The Realm of Venus Presents....

talian howcase


Alyxx Iannetta

Costumer and Renn Faire Participant
A Venetian Gown in the style of the 1570s

"They look like nipples to me. I like them."

Alyxx Says

This dress started when I was invited to join the whorehouse... No, really!

I am a member of the
Guild of St. Ives, a not for profit re-enactment group in Southern California, which recreates the Elizabethan middle class. I usually reside in the musicians' household wearing strictly upper-middle class English dresses, but one day our lovable whores invited me to romp for a day. *snicker* I thought it would be grand to make a new dress for an upper crust courtesan, but our whores were restricted to "brothel" status and not fancy enough for my clothing tastes. The Madame suggested I try going Italian if I wanted to make something fancy, so I was off and running... but to where? Italian dress was wildly different from region to region and from decade to decade. Which should I pick?

I scoured various art databases for artists that were painting in Italy in the mid to late 1500's. I also took inspiration, suggestion and research from
Bella's site and Deb's site for specifically Venetian info, and poured through many of my favorite costumers' sites for general inspiration, tips, tricks, research, etc.

Titian, 1553: Portrait Of A Lady In White
This is the main silhouette I'm going for: low décolleté, very wide shoulder, very flattened torso (almost English style), low waist point, skirt pleated to bodice all around, narrow ladder lace closing. Simple design. No split skirt. Corset?

Titian, 1555-58: Girl with A Basket of Fruits
This one has great sleeves and shows the uniquely Venetian pointed waist in the back.

Paolo Veronese, 1561: Detail from fresco
This fresco combines so many of the elements I like in one dress. The open ladder lacing, the wide décolleté, the full un-split skirt, the jeweled girdle, the paned sleeve heads, the simple pearl earrings and choker. This is a gem!

Giorgio Vasari, 1560s: Pope Alexander III receiving the submission of the Emperor Frederick I (detail)
This painting was the basis for my partlet. I like the gold netting in a more horizontal design rather than the diamond design of the Veronese fresco.

Giovanni Antonio Fasolo, 1560s: Family Portrait (detail)
This is very similar to what I want to make, except front lacing like the Lady in White. I like its simplicity of design while letting the fabulous fabric speak the loudest.

As the above inspiration portraits show, I was really struck by Venetian styles above all others, and some details I noticed that differ from the English styles I was used to:

  • Skirt with pointed "V" at waist in back and pleated all around - no flat area in front and almost no split skirts.

  • Shoulder straps are set very wide to almost fall off shoulders. Neckline tends to be lower than English styles, sometimes even running below the nipples in later decades.

  • Sleeves tend to be bulky or looser, not tight to the arm.

  • NO HAT! Lots of plaiting or taping (even though I have short hair - yikes!)

  • Dresses tend to be simple in design; not a lot of extra trim or embellishment. The fancier patterned fabrics made the statement instead of lots of beading or braided trims.

  • Accessories: flag fans and simple pearl jewelry, perhaps with a large pendant. Also, the beaded girdle - love beaded tassels. I must have one!

  • The camicia has a square neckline that sets right against the dress neckline. Décolleté can be completely bare but is usually covered with a very fancy, bejeweled partlet.

    Further research consisted of scouring my Janet Arnold books and every online Alcega resource I could find. I fell in love with a very expensive fabric for this so I wanted to use period cutting techniques to waste as little fabric as possible...

    The outfit I ended up with consists of (not in order of construction):

    Dress (bodice with skirt and sleeves attached)


    After deciding on a silhouette based on the Lady in White (open front ladder laced, possibly corseted) I went fabric shopping. I thought a white dress would have been fantastic, and I even found some incredible white/taupe silk Jacquard on sale for $25/yd. But the more I imagined it the more it looked like a puffy wedding dress in my head, so I just hit all my favorite stores to see what I could see. What I found was an amazing red/taupe silk/cotton brocade. It's upholstery weight with no weird backing on it and you can never go wrong with red for a Venetian dress.

    After the red brocade, I found some silk online that was iridescent orange taffeta with embroidered stripes and a satin band woven in of a lovely taupe color. They also had an iridescent taupe dupioni to match the stripe on the orange, which I bought for the underskirt and corset.

    For the camicia, I picked up some sheer white linen/cotton blend with a 1/2" check woven in. And for the drawers I used some 5oz linen I had in my stash.

    Getting Started:

    I started off by making a new taping of myself to draft the corset pattern from. My hubby has become quite adept at helping me with this and it goes very quickly these days. So the tape was cut off, transferred to paper and drafted into a workable corset design. I prefer to use cotton duck for my corsets because it doesn't have the same bias stretch that washed canvas has, so I used two layers of that and an outer layer of taupe dupioni silk.

    The orange taffeta was embroidered in stripes so I cut the stripes out and pieced them together to make one long strip to guard the underskirt. The orange silk left over from between the stripes was cut up to make bias tape with which I bound up the edges of the corset. I pirated a busk from another corset I had and decided to give cable ties a try after I've heard so much about them. They worked beautifully. I didn't worry so much about historical accuracy on the corset since there's a lot of debate about whether they even wore them at this time and place. Considering the Lady in White is bound up flatter than the usual Venetian, I think she may have used one, but I decided to bone the bodice pretty well and not wear the corset unless I had to.

    For the underskirt, I roll pleated the dupioni to a waist band and added the embroidered orange taffeta along the bottom. I also added some red cotton piping at the edge of the taffeta to give the underskirt a little more body.

    Around this time, I also made my drawers out of linen. I flat felled all the seams for comfort and durability. I prefer it to French seaming - less bulky. I also hand hemmed it with a blanket stitch in red embroidery floss, just to give it a detail belonging to this outfit. One last item of comfort, these are low rise drawers! I hate trying to tuck your waist band back up under your clothing layers after privying... They are so comfortable and practical, I shall never make them any other way again.

    The Camicia

    I searched high and low for a really fine 100% linen and was not successful at all. I settled for a linen/cotton blend that was very lightweight, rather sheer, with a 1/2" check woven in. I cut it out based on the same pattern Jen Thompson used for her Florentine dress and used some lace from my stash to fit exactly into the "window" of the bodice décolleté, then pleated the camicia fabric to it. It turned out too long so I gave it a nice, big hem for weight.

    The Dress:

    After the corset and underskirt were done I draped a toile for the bodice. This was when I finally decided on the 1550's Lady in White style of dress.

    One of the decisions I struggled with was using a flat paneled skirt vs. a gored skirt. I wanted it to be as full as possible but with such a bold pattern in the fabric I didn't want that "dip" in the repeat you get from goring. I noticed that the Eleanora of Toledo dress in POF uses a non-gored design so it is period and will maintain the integrity of the fabric pattern. I also looked at the silhouettes in the Vicellio woodcuts and felt with the volume of fabric pleated into the waist and variations in the drape of the pleating that the flat paneled skirt would closely follow that line. So, I finally cut into my fabric and cut linings in linen. Sewing up the skirt panels left me with a tube of about 150" circumference. I am about a size 4 so this is plenty of fabric for me.

    After cutting my skirt panels I had very little fabric left so the next thing to do was to draft my sleeves. I did the old trace-your-own-arm trick and it came out beautifully. I went with the paned top sleeves like the Girl with a Basket of Fruits. I like the simple design and the way the camicia puffs through it. So, I now have all my sleeve and bodice pattern pieces drafted. No excuse not to cut them out! *sweating bullets* I don't usually go through these kinds of nerves. Really. I don't.

    I cut all my interlinings first so I could lay them out like a puzzle on the remaining red fabric until I got exactly the motifs I wanted on each piece. This wasn't easy since I had so little of the fabric left. I was unable to keep the shoulder straps integrated on the bodice, but piecing is period, so off they came. The things that were most important to me were getting a good central motif on the back, getting an interesting mirrored motif on the 2 front pieces, and having matched mirrored patterns on the sleeves. The pattern is so bold that anything that wasn't mirrored would completely unbalance the whole dress. I finally managed to get everything I wanted but only after several placement attempts and by cutting the front bodice pieces on a slight bias. This actually gave me the main flower motif on both sides of the center lacing, but angled in, which looked very flattering on.

    After sewing in all the boning channels on the bodice interlinings and inserting cable tie boning, I stitched the red fabric onto it by rolling the edges over the interlining edges so there wouldn't be any visible stitching on the bodice outside. Then I attached the straps which had been layered the same way. For lacing rings I used the "eye" half of hook and eye tape.

    To finish off the skirt, I eyeballed the waist curve of the bodice and cut away at the waist of the skirt. It came out pretty accurately, thank God, so I sewed in the lining and cartridge pleated it to the bodice at the waist. Rather than cut a slit at the front opening I just left about 10" unpleated and it folds up like a big box pleat when the bodice is laced up. I added a little hook & eye there so it wouldn't sag at the hem. I like not having a split in the fabric pattern there.

    I let the whole thing hang for almost a week before hemming it. This fabric is much stiffer in cotton direction (parallel to the hem) than in the silk direction, so I wasn't sure how much the spring in it would droop after hanging, and I refuse to hem twice! HA! It barely dropped at all, which kept it nice n' poufy at the waist pleats. The last touch was adding a velvet guard along the bottom. I used the same 100% linen velvet in sort of an antique gold color that I used to guard the underskirt. The Vicellio woodcuts show thin guards at the bottom of dresses and I probably should have made mine narrower, but it looked too out of place narrow. If I had been able to find a good red to match it might have worked but the dark gold color was such a contrast that it had to be more substantial to look balanced.

    The sleeves were pretty simple in design - two piece slightly curved at the elbow, 6 slashes across the meat of the shoulder, attached with buttons to bodice, closed with buttons at the wrist. I made these as thin as possible because of the heat I'd be wearing it in. They're just the red silk/cotton, linen interlining, and taupe silk lined. I added some antique lace I had to the cuffs and closed them at the wrists with this weird trim made up of little velvet balls. I added some citrine and gold beads to the balls to make them more button-like and tie them into the dress better. They look like nipples to me. I like them. :-)

    Finding the right buttons or jewels or closures for the sleeve heads to join the bodice was not easy. I must have bought 4 or 5 sets of buttons because none of them were perfect but I didn't think I'd find anything better. Then I'd find something better, but not perfect... *sigh* I finally settled on some that are cast metal, plated in gold, with enamelled centers. So, on went the sleeves, tacked to the bodice straps only at the slash joins, then tacked once under the arm. The fabrics have a lot of body on their own but they don't have enough to hold up the wide set straps on my shoulders without adding layers of interlining. Tacking the sleeve, with just a couple of stitches with heavy thread, to the bodice arm hole under the arm pit made sure the sleeves a) would never pull down on the bodice, b) would help keep the straps on my shoulders, and c) would always keep them high enough to give good "pouf" in the slashes. Since the straps are set so wide I already didn't have a lot of upward arm mobility, the extra securing did nothing to hinder me further.

    The Partlet

    This was great fun to experiment and learn with. I sacrificed a shirt to drafting the pattern by drawing on it under the bodice, then drew the pattern onto some very sheer but stiff silk organza. I wanted to be able to couch my trim on without any bias stretch distorting it as I worked. Ideally I would have used an embroidery loom but I didn't have one so I improvised by cutting out the center of a box lid and pinning my organza to it. I finished it up with a sturdy bias tape around the 3 edges that don't show and one last trim piece all around the neck edge, with all the other trim ends tucked up under the trim edge. I tacked it into the bodice edge through the bias tape and it fit perfectly and worked really well to secure the shoulder straps and keep everything in place.

    The Accessories

    After devouring Tammie L. Dupuis
    Fan demo on her site The Renaissance Tailor, I looked online and lifted a picture of a period textile design. I printed two color copies onto parchment paper for both sides of the fan and glued them onto a thin piece of wood. I used a 1/4" dowel with two acorn end caps and painted them all gold, then added some gold lace from the stash to the edge. Voila! One flag fan, coming up!

    My girdle was strung on red silk and was made of a whole mess of Venetian glass beads I've been hoarding for a long time, mostly of various colored glass with gold stripes around them. Between these I used faceted and round garnets and some brass spacing beads. I ended up using a massive drop pearl (fake) with an odd spacer of gold and pearls to finish it off. I tacked it to the bodice point in back and hooked it together in front after dressing. Then I pinned a large amethyst brooch of my Grandmother's over the hook and that finished it off. I like the way it looks but it gets lost in the folds of my skirt. No fix on that yet...

    For jewelry, I wore the prerequisite pearl necklace. I had this already but I added a pendant made from an earring I had and a gold bow to tie it off an cover the modern clasp. Since I would be dancing in it and didn't want to lose it I kept the safety clasp rather than restring them, but it didn't show under the little gold bow. Also in this pic are the amethyst brooch I wore to cap of the girdle, and the earrings, which are antique, enamelled, French, gold, pear-shaped hoops with small drop pearls. For rings, I dug out all my red ones and had to decide mostly based on what I wouldn't kill myself over if I lost - so no real rubies. I ended up wearing the bottom 3 rings, the large garnet ring (second from the bottom) on my wedding ring finger and the fake ruby and carnelian intaglio on my right hand, first & third.

    Well, hair was interesting. As my own hair is only long enough to be annoying, and Italians generally didn't wear hats, I needed a hair piece. Theatrically, I've worked with full wigs and men's hair pieces but I really didn't want to wear something that covered my whole head. My hair is long enough to pull back and cover so I thought I'd make a braided piece to cover the back. Then I could also have my own natural hairline and also keep a little bit cooler. I bought some wig base netting, a long metal flex comb, and 3 packs of silky straight synthetic hair in an auburn color I liked. I took out the first pack of synthetic hair, braided it, and started applying it to the base. I just basically wrapped it in loops and stitched it down, then started the next piece over the raw ends of the last piece. I ended up just barely having enough hair to cover the piece and leave two clean braids wrapped around the outside edge with a little twist at the top on each side. I got my little horns after all! LOL. I also added some sheer white & gold edged ribbon with hair taping, which I picked up from this wonderful article. This made all the braid much more secure on the base and added a lovely design to the piece. Then I just added the comb inside the base edge, which was long enough to wrap about 2/3 of the way around.

    For shoes, I wore a pair of red leather shoes from Native Soles, with tear drop pinks around the top. I added a button at the center that is a slightly larger version of the buttons I used on my sleeve heads.

    Finally Finished!

By 2 am the night before I had to wear it, I went to bed happy. I have to say that this was one of the most fun costumes to wear. It's very feminine yet certainly not meek in any way. It kept me in a good posture all day, was quite comfortable even without being able to remove my sleeves, and is easy to dance in.

For a much longer and more painful account of the making of this dress, please visit my website at

Bella Says.....

Isn't this yummy? Alyxx has demonstrated one of the crucial details of sixteenth century Venetian portraiture - the luscious fabric says it all! Understated elegance is what first drew me to sixteenth century Venetian fashion, as well as the opulent fabrics. This gorgeous outfit embodies those qualities that set sixteenth century Venetian fashions apart from the rest. I just love it!!

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(Copyright Information: As author I, Anabella Wake, known in the SCA as Bella Lucia da Verona, hold copyright on all information on these pages. In addition I hold copyright 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.)