The Realm of Venus Presents....

talian howcase


Caroline Barranco

A Venetian Gown in the style of 1495-1505

Caroline Says...

My name is Caroline Barranco. I’ve sewed all my life, but it wasn’t until 1994 that I really got into historical costuming – my friend Dina was entering a series of costumes for Worldcon and blithely roped me in – “you can sew, right you can be Katherine Parr” It wasn’t until the pile of photocopies from Patterns of Fashion arrived along with a colour scan of her portrait that I realized quite what a job that was going to be….

Since then I’ve made costumes from various countries and periods. I’m a member of the Far Isles and the Medieval Siege Society and that keeps me pretty busy sewing 15th century garb for the whole family. But I do love those opulent Italian gowns, and no matter where or when my costuming tendencies lead me I always seem to end up in Italy.

For this outfit I wanted to create an open fronted gown based mainly on Albrecht Dürer’s 1495 sketches and Carpaccio’s “Two Venetian Women” also of 1495. This is pretty much the earliest period for which a good selection of sources are available, i.e. paintings depicting accurate representations of contemporary Italian clothing. Dürer travelled to Venice in 1494 and 1505-7, where he met Giovanni Bellini, younger brother of Gentile, among others. The Venetian artists Gentile Bellini (1429-1507) and Vittore Carpaccio (1472-1526), one of his pupils, both produced enormous canvases filled with crowds dressed in the fashions of the time, as well as more intimate indoor scenes, containing a wealth of information about the period.

Fabrics and Trim

Overdress fabrics, lovely tawny dupion and plum silk. The black edging is 3 inch bias binding applied to the inside of the hem , projecting slightly which looks like piping. I have seen this finish used on Victorian garments to protect trailing hems & decided to use it here for the same reason.

The outer gown is made of 10 yards of changeable silk, woven of red warp and yellow weft, which comes out a beautiful tawny colour. It is dupion but has almost no slubs. At first I was kind of stumped what colours would go with this, but I had a similar amount of thin habutae silk in a deep plum and this became the lining. Since it opens in front and I carry the train whilst outdoors (as does the lady in the Dürer sketch) this lining had to be good enough to be on show.

I'm not terribly happy with this picture because you can see the end of the bottom row of braid. Needless to say you can't see this when I'm wearing it - however it does show the applied trim on the bodice well so I left it in.

The bodice is stiffened with canvas to support the weight of the skirts, and lined with bleached linen. The plum silk is used here as the outer fabric trimmed with bands of black satin braid, with a pleated tawny silk layer overlay on top to echo the deep V-neckline both front and back which is seen on the Dürer sketches.

The brocade used for the underskirt.

What the underskirt brocade looks like when the light falls obliquely...

Yet another brocade photo. I like the motifs too :)

Under the gown, and showing at the open front, I wear an underskirt made of recycled fabric (a pair of curtains) in chocolate brown and emerald green brocade. (See left) Again, it was very hard to find a brocade in a suitable pattern in a colour which would look good with the tawny silk so I was very pleased to find these. They drape pretty well and I would guess the fibre content is cotton and rayon.

The same brocade is used for the one-piece sleeves (below) , shaped like those in Carpaccio’s “Two Venetian Women”. They are trimmed at the wrist in black velvet and some of the motifs have been outlined with embroidery in twisted gold thread. These sleeves are tied to the gown at the shoulder.

This is what the sleeve looks like opened out flat. The top of the sleeve is attached by points to the shoulder of the gown, but offset somewhat towards the back so the opening lies at the back of the arm, not on the top of it. The open edge is closed by points at the wrist, elbow and upper arm as in Carpaccio's "Two Venetian Ladies"

At the moment I wear a camicia of ivory silk with black edging with this gown. There is no historical support for camicias being made of silk but I love it anyway! I will eventually make an appropriate linen one (Sigh.) This will be made according to Bella’s instructions for a Venetian camicia, but instead of the top of the sleeves being set at 90 degrees to the body, they will be sewn together in a straight line before setting in the gussets (I hope the accompanying diagram makes it clear what I mean) This is to avoid the awkward seam placement at the neck which will interfere with the pleating and back-smocking I intend to do ? (see Dürer’s self-portrait of 1500 – a good reproduction of this clearly shows his camicia (?) is held by some means in narrow pleats for a distance of 2½ inches below the passementerie decorating the edge and I reckon back-smocking is an excellent candidate for this effect.)

(Note from Bella: there is no evidence on the many extant chemises and shirts, of this raglan-style attachment of sleeves to chemise body. This must be taken into account if accuracy of construction is a priority)

The outfit is entirely hand-sewn throughout, apart from some of the panel seams of the underskirt. (Since the brocade pattern was beautifully matched, I didn’t bother to unpick and re-sew the curtain seams.)

List of Sources

Bellini “The Miracle of the Cross at the Bridge of St. Lorenzo” 1500 (Gallerie Dell’Accademia, Venice), details of the lady kneeling in the foreground and women in the crowd to the left; †
Bellini “Procession in the Piazza San Marco” 1496 (Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice) detail;
Carpaccio The Stories from the Life of St. Ursula*: Canvas 1 “Arrival of the English Ambassadors” detail; (Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice)
Carpaccio The Stories from the Life of St. Ursula: Canvas 4 “Meeting of the Betrothed Couple and Departure of the Pilgrims” (Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice) detail;
Carpaccio “The Departure of Ceyx” 1502-1507 (National Gallery, London) details †;
Carpaccio “Two Venetian ladies” c.1510 (Museo Correr, Venice) †
Dürer “Nuremberg and Venetian Women” 1496-97 (Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt)
Dürer “Venetian Woman” 1495-1510 (Vienna Albertina)
Giovanni Mansueti “The Miraculous Healing of the Daughter of Benvegnudo of S. Polo” 1505 (Gallerie Dell’Accademia, Venice)†
Cima da Conegliona “Olera Polyptych” c1486-1488 Olera, (Bergamo) Parish church of S. Bartolomeo. A very early example, and from outside Venice itself, but clearly a related style.

* 1488 - The Confraternity of St Ursula in Venice commissioned a series of nine canvases recounting the story of St Ursula from Vittore Carpaccio, who probably drew on the Lives of the Saints (Legenda Aurea) published in Venice in Italian translation in 1475. Carpaccio was not able to follow the chronological order of the story, he had to paint the scenes in the order that the wall space became available. The series was painted between 1490 and 1496.

† These are from "The Realm of Venus" website


When I looked at the Dürer sketches, the first question that sprang to mind was: how on earth does that gown stay up? Not only is it completely off the shoulder, it has a wide V-neckline which reaches to the waistband both front and back. (Apparently this question was posed at the time too!) This posed a number of problems.

Since the drawings are of course monochrome it’s hard to be sure whether the gathered part filling in the front V of the neckline is an undergown or a camicia. To me it looks like camicia, but if that’s the case there is no room for an undergown as such under the almost non-existent bodice – especially in the back. When in colour the fabric showing at the front V may be either white or coloured, but is different to the fabric showing through the open skirt. (See the two details from “The Miracle of the True Cross”, Bellini) It therefore seemed likely that the underneath brocade layer was an underskirt rather than a whole dress. This would be less bulky and meant I would not have to worry about it showing where it wasn’t supposed to.

Underskirt hanging up to show the drape.

This shows internal linings, ribbon edging and fastenings of underskirt

Another view of the internal linings, ribbon edging and fastenings of underskirt (larger image)


I sewed the brocade curtains into a cylinder, made of four widths of fabric pattern matched all the way round (of course) which was a bit longer than the measurement from my waistband to the floor. This was the easy bit – they were already lined! I found that simply pleating the skirt at the top and allowing the pleats to hang free made an awfully bulky underskirt, and also it had a tendency to slip down my ribcage. I didn’t want to attach it to the gown as all the weight of the outfit would then be on the top of my arms and I would probably be constantly hitching it up. Not only that, but I had lost the correct silhouette of the Dürer drawings, with the dress tightly drawn in below the bust. And there’s the vanity issue – I looked at least 8 months pregnant. An authentic period effect, true, but it was a bit much on my 5ft 2” frame.

So I stitched the pleats down as far as waist level, leaving a wide inverted box-pleat at centre front so that there was a central panel 6 inches wide with no pleating that would show at the centre front. It laces at centre back from my natural waist up to the waistband of the gown. And although I’m Quite Certain they didn’t do it that way, I’m very pleased with the result. It’s self-supporting, never shifts or drops, doesn’t have to be tied to anything, and is really comfortable. Incidentally the top edge is bound with ribbon to minimise bulk - due to the lining and the overlapping pleats there can be up to 10 layers of fabric. And I still have the period silhouette without the enormously pregnant look.

Side view of underskirt. Shows the unpleated front panel, then the rest of the fabric is folded into 5 pleats and stitched down to the natural waistline.

Although my solution worked well in practice, if I was making this dress again, I’d probably try making an undergown of more or less the shape of Kohler’s 14th Century strappy shift. The straps would have to be narrow enough and wide enough to stay hidden under the gown and to be able to pull it down beneath the waistband at the back. It could be made with a horizontal seam at waistband height; allowing the bodice section to be made of plain fabric and the skirt part patterned, to account for this feature of the source paintings. (Alternatively this effect could be achieved by using a separate stomacher to fill in the front V; the undergown would then not be seen at all above the waist, and could be all skirt fabric.) I would also be tempted to make the skirt part flared to as to minimise or dispense with pleating the skirt fabric into the undergown bodice. This really helps the general lines of the gown. Of course, the undergown need not be tightly fitted in the underbust area, as it will be pulled in by the gown worn over the top of it, so it could be a simple A-line shape.


The bodice is stiff enough to sit up on its own; this is a view inside it.

View of front

Closer view of front

Eyelets at side

Outer Gown

After musing on the bodice construction for a while I decided I wanted more than just camicia between me and the world, and opted to make a canvas-stiffened bodice to give me the necessary support. There is also a piece of boning each side which supports the edge of the neckline, although the bodice ended up pretty stiff and it was probably not necessary. The effect of this is that the weight of the gown is supported on the tops of my arms; although being all silk, it’s not too heavy. Although the skirt is open in front, I decided to lace the bodice closed on each side under the arms, this is partly to reduce the stress on the centre front of the gown, and partly because I find front-fastening gowns very unforgiving of small changes in weight ;) Furthermore there is some suggestion in “Arrival of the Ambassadors” that Ursula’s gown fastens this way – with a rather large gap under the arm showing the camicia , although that particular dress is not so likely to be open-fronted.

The bodice was constructed with a plum silk outer layer over canvas, and a bleached linen lining. Over the outer layer I stitched horizontal bands of black satin braid where the front and back V would show, and finished the neckline edge with black satin binding. Finally a layer of tawny silk was placed over the top and cut away in the back more or less to the waistband, and arranged in loose pleats to either side of the front V. This layer was stitched down at intervals along the neckline to the underlying bodice, and turned in over the armscye edges and the bottom edge of the bodice to finish all edges of the bodice before attaching the skirts. I then hand-worked three pairs of eyelets through all the layers of fabric to make the closure under the arms. (See below) I use 6-stranded embroidery floss for working eyelets – it comes in a huge range of colours and has a nice sheen, plus if you use all 6 strands in the needle it’s plenty strong enough. It’s also good for covering metal eyelets, if you use them.

Back view, hanging up. Unfortunately I couldn't get the full length of it in the picture due to the train. What you can't see is my 6-year old son is actually holding it up at arm's length while standing on a chair (& shouting "Hurry up, Mummy!")

A closer back view, again with the help of Antonio

Pleating diagram.

This shows the handsewn panel seams and hem treatment

Now to attach the skirts. I had 5 widths of fabric to pleat into a waistband 33 inches long; one width for each front panel, which was not too bad, but three widths for the back. It took quite a bit of messing about with the pleats before I was happy with the look. From the outside they look about ¾ inch apart, but each pleat is about 4 inches deep, which means many layers of fabric to be stitched to the gown. A good job it was thin silk! (see pleating diagram, left). It’s particularly important for the look of the Dürer gown to concentrate the bulk of the fabric at centre front and centre back – at the sides under the armpits there is a wide flat area with no pleats, in the centre of which the side seams are clearly visible. Essential for that preggy look!

After hemming the dress I was worried about wear and tear on the seams, especially in those areas which trail on the floor. So I added a 3 inch wide band of black bias binding to the inside of the hem all the way around. This projects about ¼ inch beyond the edge of the garment to the right side, which looks rather like piping and helps to give the hem a bit of extra body. At the time I was convinced there was a fringed edge to the Dürer overgown, but now I’m not so sure; it‘s probably just guards about 2” wide and the shading makes it look like fringe. If it is guards, though, I believe it to be a rare feature.

Another view of bottom hem treatment

The sleeves were the last bit of the gown to be completed. I have made finestrella sleeves before and wanted something different, so I decided to make one-piece sleeves after Carpaccio’s “Two Venetian Women”. They are very simple… so I have started to embroider the motifs, outlining them with gold thread and (eventually) covering the green parts of the brocade in embroidery, ha ha. Not much of this has been done as yet.

And finally…..(below) on the inside front waistband, where nobody will ever see them, are little eyeleted hangers to hold pockets which I never got around to making. And those little widgets cost me more blood, sweat and tears than the whole rest of the garment, cos they’re silk-covered LEATHER and they also have hand-worked eyelets which was a bad, bad idea…..I was trying to sew them with an ordinary sewing needle!

View of inside bodice and pleated skirt, showing one of the infernal
pocket hangers that caused me such sore fingers...and which I haven't
even used yet due to no pockets to attach to them :(


The jewellery I wear with this outfit - some I made, a necklace from Past Times, some junk-shop finds, and some real freshwater pearls.

I wear this outfit with red velvet slippers with pointed toes, and an elaborate hairdo which starts off as a ponytail pulled through a doughnut-shaped pad on the top of my head, and then my hair is arranged to cover it with an extra plait of false hair encircling the doughnut (this is again based on Carpaccio’s “Two Venetian Women” One of the Durer sketches apparently shows a veil, but this is, again, a rare feature, so I omitted it.

A necklace which I can no longer wear due to its nickel content is pinned over the top and the whole thing finished off with lashings of pearls and jewelled rings. Now for the chopines……


The Photos...

These were taken in the grounds of Letton Hall this February. It was a lot colder than it looks!

Bella Says.....

What a jewel-box of riches! Caroline's choices of colour are not only confident and bold, they are a success! I always love to see adventurous use of colour in costuming - it is always such an inspiration to those of us that are as yet too timid to try out wonderful colour combinations such as these. Caroline has put colour, cut and construction to very good use and created a lovely, inspirational gown.

If you would like to show Caroline your appreciation you can contact her at caroline(dot)barranco(at)jarrah(dot)co(dot)uk

Would you like to be Showcased? E-mail me!


(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.)