Gown & Sleeves
updated January 19, 2004|
updated April 3, 2005
updated April 11, 2004
updated April 13, 2005!
updated March 8, 2004
updated November 22, 2004
updated August 30, 2004
I've joined a Renaissance dance group that will be performing in early March and probably also in mid-May (and who knows when in the future), so after many years I finally have a really good reason to make a new Renaissance costume. I've written a lot more about this, and the tides of fate that led to the making of this particular costume, in my French 1560s gown diary.
Okay, you're back now? Or if you never left, the short version is I found some wonderful silk damask that is driving this costume. Read on for more about the design and planning of this gown!
So yes, I've got this really fabulous gold-and-garnet silk/poly damask fabric at a price I could (barely) afford (under $15 a yard!). Since the only 1550-80 English damask gowns I could find were doublet-style, which I didn't want, or only used the damask in the forepart and sleeves; and since the only patterned-fabric French gown I could find was actually made of cut velvet, if not simply bullion embroidery, I decided the only sensible thing to do was go Italian.
I'll post a pic of the fabric very soon, I promise. Meanwhile, I'll just mention that it's a lovely medium-scale pattern, a lot like this 1540s Portrait of a Florentine Noblewoman. A lot of the damasks, especially cotton damasks, that are available in regular fabric stores have patterns that are just too small, with repeating elements only about as big as your palm. Whereas in the period they tended to be huge, like Eleonora of Toledo's. Also it's difficult to avoid flowery 18th-century elements, rather than the extremely stylized ones of the 16th century. In other words, I'm really pleased with this fabric!
January 18, 2004
Voila! (or perhaps, this being Italian, that should be Ecco!) Here's my silk damask. Do you like it as much as I do? The color's truer in the second, flash picture, but you can't see any detail, so I've included the others also. This fabric doesn't want to photograph well with my usually-fairly-reliable digital camera; I tried taking some shots in sunlight, and the garnet color came out purple! Oh well. Click on the little pics to see the full-sized ones.
When I'm working up ideas for a costume with a new fabric I always like to pin it on a mannequin in roughly the shape of the finished gown, to get an idea of how the fabric will behave, the pattern scale will look, and so on. Since I don't own a Renaissance corset I pinned it on over my 18th-century one, which has a similar cone-shaped torso. However, without cutting the fabric there are definite limitations to how close you can get the fabric to the bodice, and how much fullness you can get into the skirt!
Now, the really interesting thing about this fabric is going to be that I only have four and 1/3 yards of 54" material. I've measured and remeasured the pattern pieces given for Eleanora's extant 1560s gown in Patterns of Fashion, and since I'm skipping the train I think I'll just be able to make it. There really isn't that much fullness in an Italian skirt; the bodice is fairly small (because of the low, wide neckline); and the sleeves are narrow. The really tricky part is going to be carefully managing the layout for the least waste, given that I have to be so very aware of the pattern. Obviously, the bodice needs to be positioned perfectly on the brocade, and I really want the pattern to line up to the same center point on the skirt. I think my saving grace will be that although the sleeves would be better with the pattern carefully arranged on them, the chopping-up of the design that the panes create means the eye won't really notice if I actually use some pretty random pieces there.
If for some reason it doesn't work out, I'll have to go to plan B, which is to cheat and steal a style element from the 1540s: lower sleeves in a coordinating (or even contrasting) fabric. Here's an example of what I mean, and here's a more subtle one. I like this look, but the problem is it doesn't go with the degree of bodice point I want to do, which is post-1550 (not to mention that my costuming brief was to make a gown of 1550-1570!). Well, I'll cross that bridge when I come to it.
This will be a 1555-60 gown from the region of Florence. Around the 1540s, like everyone else, the Italians seem to have begun boning their bodices. This is apparent in the portraits, which show ladies with chest-fronts like shields. They also seem to have followed the French in the speed with which their bodice-points lengthened rapidly from gentle to long and stiff. Furthermore, in the 1550s an open robe begins to appear over the gowns, gradually becoming more closed until it is a stiff doublet-style overgown.
This progression from a simple, open style of dress to a more closed and bedecked fashion can be seen clearly in the three portraits below, all of the same Florentine woman, Eleanora of Toledo.
by Bronzino; Uffizi Gallery, Florence
by Allori; Hermitage Museum
by Bronzino; National Gallery of Art
There were also strong regional differences across Italy. While the Florentines, as shown above, were following the doublet trend, the Venetians were pursuing their own path, exemplified by the front-laced bodice with faux-chemise fill, and a very deep waist-point indeed. I don't mind this style, but the fashionables were also dyeing their hair blond (mine is walnut-brown) and maintaining a plump voluptuousness that I will probably never approach...so it's back to Florence for me.
The Concert, by Giovanni Antonio Fasolo, from Vincenza, Villa Campiglia Negri de' Salvi
My final gown design is drawn from the first Eleanora portrait shown above; from the clothes she was buried in, shown in Patterns of Fashion; and from other Florentine portraits of this period. The partlets and jewelry of the 1540s and '50s seem to have been largely the same across Italy, so although it's Venetian, I am showing the fresco detail at left because it combines a partlet and jewelry similar to Florentine examples I like with a fabric reminiscent of mine (which I find encouraging!). I particularly like the gold embroidery on the sheer, collarless partlet. A similarly cross-cultural feature of this fresco is that the lace trimming the camicia (shift) peeks out of the neckline of the dress, also a feature I plan to imitate.
I'd love to hear feedback on this design, fabric, whatever! Please feel free to drop me a line.
The question still remaining is from what fabric this kirtle will be made. Eleanora's was red velvet, and I certainly have been considering burgundy velvet, which would go nicely with my damask. On the other hand, it would add some bulk underneath the gown, which dampens my enthusiasm. Also, period examples seem to have a rather more dramatic contrast in the undergown. I could go with a gold damask or something, which would still coordinate but more flashily - but I don't look very good in gold so that would wash out the wear-it-as-a-separate-gown idea. I could make it out of shot (changeable) material, which would give it some textural interest that wouldn't compete with the damask...if I could afford anything shot other than period-incorrect dupioni. Hmph. I'm still struggling with this one, obviously.
However, my struggles haven't kept me from starting on the kirtle anyway! I had lining and interlining sitting around already, so while awaiting my camicia linen I bought a pack of cable ties and got started on the "bodies," as the boned bodice was called.
Copyright 2004 by David and Jessamyn Reeves-Brown. All rights reserved.