The Realm of Venus Presents....

talian howcase


Melissa Heischberg

Renaissance Faire Participant and Seamstress
A Venetian Courtesan Gown in the style of the 1560s

Melissa Says...

My name is Melissa Heischberg. I've been sewing costumes for six or seven years now. I've been interested in the history of clothing since I was little, but the idea of actually trying to make costumes to wear didn't occur to me until after a trip to the Bristol Renaissance Faire. ("*Adults* get to play dress up?! Cool!") That revelation basically ended free time in my life. I used to sew after work to blow off steam; now I work part time as a seamstress for an upholstery shop and make costumes on commission. Other than sewing, I spend a lot of time going to work, entertaining my cats, and thinking that I probably ought to be updating my website.

A few years ago, I wanted a courtesan gown. There's something mysterious and exotic about the whole idea of courtesans. I'd like to say that that's what got me onto the whole idea, but the truth is that I'd seen one too many "Dangerous Beauty" dress, and my poor little brain couldn't take it anymore. (Don't get me wrong -- I *like* Dangerous Beauty. It's one of three DVDs I currently own, and I bought it because a lot of the costumes are fantastic. Um, just maybe not so much the "courtesan" gowns.)

Bella asked me to put together something of an executive overview for this, which I took as an excuse to take new pictures. So I present to you...

Courtesan: The Cliff Notes


The Inspiration


Above: Three of my favorite Italian paintings from the 1560s. I rather buy into the idea that courteseans would have dressed fashionably, as well as they could get away with. Most of Vecellio's engravings seem to support this. I decided on the a Venetian style gown, because I think there's something seductive about the chemise showing behind the deep V between the bodice edges. It's sort of like flaunting your undies in public. I hear that used to be unusual - positively scandalous, even. ;)

  The Fabric

Below: I read somewhere that courteseans were required to wear yellow. I happened to have ridiculously catholic fabric in the only shade of yellow I can wear. (I managed to get the sallow skin from my mother's italian heritage -- yellow usually makes me look like I'm having severe liver/kidney problems.) There are records of several notable courteseans in the 1500s leaving large sums to the church, and/or ending their lives in nunneries, so I figured the religious overtones, while ironic, were appropriate.

  Fabric - click for close-up  

The Design

Below: The original pictures I had of the dress didn't really show the design off well. Basically, it's a front closing bodice, which laces not-quite-shut over a chemise. (I realize it should be a camacia, but I wasn't really feeling up to that much fabric at the time.) The bodice has a floating lining with a couple pieces of boning in it. I looked lumpy without something in there to straighten things out. The skirt is attached to the bodice, and the pleats are padded out with felted wool. The skirts are worn over the corded petticoat that I usually use under merchant class english dresses. It keeps the skirts out a little, but doesn't look like a farthingale. The sleeves are a complicated arrangement of spiralling panes that I really meant to do over. ;)

Melissa in her Venetian Courtesan gown, front Melissa in her Venetian Courtesan gown, side-on Melissa in her Venetian Courtesan gown, back


Construction Bits 'n' Pics - Excerpts from Dress Diary



"I patterned the bodice for the actual gown, which wasn't very exciting at all (put fabric on janey, cut where seams go), then set to cutting and sewing the actual bodice. I even tried to line the fabric up so that I would get the sam motifs on each side of the bodice. I failed, sorta, but I tried. It's lined in plain muslin. I sewed the lining to the muslin, and the costume gods started to smile. My sewing machine, which has refused to believe that I am allowed to reset the stitch width for straight stitches for almost a year, suddenly decided that it was willing to do bigger stitches (it's been working around the 1 setting, and just jumped to 4, and actually paid attention when it got bumped down to 3). Needless to say, this made things go much faster. And the bodice went together beautifully, with no pulling and stretching, and I was practically humming, and the gods were still smiling, possibly even grinning, and I as I was clipping my little seam allowances, the gods finally lost it and collapsed in collective hysteria. That's about when I realized that I had *sewn*the*wrong*side*out*. Yes, yes, I put the side with the white satin ground and the oddly yellow figures and lambies outside, when I meant to have a yellow ground with white satin lambies. And the wailing and moaning and general lamentation progressed, as did the ripping of the seams and the resewing, which took about 6 times as long as it took me to make the mistake in the first place."

The pattern for the bodice, pinned in place The bodice sewn up Sewn bodice close-up Side view of bodice


"So, once the bodice was back together, I started on the skirts. There's 4 panels of 58" wide fabric for the skirt, which is a great muckin' lot of fabric. And the pattern match neatly at each seam. I want extra credit for that! (Note: No matter what you are doing, watch that little space in the center of the presser foot. Do *not* watch the needle. If you watch the needle while you sew, your eyes will cross every time. I must remember this....) There's a dip cut into the front of the skirt panels, since the skirt is going to be cartridge pleated all around and I want to pattern to stay roughly level. I'm not lining this, since a) the reverse side of the fabric is pretty too, b) I couldn't find a darn thing I liked for lining at the store, and c) it's supposed to be godawfully hot this summer. I put about a 4" strip of felted wool all along the top of the skirt to allow me to finished the cut edge neatly, and to help the pleats hold their form..."

"This is where the diary begins to be a retrospective, rather than a true "blow by blow" accounting. The skirts were cartridge pleated, although they put up quite a fight about it. Fortunately, I picked a fabric that didn't bloodstain easily. The felt at the top of the skirts did a wonder to hold the pleats out nicely. In fact, it did a little more than I had expected, but after a few days of setting, they settled down to a more acceptable level of poof. The bottom of the hem was finished with bias tape, and trimmed with a pale green and antique gold braid. Why? Because I had the braid lying around and it saved me all the trouble of thinking up a way to *neatly* hem the skirt without lining it. (Really, why do you think they used to put braid and tufted fringe on the bottom of skirts? Just to watch it fray?) And that was about it for the gown.... At least, that's what I thought at the time. ;)"

Felted wool, for backing the skirt pleats Pleats, close-up
Pleats, close-up Pleats, close-up


The Sleeves

Original sketchThe sleeves changed a little between the sketch and the finished product. That's what happens when I start running low on time. The original plan had included a set of spiral paned sleeves, and a small sleeve head dealy. The sleeve head dealy was eliminated, and the spiral paned sleeves became a bit less fitted than I had originally sketched.

The sleeve pattern was made by drafting up a simple sleeve pattern, then marking diagonals that would match up to form panes. That was the theory, at least. You can take a look at the sheer number of lines drawn on the pattern piece -- clearly, things went awry. Ms Geometry-is-your-friend over here failed to realize that she was dealing with a tapered sleeve, and that all of her nice neat straight diagonals had to be really funky curves. Rather than figure out how to do it the exact right way, so sort of fiddled with adding gradual curves to my lines where they were supposed to meet up (at the edges of the sleeve) until it all worked out alright.

So I got curved pieces. The panes were then cut out of the dyed velveteen, and backed with plain off white cotton duck. Now, each piece is about a yard and a half long, and I didn't really feel like turning them, so they are edge finished with off white bias tape. This is hidden under blue and antique gold braid. The panes are caught together every 3" or so with hand stitching. All of the hand assembly was done in the FoF garden, and, in one of the more embarrassing moments of my life, I had to publicly admit to being absolutely stumped by my own pattern. I looked at the pieces, all nice, neat and pretty, and I had no idea how to get them back into a sleeve. That's it. No bloody clue. It took me about an hour or so of fiddling with it before the light bulb went on. In the mean time, just about everyone I knew who sewed (and several people I didn't know) asked me what I was doing, and how precisely it was going to work out. One particularly kind woman even assured me that sewing got easier the more you did it, and suggested that I bring the pattern next time. (I was entirely too embarrassed to tell her that I had drafted the pattern, and simply hadn't had the good sense to mark anything on the pieces.) But they did finally go together; and a good thing, too - my mom and gramma were going to be up at faire the next day, and mom had requested that I wear this dress.

I still have a whole mess of topaz colored gems that are supposed to go on the sleeves over the catch stitches, but I haven't quite gotten around to that yet

The pattern for the sleeves The drafted pattern pieces.
Fig 1: The pattern for the sleeves -- you can see the marks that will be used to make the final pattern pieces. Fig 2: The drafted pattern pieces. That's just not quite what I was expecting....

Click for close-up!

With a closer view, you can see that the panes of the sleeves are just caught together every 2-3" with about 12 stitches. You can also see here that the wool in the pleats gives them enough body to stay in perfectly neat rolls down into the skirt.

  The New Photos

Below: It's difficult to look serene and period while holding a camera, you know? I took a few pictures of the dress this evening, 20 months later. It's been in a bin in the closet, which rather shows. I do technically own an iron, but apparently just *owning* one doesn't make wrinkles avoid your entire apartment. The bodice doesn't exactly fit as designed anymore, but the basic idea is sound.

Below: That's more or less the skirt. It's long enough to break on the ground, as seen in a lot of woodcuts. In the second and third pictures, you can see the effects of padding the pleats out with wool. There's no foundation garment hiding under there -- that poof is just the padded pleats.


Bella Says.....

I loved this dress from the first moment I saw it. The colours are what do it for me I think - the plush lusciousness of the yellowy-pink (or is it pinky-yellow?) and purple trimmed spiral paned velveteen sleeves contrasted with the pale yellow/silver smoothness of the brocade gown add depth and texture, and a touch of individuality and sexiness, to the otherwise (despite the flash of camicia!) conservatively rich noble gown. The gown has a good Venetian silhouette for the period intended - and aren't those padded pleats simply perfect? I think so! Whether or not there is evidence from extant garments for this (more research, yay!), I think I'll have to try it!

If you would like to contact Melissa you may do so by clicking here. And don't forget to check out the much longer Venetian Courtesan dress diary (and other assorted goodies!) on her website.

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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.)