The Realm of Venus Presents....

talian howcase


Baroness Briana Etain MacKorkhill

SCA Participant
A Florentine Gown in the style of 1545


Briana Says...

Italian Courtesan Clothing in 1545 Florence

By Baroness Briana Etain MacKorkhill

Ever since I joined the SCA in 1982, I've always had a fondness for Italian Renaissance clothing. I was first drawn to the sumptuous fabric and wonderful variation in design. I knew that this was a style that I could really embrace for a long time and would never tire of making or designing within the period. This period from the end of the 15th century through to the mid 16th century saw many changes in fashion.

My first Italian was, I guess appropriately, centered on the late 15th century. Notable was an underdress with a low square neckline and short waist bodice with an attached fully pleated skirt. Sleeves were often slashed or in pieces. Fabric choices were varied with the emphasis on utilizing the most luxurious materials possible. Brocades, velvets, silks, wools, linens were all used in profusion. Pearls, beads, and woven metallic trims adorned the underdress in abundance.

The overdress was yet another opportunity to display the wearer's wealth and station. Cut with a deep V in the neckline, and sometimes open on the sides or down the center front to display the underdress, this garment was semi-fitted at the bodice area and quickly flared out with additional gores on both sides to create large vertical folds at the sides. This layer was usually sleeveless to display the sleeves of the underdress.

My love for Italian clothing grew and I became intrigued with early 16th century clothing from both Florence and Venice. As my research uncovered the blossoming of the role of the courtesan, I was hooked. I found a passion that up until now I had only mildly experienced building Tudor clothing. Here was a subject that I have been delving into for the past 4 years and has consumed my every waking moment for at least the past 11 months. I continue to research and press for more and more intimate details. I am now diving into the various archives for first hand information. This whole project became my entry in Calontir's Kingdom Arts & Sciences Championship held in July, 2004. It requires 3 entries, 2 of an art or science and one of the other. I entered the lace partlet, an Italian cooking remove and this dress. All from the same time period and location. I tied them all together through an introduction written by my courtesan persona Plenaria in the style of Pietro Aretino’s Dialogues, a contemporary author of that time. (Introduction and documentation are available here in pdf form.)



The conception of my gown

In my initial research to start this project, I kept coming across descriptions such as this from Niccolo Martelli to a contemporary and friend Bernardo Buongirolami:

"With the rich and honored lady courtesans, one sees at once what they have to offer, and as it is their métier to give pleasure, they lay great store in doing so. Also because they have not only one lover and they know that any gaffe would cost them dear. The royal way in which they treat you, their graceful manners, their courtesy and the luxury with which they surround you, dressed as they are in crimson and gold, scented, and exquisitely shod – with their compliments – they make you feel another being, a great lord, and while you are with them you do not envy even the inhabitants of heaven".

I also found references in a 16th century dyers handbook referring to crimson as the most expensive dye, so I knew that my dress would have to be crimson and gold. And as a successful courtesan, also have an abundance of pearls. When I discovered the fabric for my dress at an extremely reasonable price, it was settled.

I have to admit that the whole dress came about because of my fascination with Eleonora di Toledo's dress and most especially her partlet. And this dress also set my project date to around 1545-1546. It certainly didn’t hurt that the fabric that I had found also incorporated in its design the wonderful netting echo of the partlet. It is purported to be a silk/cotton blend and was pretty easy to work with. As I studied a closeup of the partlet in one of my art books (Renaissance Portraits), I determined to try creating it in bobbin lace. I used a metallic small cording and developed my own plaited lace pattern. It worked fairly well. (See right, below)

My original plan had been to make some more bobbin lace for trim but ran out of time to get that done. However when I found the current trim offered from Master Andrixos of Calontir Trim, the project was saved. And as I was planning to embellish the lace with pearls, I just transferred that plan to the current trim. And there again was that wonderful echo of the partlet.


Copyright Janet Arnold's Patterns of Fashion

Copyright Janet Arnold's Patterns of Fashion

Once I started on the dress, there were challenges I had never faced before. When I had constructed my Tudor style gowns, all the lacings were center back with only one opening. The bodice was cut on the straight of grain at the front and the back was attached through the shoulders in one piece and therefore angled off so that the back was actually cut on the bias. It worked great, because the shoulders never fell off or sagged from the weight of the sleeves. They were stretched by the bias cut and never went any further.

When I examined several books discussing the cut of the bodice for this dress, I discovered to my delight that the shoulders seemed to angle off again. But the huge difference was the back was cut on the straight of grain and the side back lacing was on either side of center and angled. So the back part had to be a separate piece. Janet Arnold depicts Eleonora di Toledo’s funeral dress (1562) in her book Patterns of Fashion, and her drawing indicates that the back is a separate piece with the shoulders attached at the top of the back.

While this dress is inspired from a slightly earlier time period, 1545, the side-back lacing would have been approximately the same. I drafted my pattern accordingly. After several adjustments and slopers, I settled on the current pattern. It definitely has a canted lacing but not quite as angled as I would have liked due to my body shape. It just didn’t work at any steeper pitch.

The bodice is fully lined with a matching colored cotton and has a stiff interlining of denim to help provide extra support for the outer fabric. I have staggered the lacing holes to accommodate the spiral lacing method as was noted in Janet Arnold’s notes. The lacing rings are closed brass rings hand covered with four-ply thread. The cording was handmade using a lucet. (This was my first attempt of making cords with the lucet. They were fun to make but I used a #5 weight cotton embroidery thread and next time will use something with less fuzzyness to it.)

The placement of the trim is also inspired by portraits of the 1530s and 1540s and supported by Arnold’s notes. The strip of trim on the center front was omitted because I did not come across that in the other portraits and I wanted to emphasize the wonderful pattern in the fabric.

The sleeves are finestra or strip sleeves of four parts mimicking those of Eleonora di Toledo’s painting done by Agnolo Bronzino. Her extra long strips are folded back on themselves to form almost a soft roll effect. The pieces are joined by buttons with stones in them - I chose to use large pearls. Another chance to flaunt a disregard for the sumptuary laws of 1533. Many courtesans received their "payments" in jewels and pearls. They certainly would have used that bounty to decorate their lavish costumes. Conspicuous consumption was considered a sign of success and prosperity, and expected from a courtesan’s noble patrons.

Ribbons tie the sleeves to the bodice and they are ended with metal aiglets or points. By the use of ties, a bodice might have several sleeves that could be worn with it and also gave the wearer the option to remove the sleeves if desired. I have placed a single stitch in each bow knot so that they will not come undone, often a period practice.

The skirt is a separate piece from the bodice. It was constructed with large rolled box pleats attached to a wide waistband that fastens in center back. Knife, box and cartridge pleats were all used in this time period depending on the look you are trying to achieve. Unlike the layout of the 1560’s skirt that Janet Arnold depicts in her sketch, this skirt still retains consistent pleats all around the waistband. Although not completed for this project, I intend to make a pair of Venetians as an accessory to this bodice, hence I would need the bodice to be separate from the skirt.

The chemise has a gathered drawstring neckline and extra full sleeves with pleated cuffs. The material is a very fine, semi-transparent silk. The chemise also could have been made of linen or cotton. In one of Andrea Calmo’s "letters" written to a courtesan by the name of Madame Lucida, he describes his belongings, bragging to her that one of his dressing gowns is made of such fine cotton as to fit in a nutshell.

I cannot wear a full corset any more due to medical conditions, so have constructed one to only provide the support so necessary for the overall look of the garment in the bust area. It has really worked well, I will now be able to wear this and other "court" dresses more often.


The underdrawers are constructed from a cotton muslin that approximates a linen weave that would have been used. These would have been worn if the courtesan did not want to wear the venetians mentioned above. (See example, left) [Bella's note: For more information on these drawers see this page]


The slippers are a very short-cut black velvet and were purchased. Because of foot health problems, I don’t often make shoes. I also had plans to make chopines but didn’t want to rush their construction. I would not have worn them much at all because of the foot problems.

No gown is complete without appropriate jewelry. By this time, jewelry is now coordinated for a particular gown or color of gown. I have completed my ensemble with a suitable suite of jewelry. The pearl necklace with the pendant pearl accompanies the long rope of large pearls. I made my earrings from some drop-shaped pearls and I have included various rings to coordinate with the rest of the ensemble. My pearl and gold girdle belt with elaborate pearl tassel completes this ensemble. The tassel portion was purchased from the local hobby store. It was being sold as a Christmas ornament. I was able to obtain three different styles at a fraction of the cost it would have if I had purchased the individual beads separately. Veronica Franco was said to have had a rope of 51 pearls that were confiscated under one of the sumptuary laws. She did file suit against her cook when a prayer book and other small valuables turned up missing. The complete details are well documented in the Venetian court documents of the time.

I have also acquired a feather fan to complete the effect. Cosmetics were lavishly used as well as perfume. Many period sermons were delivered against the evils of such things saying that women should be content with what God had given them.

Head coverings by this time varied widely. Sometimes women wore elaborate turbans but most often wore the minimal - perhaps a hair net or transparent veil. Hair became the central focus and was elaborately crimped, curled and braided often incorporating strings of pearls and gems. Since I am a Baroness in the SCA, I wear my coronet.

This project was presented at the championship at the end of July but the passion for the research continues. I plan on entering the championship again next year and have already amassed twice as much information as I had for the first time. It is utterly addictive. However, I have to put it on the backburner for just a little bit while I work on the final details of our 20th annual Clothier's Seminar as I am the event steward. Last year, we had over 40 hours of classes presented in a single day and it looks like this year we will meet or exceed that amount. If you would like more information you can go to our website: Clothier's Seminar

Bella Says.....

D-R-O-O-O-O-L. I just love the combination of colours (my arms colours are red and gold!), all the pearls on the trim, and the pattern on the fabric. And the partlet - I was simply amazed at the trouble Baroness Briana took to create a bobbin lace pattern so like the one worn in the Eleonora de Toledo portrait, and how well it turned out! If you would like to contact Broness Briana, you can do so at the following address: briana (at) peoplepc (dot) com

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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.)