers to it than just that.
And it's... - It's almost like you're not just making a movie.
It's like you're being in the movie.
- [William] Yeah, it is.
(horse neighs) - [Josef] Sometimes it's hard to believe that these events aren't big Hollywood productions especially when you see dozens of people on horseback in authentic costumes charging down a field.
Will says that's thanks to Robin and Faith.
When the two of them heard of Will's events, they agreed to bring their horses and even train others on how to ride.
- We actually went to three riding schools so that we were familiar with the horses.
They knew that we all could ride and how well or not well we could ride.
(slow peaceful music) - [Josef] Will has a true talent for styling people in fantasy dress.
It's a huge part of what elevates these events to feel like big budget movie sets.
- It's like for me going to a fashion show but it's just on mass and it's outside.
William, would you style me in something?
(slow peaceful music) - What's this?
- This is a little pirate sash.
Sometimes it's all about adding all these just random things to an outfit to make it really kind of stand out.
- [Josef] Where do you get a sword belt?
- I think I got this one from Goodwill of all places.
- No way.
I get my things from all over the place.
Badda bing badda boom.
- I love the accessories.
- [William] Yeah.
- Do you lik edressing up yourself more or dressing up other people?
- Other people I think, because it pushes my creativity to its max, right?
- [Josef] On my last day in town, the group got together for a mini event and I went to Will's house to hang out with everyone while they got dressed up for the day.
- We're gonna cover this.
To you, it's fine.
- [Man] Yeah.
- Is anyone in here... No.
You wanna look in the mirror and see what you think.
- Ask the mirror on the wall.
- [Josef] Meet Chris Wester, a regular Ren Fest attendee that got into cosplay as an adult and is famous for his recreation of The Witcher.
- Will does such a great job as the event commander.
- [Josef] Yeah.
(laughs) - [Chris] What is he really doing?
It's a chance just to step away from who you are in real life and just dress up, pretend to be a princess, a warrior or a knight for a day.
- [Josef] How does Will get all these people to just do this for the fun of it?
- I don't know.
I never really (laughs) never consider the idea of playing dress up for a day or whatever.
And if you had asked me five years ago, "Hey, do you want to go play dress up with this guy Will?"
I'd be like, "I think I'm gonna pass."
And it's really a testament to the fact that he has spun this spider web of friendships and relationships and this support group that for him has become huge.
- [Josef] The community surrounding Will's events has been growing, but because the events take so much time and effort, Will's not sure how many more events he wants to put on.
- [William] It feels like almost like I didn't do them just 'cause they were so grand and scaled.
So it's hard to believe (laughs) that I pulled all of that off.
- The people that I spoke to hope that Will's events keep going into the future.
Many have told me that they just don't wanna see the magic end.
(slow peaceful music) History lovers, I want to tell you about a new series by PBS called The Bigger Picture.
Hosted by Professor Vincent Brown.
It examines famous photographs and explores the historical context around them.
In doing so, we reveal what these photos can tell us about our history but also how we view ourselves.
Check out the link in the description.
And don't forget to tell 'em that Subcultured sent you.