The Fourth Annual Italian Renaissance Costuming Challenge

June 1 to September 30,  2014

Heather Morgan
Washington, USA

I have been sewing for about 6 years, trying a bit of this time and that place, but always coming back to my true love, 16th century Italian!

This will be my second IRCC, but this time I will try to make a lady's outfit! I have made several Italian ensembles, from peasant to princess, and now I have my sights on a very late Venetian upper class lady, with a shift, petticoat (maybe bodied), gown, and of course a ruffled partlet to finish the look!

June Update

Lately I have made several outfits that were pretty much directly based off of one specific painting, so this time I am going to go wild and grab elements from different gowns that I like! But that does mean I need to buckle down and pick which specific gown elements I like and want to recreate, and keep track of them so I don't forget where I saw that fabulous stripped frothy thing, or that other lacy doodad.

Here's a more detailed list of plans for my late Venetian upper class outfit:

Layer 1: Shift, with gathered neckline, visible from the front-laced gown opening, with lace at the top of the bound neckline, as seen around the edges of Ludovico Pozzoserrato's A Musical Evening (late 1570s). If I am feeling fancy, and find I have enough time, I might consider adding embroidery across the front of the shift, as visible on Giovanni Antonio Fasolo's Games (1565).

Layer 2: A skirt or bodied petticoat. I need something to puff my skirts out a bit more sometimes, and while a bodied petticoat would be nice because it could double as a dress in its own right when needed, it would create logistical issues with the open-front gown on top. I think I am leaning more towards skirt at the moment like the one worn by the serving girl on the right in Feast at Cana by an Unknown Painter (1550's)  but we shall see when the time comes.

Layer 3: An over-gown! I am interested in the extremely low necklines you see in the 90's, but if my courage deserts me, I may go for a slightly more modest 70's or 80's neckline. I have not yet made a gown with the paned upper sleeve like Madonna of the House of Coccina, so I think I'd like to try that.

Layer 4: A partlet with ruffles that continue all the way down the bust, like the child in Girolamo Forni's Portrait of the Gentlewomen of the Giusti del Giardino Family(1570's?).

Additional Accessories: a fun purse, possibly one of the suggestively shaped ones here, and perhaps a pair of shoulder ruffs.

With all the planning done, I can think about actually making these things! I am feeling rebellious, so I'll start on layer three, out of order. That neckline issue is intriguing! I started out with a pattern from another dress, adjusted it to include the Venetian back point, and a slightly lower neckline. 

It certainly works, but isn't quite right when I compare my picture side by side with the various inspiration pictures. I have a hard time telling if my mock-up looks close to the originals by just looking in the mirror. I find it much easier to take a picture and compare my picture to the paintings. My comparing tells me I need a new mockup: my poor Venetian back point is so small that my shirt has eaten it!

New mock up is better, much closer now: nearly two inches longer, back point is much more pronounced, and bust about an inch lower (though it hardly looks so!). Shoulder straps have been narrowed, trying to imitate the nearly invisible strap look of 1580's Venetian gowns. This will certainly need more bones around the sides/back, it's all wrinkled!


And now with more bones! And a different shift/partlet combo, to see if that would make a difference, which I don't think it did. The center back bone is longer now, which got rid of the bra strap height wrinkle (not wearing a bra, but that wrinkle made it look like I was!). Shoulder straps may be a smidge long? It's still not quite as low as most of the necklines of this period, although I am hesitant to go further. I do wish the square shape of the neckline was a bit sharper at the corners though... hmm.

Ok, last picture of the stripes! Just a tiny smidge lower now, and slightly more squared-off corners. I think I am happy with how low it is now, so now it's time to cover it with my fancy silk fabric.

I cut out the bodice pieces out in grey wool and red silk. The red will be my final outfit color, and the grey is to help prevent the bones of the foundation from showing through.

I tacked the edge of the red to the inside of the striped bodice, and gave that a try!

Nearly perfect! All is good except that the center front doesn't quite perfectly mirror each other, and the red needs to come out a little more over the lacings, but those are easily fixed, and we are other-wise good to go start on the lining.

To be continued!

July Update

I fixed the the bodice so that it mirrored itself nicely down the front, added a little strip of silk on the inside to help cover the bodice foundation, and started lining! Not very exciting picture-wise, I'll move on to the fun bit: a velvet and gold trimmed purse!

There are three extant purses that I am basing my reproduction off of: one is definitely Italian, one is possibly Italian, and the last is likely English.

After comparing the measurements and shapes (they are all quite small, about five inches in height) I got some light wood from a friend and cut out the shapes I needed. Five pieces of wood seemed about the right thickness, I cut the back piece whole, and left a hole in the rest of the layers, so that the pouch would be just the tiniest bit bigger as a result.

The wood was then covered in paper, mostly to smooth out the rough sides. If I had used a bigger piece of wood originally, then there would not be so much piecing on the middle layers, and the sides would have been a lot smoother without the paper. Something to remember for next time!


The front, back, and sides were covered with velvet, using a bit of glue to help hold them down until I stitched the seams. The pouch part is more velvet lined with plain weave silk. Goodness, that was interesting to sew on the machine! I finger-loop braided a length of silk to use as the draw string, mimicking the extant purses, which also appear to have finger-loop braided cord of silk.


With the cord in place, I sewed the pouch onto the body of the purse, and then covered all the seam lines in gold colored braid. The draw strings needed a bit of snazzing up to match the extant purses, so I used a very wide gold braid/lace to cover a thread knot on the end. These gold 'beads' seem to be very common on Sweet Bags too.

I really like this purse so far! I already wore it to an event and heard from a friend that someone pondered out loud "Does she realize what that shape looks like?!" Yep, I totally realize what it looks like. ;)


Now that I have had a break away from the dress, it's time to start on the skirt! I figured that two panels wouldn't quite be enough (108") so I cut three, which should make for a lovely and full skirt at 162 inches around. I think I will not do a tuck on this skirt, but just pad the hem a little instead.

August Update

I got the camicia done. I had plans for some sweet lace insertion on the bodice, but when I got the lace I ordered, it was a super bright white, while my linen shift fabric was a slightly natural/yellow color, and they were enough of a mismatch that I'd rather use the lace with another shift. So my shift is simple but done!

Now itís finally time for the skirt! I sewed a strip of thin-ish wool to the top of the skirt to give it a bit of body, and sewed a facing along the front slit. Itís about 8 inches long, the shortest I could make it and still easily be able to get the dress on and off.

I gathered the skirt with a single pleating thread. I tend to like the slightly random/messy look it gives to the finished pleats, compared to using several rows of gathering threads, which makes for much more uniform and parallel finished pleats. The pleats were stitched to the bodice with two or three stitches each, and I made sure to go through the foundation fabric with each stitch, since the foundation fabric is much stronger than the thin silk fashion fabric. I tried on the dress once the skirt was done. Well, it hadnít been hemmed yet, but one has to see how the pleats are looking, right?

And the pleats are looking mighty fine. I am starting to wonder if I really need an under skirt for this dress, it poufs out quite nicely on its own. I suppose I'll think more about that later, first I have sleeves to make!

I started with one of my other well-fitting sleeves, but since I want it to be a two piece sleeve like many of the ones in Alcegaís tailoring book, I made a little fold in the middle.


To get the splits in the top of my sleeves, I lined them in white silk, and sewed several little slashes. Once I cut between each of the narrow ĎVís, I could flip them right side out. Now I have nice clean panes at the top of my sleeves! After a bit of ironing, my panes are smooth and ready to be bound.

The top of the sleeve panes are bound together with more red silk, starting with an inch wide straight-grain strip. I figure I can tie these sleeves to the bodice shoulders using the space between the panes. I thought of it too late, but as an alternate construction method, I could have sewn all the way around each of the panes so that there are no raw edges at the top, flipped them all right side out, then whip stitched the corners together, no binding needed. Something for next time I guess!

With the sleeves done, the dress is done too! I finished just in time to wear it to our local Ren Faire for a day. The Faire was having a Masquerade theme that day, so I also made a pair of masks for my husband and I. This gave me a perfect excuse to make a visard!



I was a little short on time, so instead of making my own buckram or pasteboard base, I used a plastic store bought base. It was a little big, so I cut it down till it looked a little closer in shape to some of the period visards.


Then I covered the plastic with velvet, and the inside with linen, stitching the inside around the eyeholes, mouth, and outside to secure the fabric together. I saw a couple pictures with ties, especially the half-masks, so I used ribbon ties to secure the mask to my face rather than the mouth button on the extant example.


So back to that skirt question: do I make an underskirt, or so I make a super sexy overcoat/zimarra? I still want to make a partlet, and possibly a flag fan (I think it would be a great way to block the sun from my eyes!) so I have a bit of time to decide.

September/Final Update

Instead of the petticoat/underskirt, I have decided to go with an over-gown, sometimes referred to as a zimarra. The portrait of Grand Duchess Bianca Cappello de' Medici with her son Antonio de' Medici. (1580-1614, by Alessandro Allori)  has a good example of a zimarra, but the one I really fell in love with is this image from 'A Venetian Villa' (1620) from Anea's Venetian page (go all the way to the bottom).

I went to buy a similar sapphire blue color, but I ended up with a pale teal silk since they were out of the darker colors. Luckily, I did score some nicely saturated red/orange for the lining. Not what I was aiming for, but they will contrast nicely with each other.

For the pattern, I looked to the Spanish "Tailor's Pattern Book" by Juan Alcega (1589). The author may have written the patterns for Spanish fashions, but the shape of the loose gowns looks like it will be spot on for the Italian style too. The large swoop-y sleeve is less common in Italy, but still there. There were several loose gowns to choose from, all with very similar shapes and proportions, but 'silk gown for a woman' most closely resembles the piecing method I had to use for my gown. 

I sewed the opening of the sleeves first, then elbow seam of both outside fabric and lining, so the only seam I had to hand sew was the wee wrist seam. Sort of the same for the rest of the dress, it was bag lined, so I only had to hand sew the inside armscye closed. That is of course not counting the black trim at all; that had to be all hand stitched down. I made it with fabric that was supposed to be silk but I suspect it has some poly content.



I had the good fortune to see some little black frog closures at a fabric shop, before that I was still very undecided on what closure type I wanted to use. They only had nine pairs, so Iíll have to keep an eye out for more to finish the front opening. It works just fine as it is, but it looks like most of the portraits show clasps going all the way down the front, even though it seems like they donít actually use them much. I also noticed a lot of paintings showing the button and loop elements alternating, rather than buttons all being on one side, so I did that too.

I had an itch to do some pewter work, so instead of a partlet or flag fan, I made some very small buckles, with little running horses! Itís based off of a Thames river find with a wolf. I canít say for sure that buckles were used on womenís garters in 16th century Italy, but then, there aren't a whole lot of images with women showing off their knees, so itís hard to get much information. For garter straps, I used simple twill tape, although I think Iíd like to weave my own someday.


My four layers ended up being a camicia, a red dress, a blue/silver overdress, and three accessories (mask, purse, and garters). I really wanted to get a partlet in there, but looks like that will have to be on the menu later. Even without that, I am very pleased with how the outfit came out.