First Things First


'What the heck do I wear under that thing?'

When I first began researching, and constructing, late period historical clothing the best advice I received was "don't try to cut out or sew your dress without the right under garments!" It was great advice. The right 'undies' were more important to achieving the late period Venetian look than the gorgeous, decadent fabrics - but not by much! But what just what did Venetian ladies, and courtesans, wear under their sumptuous gowns? What did the rest of Italy wear under their clothes? Well, there is one item of underwear we know about with some certainty: the shift (or chemise or smock), known as a "camicia" in Italian. There is much less known about whether Venetian ladies wore the corset, referred to in period, in English, as a 'pair of bodies' or 'bodies', or 'stays'. Other items of underwear we know about are drawers, and nobody that I've talked to is sure whether any sort of hip padding, "bum roll" in English, or farthingale, was worn.

The Venetian Shift -Camicia

(Revised October 28 2004)

The shift/undershirt/chemise, or in Italian, camicia, [1] was the garment worn next to the skin. There was an important reason for this. Sumptuous clothing made from costly fabrics and adorned with lace or embroidery, would have suffered from frequent washing. The camicia worked to absorb the body oils and sweat, helping to protect these fine fabrics.

Camicie [2] (also referred to as shifts, smocks or chemises) were probably exclusively made from fine white linen - I have yet to discover either extant or textual evidence for silk camicie. Sometimes an unbleached fine linen was used, and it was often embroidered as simply or elaborately as desired in monochrome work such as blackwork. Lace became popular late in our period, and there is a little evidence that, very late in the 16th century, polychrome embroidery was also used.

Popular consensus is that the camicia was mid-calf length, but I made my first ankle length for two reasons: looks and warmth (I was heading into autumn/winter at the time and wanted an extra layer for warmth). Just don't make it so long that you trip over it.

Most of this is based on extant English smocks, due to the ease of obtaining information on them - there is much less written about any extant Italian camicie, although they do exist, and much can be deduced about the generic 'Italian' camicia. However, none has been conclusively proven to be of Venetian origin, so we must look to Venetian art to discover if a truly Venetian style exists.

Irrespective of their place of origin within what later came to be known as Italy, the extant camicie remain as a testament to typical period construction method for undergarments: geometric shapes which result in a full camicia utilising maximum fabric usage and little to no wastage.

Cesare Vecellio's Venetian Camicia

The picture above, taken from Cesare Vecellio's De gli Habiti antichi et moderni di Diverse Parti del Mondo, 1589-90, is our only truly reliable pictorial source for a Venetian camicia. It is reliable because it originated from the hand of a Venetian artist who lived in Venice all his life, and shows the camicia in its entirety. This woodcut showing a Venetian lady bleaching her hair on an enclosed space on the rooftop is from Cesare Vecellio's woodcuts of the late 1580s. It is undoubtedly very late in our period, but there is nothing I've found so far that suggests that the 16th century camicia varied much in style throughout the century, apart from perhaps variation in the width and length of the sleeves.

As you can see, the sleeves, even this late, have no cuffs - they are loose at the wrists and are wide. The body of the camicia features a neckline with what appears to be a black worked ruffle, gathered to a black worked band. The body of the camicia is made from several panels of fabric, possibly 71cm, (28") wide linen, and black worked down the seam lines. Also, it is possible that what looks like blackwork, by the very nature of the woodcut medium, could also be lace [3]. It is difficult, if not impossible, to determine whether this camicia has under arm gussets.

[1] Camicia or camiscia are two correct, late 16th century spellings for the item known in English a smock or shirt, or chemise. Camica is incorrect. Taken from Florio's "A Worlde of Wordes" - an Italian/English Dictionary published 1598

[2] Plural for camicia

[3] Further evidence has come to light that this might in fact be the case - more in "Extant Camicie"

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2001 - 2010 Anabella Wake (Known in the SCA as Bella Lucia da Verona) I hold copyright on all information on these pages, and on all images of clothing/costume that I have made. You are allowed to make one facsimile copy for your own use provided that this notice is included on each page. Please ask permission to copy, disseminate and/or distribute my work - I would like to know when and how you are finding this information of use.