The Realm of Venus
A Venetian Gown in the style of the 1570s
Greetings to all. I am Kimberley Arnold Mitchell. I live in Jacksonville, Florida, and have been in the Society for Creative Anachronism for nine years. During those nine years I have studied a wide range of areas of interest. I have also been raising five children (one is in college, two in the army, one in high school and one in kindergarten), and that keeps me very busy and does not give me as much time to actively participate in SCA events as I would like. I am also a legal assistant, working for a very busy attorney, and this too has a way of keeping me away from my hobbies. In spite of all of this, I still find time to study and learn, and get out to teach and share when I can.
I have been interested in the clothes of yesteryear pretty much all of my life. I can remember as a child that I used to sit and pore over the books in the library with costumes from different countries, and I would pine for the beautiful long skirts and nifty hairstyles instead of researching the science project that I was no doubt supposed to be working on. I grew fascinated with not only the outerwear, but also the under garments as well. There was a very old woman in our
neighborhood who befriended me, and she would sit and tell me about life growing up in a well to do northern family at the turn of the century. I told her once that I really wanted to try a corset on, to see how it felt, and she just laughed. She said that most likely I would not like it very much and that she was very glad that they had gone out of fashion and that nobody had to wear them anymore. Even as a young teenager, I played dress-up, pulling together bits and pieces of clothing to pretend that I was in a by-gone time.
I guess that it was only natural that I would find my way into the Society for Creative Anachronism. I am known in the society as Lady Jane Devereux, although I am in the process of changing my name so that it can be properly registered. I am apprenticed to Duchess Elspeth Trelawney McNaughton, O.L., O.P., and we both reside in the Kingdom of Trimaris. Under her tutelage, I have branched out from just studying clothes, to actually studying how people lived who would be wearing the clothes that I love to make. At this time, I have been studying and teaching about various stillroom products and techniques for five years, have learned how to prepare salves, creams, lotions, and other simple preparations used in the belief that they were actually good for you and would make you feel better if something ailed you. I have studied various food preparation techniques that would have been used during the 15th and 16th centuries, and have enjoyed sharing the results with my friends, family and members of my kingdom. I have taught myself how to make soap and how to make preserves. I have learned how to dye with period dyestuffs and how to weave, sort of, and I know enough to be very, very happy that I do not have to do all of this for my family.
My goal in creating this gown was to create a gown that was beautiful, fun and elegant, and to spend as little money as possible doing it. I have decided to shift my persona from housewife to Courtesan, and thus, I am rebuilding some of my old gowns to reflect this change, and am making new ones as well. The pink, or
gown, as it is more properly termed, was originally an Elizabethan gown that I made eight years ago from the draperies in my dining room.
This is a photo of me in the gown as it was first intended to be worn, although the gold ruff was not finished at the time.
The stomacher was an ivory brocade that I embroidered in gold metallic thread and beaded with plastic pearls.
At the second (and last) event that I wore the gown to, someone spilled a soft drink on the front of the stomacher. A trip to the drycleaner still left a nasty stain on the front, so they decided to use a heavy duty cleaner that was steam activated. The steam caused the brocade to shrink terribly, and worse, melted most of the pearls. They somehow also managed to mangle most of the aiglets, so the stomacher was effectively ruined, as far as I was concerned. I carefully packed the gown away, as well as the never worn and not completed gold ruff, and vowed to re-visit it one day.
The SCA kingdom of Trimaris was having a twentieth year celebration, and I really wanted a new gown. I could not afford new fabric, and was not sure how I was going to make a new gown that was what I wanted, with the limited budget that I had.
I went up to my fabric stash, and started going through what was there, and came across the last curtain panel that was left from when I had originally made the pink Elizabethan gown. There was surely enough to make new sleeves, I figured, so maybe, just maybe, I could convert the gown to a Venetian style gown.
I realize that the use of moiré, or watered silk, is considered controversial, but I can point to this portrait here
(right) and say that in my opinion it is possible that it could have been used in Venice. I cannot say why it was not more visible in period portraits, and I will not speculate. I needed to use this fabric, and so I did. I would really like to be able to make a gown of a lovely period silk brocade or taffeta, and maybe someday I will. At least I will have had fun practicing on what I had available.
I spent hours combing the internet, trying to find photos of portraits that would provide me with enough of a feel for the era so that I could effectively design a gown of my own. I knew what I wanted, and I knew what my limitations were. This portrait by Paolo
Caliari, Madonna of the House of Coccina (1571)
was basically the overall silhouette that I wanted to achieve.
Keep in mind that I said “overall”, because I was determined to keep the sleeves, or at least part of them, from the original pink gown. They were very large, and would need to be cut down, but I loved the silly little puffs and pearls. I had put a lot of work into them originally, and I felt that they would translate nicely for this use.
I realize that there are no examples (at least not that I have seen) of Venetian gowns with this exact same sleeve treatment, but I justified it in my mind by virtue of the fact that my character is an Englishwoman who has moved to Venice and is now supporting herself as a courtesan. She would have used whatever means at her disposal to suitably garb herself, and it is well known that gowns were cut and altered for many years to get their full use out of them. I took the original sleeves completely apart, made a new
under-sleeve from the extra pink fabric, cut several rows worth of puffs from the top sleeve,
re-stuffed them and then sewed each sleeve part separately. I made the
under-sleeve as a complete unit, and then did the same with the top sleeves, stitching the
under-sleeve into the opening at the top of the upper sleeve. They are laced into the bodice with cute little velvet ribbons that are tipped with nifty aiglets that I found at a merchant’s booth at Trimaris XX Year Celebration, the morning of the day that I planned to wear the gown.
The pink gown had a split front skirt, and I found this painting
(See left) and so felt alright about leaving it split. Since I was starting over with a new bodice, I decided to go ahead and remove the cartridge pleated skirt from the old waistband and stitch it onto the bottom of the new bodice.
As it was originally intended to be worn separately from the bodice in the first gown, I had to take into account the dipped front point of the bodice with the length of the skirt. Rather than cut the top of the skirt, I just eyeballed it and folded down the length that I felt would fit into the area on the front of the bodice, and it worked great. I used heavy duty upholstery thread to stitch it onto the bodice.
I guess that I am hedging that at some point I may want that complete panel to use for something else, and hoping that the pleating and stitching will not leave too many scars. It does not have a train, which would have been elegant, but when I go to events I am dragging my gown through sand and dirt, and inevitably picking up sandspurs and fire ants. I do have two gowns with nice trained skirts, so I speak from experience when I bemoan this. I will probably make my next Venetian with a trained skirt, just because I love the feel of them and the look, but the skirt on this pink one is definitely the more practical of the two where I live.
After I had decided that I definitely wanted a V-front lacing bodice, I had this crazy idea that I was going to be able to adapt the bodice that I already had and somehow make it work. It did not. I took the bodice apart, and tried, but realized that there were some issues that were not going to make this workable. If I had just cut a V into the already made bodice, that would have placed the front opening right on the bias, and in my opinion that would have weakened the front and caused it to be unstable. As there was no way around this, I gave up and started over completely fresh for the bodice. For my lacing technique, I finally decided to go with Jen Thompson’s ribbon technique for ladder lacing which is shown on
My Laurel told me once that she had seen a bodice on e-bay, a garment from about the 1700’s, and that it had two rows of lacing rings sewn into it, providing the same stabilizing effect that Jen’s technique does. At any rate, I was pleased with how it keeps the front nice and smooth, though I may try just using the rings next time if I have the time to hand sew them in. I always seem to be running very short on time when I do these projects.
The underskirt is the same that I originally wore with the gown, and is made of an ivory brocade that is cartridge pleated onto a sturdy waistband that ties in the back.
I have a very serviceable but not so pretty corset that I am about to retire, but have not had time to replace, so as it still works, more or less, I still use it. It has straps and I have been known to pin a gown’s straps to it if the gown is prone to slipping off the shoulders.
When wearing this corset, which is the same that I have worn with my Elizabethan upper class gowns, I remove the 1/4" thick 3" wide red oak busk from the front busk pocket. Otherwise, it flattens my front too much and I do not have that nice sinuous curve that was apparently so prized in Venetian women.
My camicia was made of a delightfully soft silk using the pattern on
page. I would have preferred to use a handkerchief linen, but the silk was available and worked nicely. Again, my goal was to create the outfit with as little financial outlay as possible, and I had the silk already on a roll in my closet. I used a vintage bobbin lace trim from my collection around the cuffs and the neckline. If you look very closely at the front above the lacing you can see a bit of it. I wore a chemisette under the corset, and then the chemise over. I considered the placket idea, and may utilize it with the next outfit.
There has been much discussion over the use of gold lace on ruffs, or even using gold to make a ruff. One bit of documentation that I found for the use of gold on ruffs was in Stubbes Anatomie of Abuses: (specifically referring to
“…they have them wrought all over with silke
woorke, and peradventure laced with golde and silver, or other costly lace of no small price.”
(http://costume.dm.net/stubbes.html#ruffs ) In one reference to sumptuary laws,
(http://virtual.park.uga.edu/cdesmet/jason/court.htm ) it was stated:
"that prostitutes were to be seen in the streets and churches, and elsewhere, so much bejewelled and well-dressed, that very often noble ladies and women citizens [of Venice], because there is no difference in their attire from that of the above-said women, are confused with them; not only by foreigners, but by the inhabitants [of Venice], who are unable to tell the good from the bad...therefore it is proclaimed that no prostitute may wear, nor have on any part of her person, gold, silver or silk, nor wear necklaces, pearls or jewelled or plain rings, either in their ears or on their hands."
I had made the gold ruff originally with very close, sharp pleats, and it would have looked like similar to the ruff
in this picture
, but I wanted a look closer to this. I carefully pressed the pleats out and then re-shaped the ruff to achieve the look I wanted. I was not sure of what length to use on the ruff, and in this
portrait by Girolamo Forni,
the ruffs are each of varying lengths. I tried it different ways and went with the look that I felt was best for the gown.
The partlet is made of a very sheer silk that was purchased already beaded. In
'Queen Elizabeth’s Wardrobe Unlock’d' , by Janet Arnold, there is a photo of a silk veil purportedly worn by Mary Queen of Scots at her trial. It is a silk gauze woven with small squares, and is very similar to the silk that I used for my
partlet. You really see the partlet best from the back, as the ruff covers it in the front.
was expecting for it to be heinously hot at this event, and it was. I
know enough about dressing in these kinds of gowns in Florida’s weather that there was no way I was going without a fan. The lovely
fan page done by Tammy L. Dupuis served as my inspiration. I put my registered heraldic device on one side, and the arms of the shire of Castlmere (local group that I belong to) on the other. The little fan was a great hit, and I had many people come and look at it to try to figure out how to make one for themselves. I am sure I will start seeing them more frequently at events here.
For my hair, I purchased several packages of long synthetic hair and then braided them into one long braid. Then I wound strings of pearls purchased from the fabric store around the long braid. I made a smaller braid from thinner sections of hair and sewed it together in the back to create a faux bun. I have long hair, but it is thin, so I neatly roll my hair into a flat coil, then put on the large braid, tucking the ends up under the final layer, which is the smaller braided bun.
My girdle of green glass beads was made by my mother. I found the beads on e-bay and sent them to my mom so that she could put the belt together for me. Each loop is wrapped to prevent it from coming undone if it is caught, a feature that I am very thankful for. I chose green because I plan to wear this girdle to signify my green belt, a symbol in the SCA of an apprentice. I also made a green satin favor and embroidered it with gold couched thread in the design that my Laurel uses on the belts that her apprentices wear. She is happy with my green girdle belt, and with the way I chose to wear her sigil and keep in style with the period that I portray.
Overall, I am very pleased with the outfit. I had many people come up to me when I wore it, asking to take pictures and complimenting me on my finished product. At least half a dozen specifically stated that they loved my Venetian Courtesan gown, with no prompting from me as to what I was supposed to be portraying, so I feel that I achieved my goal and am happy with the end results.
As always, I will continue to study and learn. I thank everyone who has put their research and examples up on the internet for the rest of us to study. Having this as a resource is a truly incredible blessing.
And last, I want to thank my husband, for without his assistance, I would not be able to get dressed. He is very patient with fittings, and fusses over me when we are at events as though it is his outfit that people are seeing. He walks up and “foofs” me, insuring that all puffs are where they are supposed to be and that my seams are straight. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for putting up with my Renaissance love affair.
Of ever the saying "better late than
never" applied, it applies to this month's Showcase! (Apologies to all - my
university assignment takes top priority). I always love it when a dress starts
off its life as drapes or something, but especially when one style morphs into
another - and so well too!
Jane has turned a beautiful but accidentally
damaged Elizabethan into a gorgeous Venetian gown worthy of a Veronese portrait.
I just love the colour, the fabric, the trim and the accessories - AND the
lovely location for the photo shoot! It almost looks like Venice.
If you would like to contact Jane you can do so at chindora (at)
aol (dot) com
Would you like
to be Showcased? E-mail