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Every young child loves to play dress-up, but as time passes, and peer pressure increases, that playful impulse often fades.

"As we grow up, we're told, 'Stop skipping. Don't giggle. Don't jump and down. Don't make believe.' So you learn to be a grown-up," said Donna Lake of Petaluma.

Lake, a retired Coast Guard officer, heavy equipment operator and high school custodian, will appear in a very different role at Sunday's Much Ado About Sebastopol Renaissance Faire in Ives Park.

She'll be dressed as a 16th-century house servant in a costume she made herself.

"It's an outlet for fantasy, and my artistic side," she said.

Lake is just one of many costume buffs in Sonoma County who set out to show themselves off in elaborate costumes at themed festivals all over Northern California, weekend after weekend.

Styles range from England's Elizabethan- and Victorian-era fashions to their modern, post-industrial equivalent, steam punk. But that's not the limit. There are pirates and Civil War soldiers, too, not to mention Halloween for grownups.

Melanie Stammler, a Petaluman who took her mobile Bus Shoppe costume and accessory boutique to Petaluma's Rivertown Revival and the Wunderkammer Handcar Races in Santa Rosa this summer, defines steam punk in simple terms.

"Just put on some striped leggings and a little corset, and you're good to go," Stammler said.

"It's liberating. I look at it as an escape. You can let your inhibitions go."

Michelle Carnes, a Forestville artist who appeared in costume at both the Rivertown and Wunderkammer events, said she dresses up not to become someone else, but to be herself.

"It's not an alter-ego. I'm still me," even in a headdress or a bustier, said Carnes, who also co-owns the Counter Culture Art Haus at the Barlow Center in Sebastopol.

"I get to be my creative self. I'm promoting who I am deep down inside, but on the outside. I see myself as a powerful woman," Carnes said.

Much of the inspiration for costumes seen at events and festivals in Northern California stems from the Burning Man extravaganza in the Nevada desert, the regional standard for alternative arts and culture festivals.

However, history is another powerful influence, evident not only at events like this weekend's Renaissance Faire in Sebastopol, but at Vallejo's annual Pirate Festival and Civil War re-enactments such as the one held at Duncans Mills in July.

"The history is interesting," said Peggy Morgan-Pond of Rohnert Park.

She will appear with her husband, Eric Pond, Sunday at the Much Ado About Sebastopol festival in their historically accurate roles as Sir Francis and Lady Catherine Knowlyss, members of the court of Queen Elizabeth I.

"It's acting," she said. "It's being someone else."

Morgan-Pond, whose costume repertoire includes Victorian, Old West, pirate and even "Lord of the Rings" garb, traces her fascination with history to her youth in Missouri.

"I'm from Missouri, so I know people who live in houses that have bullet holes in the walls from the Civil War," she said.

"I went back to visit my family in Missouri, and my girlfriend dumped me off at an event at the battlefield at Carthage for the whole day.

"I had no idea what it was," Morgan-Pond said. "It was a Civil War re-enactment, and they took me in."

While dressing up is fun, Stammler believes the spirit behind the growing trend of attending themed festivals in costume is not just skin-deep.

"At a festival, you can become truly honest with yourself," she said.

"You can be who you want to be, without anyone judging you, because anything goes."

<i>You can reach Staff Writer Dan Taylor at 521-5243 or dan.taylor@pressdemocrat.com. See his ARTS blog at arts.blogs.pressdemocrat.com.</i>