The Realm of Venus Presents....

talian howcase


Jennifer Lima

Actor and Costumer, New York 

A Florentine Gown in the style of 1540s


Jennifer Says...


Hello! My name is Jennifer Lima, and I am an actor currently living in New York City. I got hooked on researching and building historical clothing about a year and a half ago. Up until now, all the costumes I have made I designed myself, based on visual clues from portraits and what I know of period techniques of the time. However, I thought it was time to challenge myself and recreate a dress from a painting. This meant I couldn’t deviate from the plan; I had to find a way to make everything I saw in the portrait.

“Portrait of a Young Girl with a Prayer Book.” Agnolo Bronzino

I chose to recreate the dress worn in Bronzino’s “Portrait of a Young Girl with a Prayer Book.” Aside from its beautiful detail, what I love about this gown is how it is so different from other gowns of the 1540’s. It has the same general silhouette, with the smooth bodice that ends at the natural waistline, sloping shoulders, and a gigantic pouf of sorts at the top of the sleeve, but it’s not quite the look of other Florentines. Also, I have not found any evidence of another recreation of this dress, so it would be up to me to figure out everything. No cheating allowed!

(By the way, the gown is indeed grey like the portrait, it just looks blue in the outdoor light.)


Me in my Bronzino gown

The Gown


Fabric Swatch

Most people start off by drafting their pattern. I start off by shopping! My first hurdle was finding the right fabric. I was determined to use silk satin, but it needed to be heavy enough to hold its shape (a charmeuse was out of the question), and, as I had neither the resources nor the courage to dye my own silk, it had to be the right color as well. After weeks of searching online, I grew frustrated and was nearly ready to settle for a not-so-perfect not-100%-silk at a whopping $70 per yard—and that’s when I found the perfect 100% silk satin in my favorite hole-in-the-wall in the Fashion District. It’s the right color, it’s upwards of 40 momme, and—get this—it cost $20 a yard. I ♥ New York! 

With the fabric shopping done, I was ready to start working on the bodice. I couldn’t get myself to start that until I had the right fabric on hand, mostly because I hate pattern drafting and I was procrastinating starting it. After a few fittings, I got the shoulder slope I wanted, as well as the lines for side-back lacing. The bodice stiffening gave me a little more trouble, though. I am still convinced that the dress was originally made with a buckram stiffening. I tried a buckram lining, and I achieved the exact effect I wanted from the front view. However, from a side view, I had a large gap between my chest and the top of the bodice, as my breasts pushed the buckram out. The effect was clownishly conical. 

I worked on the stiffening for days, setting it aside and hoping that the next day it would magically work out...but the buckram is more stubborn than me, and I was the one who had to change my plan. The obvious solution was to use Jennifer Thompson’s fantastic corded bodice technique—and it worked like magic. As her web site on the subject attests, cord stiffening indeed smoothes the bodice over the curve of the breasts, while providing a stiff enough support to keep the outer fabric sitting “right.” Although I’m still not convinced that this was the method used to create the original dress, Jennifer’s technique is now a widely accepted stiffening method, and I’m glad I had the opportunity to try it.


The most difficult obstacle was figuring out how to recreate the main trim motifon the bodice and sleeves, the trim that looks like a “bubbly” stripe of satin, followed by a black stripe, followed by another stripe of “bubbly” satin. I worked on the trim for weeks, trying different experiments, and the uneasy conclusion I came to was this: a ¾” wide ribbon made of the same satin as the dress, pressed flat, with a black velvet ribbon stitched down the center and black embroidery floss looped around the edges in ¼” increments. I thought that with careful stitching, the floss could pull on the satin to make it bubble out and give it some relief. The effect just wasn’t good enough, though. It looked, well, cheesy – and I was bothered by not being able to document my method of creating the trim. 

I finally broke down and asked for help on this one, and I am so glad I did! I was directed to the book Historical Fashion in Detail: 17th and 18th Centuries by Hart, North and Davis. The book showcased a jacket sleeve from c.1600-1625 that was decorated with satin-covered cord couched on to the fabric. That was it! The jacket was made decades after the Bronzino dress, but nevertheless I had found a documented technique to achieve the look I was going for. I was also greatly relieved to find a book on Bronzino’s work with a full-color palette of this portrait. Up until that point, I had been working off of online images of the painting, but the book’s illustration gave me a lot more of the minor details I couldn’t see online. I was afraid, based on the computer views of the painting, that the trim in question was a little bit flatter than what the cord would allow it to be, but when I studied the book, I could see how the trim could indeed have been a thick piece of cord.

So I had my trim technique! I couched the satin-covered cord onto the dress with black embroidery floss. I also took ⅜” black velvet ribbon, doused the back with fabric glue, and snipped it to get the diagonal slashes. The slashes don’t show as well as I had hoped for in the photographs, but they’re there when you look up close.

Main Trim Motif


The Bodice


To complete the bodice, I finished off the neckline  with a tube of the silk satin snipped on the diagonal, and lined with a slate-grey silk dupioni. I bound the side-back lacing holes in matching embroidery floss.

I decided to be kind to myself and make the skirt utterly, utterly simple. I used the Pfalzgrafin Dorothea Sabina von Neuberg skirt pattern in Janet Arnold’s Patterns of Fashion. (Conveniently ignoring the fact that the von Neuberg gown was several years in the future and several hundred miles away from Florence--but that’s ok! The shape of the pattern pieces really didn’t change much over time and between regions, and the fullness of that skirt pattern is why I chose it.) I decided not to include any guards at the hem so that a) the skirt would remain utterly, utterly simple, and b) I’m on the short side (5’2”) and the lack of guards give the skirt a longer line and make me look a little taller—or perhaps just not so short! The skirt is lined with the same slate-grey dupioni, and I box pleated it to the bodice. Since the satin is so heavy, the box pleats helped to give it just the right amount of elegant “poof” at the waistline without being too puffy.


The Sleeves


The sleeves  were a joy to work on and relatively simple to put together. They are basic back-seam sleeves. There is a lining of dupioni and a full sleeve of satin underneath all the embellishment. I originally intended to slash the fabric, but the satin didn’t hold up with such a clean edge as the painting, so instead I made panes and stitched them onto the satin sleeve, and used the main trim motif to cover the seams.

The sleeve ties presented a little puzzle for me. At first glance I assumed that the sleeves were tied to the bodice with little bows made of the same fabric material. However, upon careful inspection, I realized that these sleeves were probably NOT tied to the shoulder strap. If you look closely at the little bows next to the sleeve puffs, you can debate whether they look like three evenly sized loops or two loops and a tail. I personally know of no bow-tying technique that would give you either of those two results. Therefore, I concluded that the little bows were false ties, for show only, and I made little three-loop do-dads. As for how the sleeves attached to the shoulder strap, they could either have been sewn in or attached in some other non-permanent way, like hooks and eyes. For now, the sleeves are stitched in place; I may switch to hooks and eyes if I want to use the sleeves with another gown.


The Accessories

The accessories were an exercise in experimenting with new techniques. Most of the items I had never even thought of making, so figuring out a way of putting them together was fun and creative and had a lot of trial and error.


The partlet  was by far the most time-consuming part of the process. I used a drill to twist embroidery floss into a cord, which I stitched onto silk organza in the grid pattern. I then twisted a thinner cord, and used that to make the flowers on the corners of the grid, and a thinner cord still to make the flowers inside the squares. The V-shaped and cross-shaped details were embroidered directly onto the silk. I had never embroidered before, so the best way for me to think about it was to pretend I was drawing with needle and thread. Simple to explain, long to do! I worked on this mostly on the subway to and from work. Again, I ♥ NY! I much prefer spending my commute sewing or memorizing lines than sitting stressed in traffic!


The Partlet

Partlet Close-up


Caul Close-up


The Caul - I was lucky to find pewter flower links from Fire Mountain Gems that looked close enough to the headband in the portrait. I linked them together, and then stitched the chain onto a strip of velvet ribbon so they wouldn’t pull on my hair. 

It’s difficult to see in the online images, but in print you can more easily see that the girl in the painting is wearing a netted caul. I tried following netting instructions online, but eventually I realized the best thing would be to try to find my own way of sculpting with the cord. I attached the cords to the flower headband as a starting point, and marked even increments all the way down. Then I just started to knot. It may have turned out a bit more like a caveman made it than an actual piece of netting, but it is fine with me for now. I gathered the cord to make a little baggie and beneath it wore my hair pinned up in braids.

The Necklace  - I knew it would be next to impossible to find black beads with gold lines running vertically from hole to hole, so I knew I couldn’t cheat on this one. I had never made jewelry before, but now I am completely hooked! I bought 14mm tourmaline beads from Fire Mountain Gems, as well as 22 gauge gold wire sticks that have are 4” long and have a loop on one end. I inserted two wire sticks into a bead, one into each end, then looped them around the bead 1.5 times and back around itself, pinching with pliers. Then each wrapped bead was attached to another with the loopy ends. I made one long necklace, which I wrapped twice around my neck and served to keep the partlet in place.


The Necklace



Bacchiacca featuring sash


The Girdle

I made a double-strand belt with gold findings and my “pearl” girdle borrowed from an Elizabethan costume.  I didn't really dig the white belt, nor the round-bead necklace along with the round-bead belt, and personally would have preferred an all-gold belt, but I found no gold beads that appealed to me.  Ah well, just another detail to keep an eye out for.

I also made a sash (bottom of page) to wear with this gown, borrowing from a style of earlier decades.  However, this painting is sometimes credited as 1540-1545, and there is a Bacchiacca painting from 1540 that features a sash.  Besides, I have 5 yards of raspberry silk taffeta sitting around begging for a project, so I thought I'd borrow some!



The Chemise

White. Linen. Plain. Simple.

I’d love to pretty up my undies, but when faced with the option of working with linen that won’t be seen or scrumptious silk satin that will, do you blame me for going with the silk?

In Conclusion

What a fun project to work on!!!  I loved figuring out ways to create all the little details in the portrait. Usually when I build costumes, they tend to come to life on their own as I’m working on them, and I’ll often deviate from the original plan as better ideas come along. Sometimes I’ll improvise the whole project, not really knowing what exactly the costume will look like and making decisions on the spot. The strangest part about creating a dress that has already existed is to try to evoke the same life as the original. It was technically challenging to create exactly what I saw, and artistically challenging to give my dress the same flavor as what was in the painting.

I must acknowledge all the online costumers who have inspired me to learn more about this art, Rick for all his hemming help, and especially Bella for hosting me on her website and allowing me to display my work. Thank you all!

P.S. If you’re a costumer planning on visiting NYC, I’ll tell you where all the best fabric stores are! :D



Bella Says.....

D-R-O-O-O-O-O-O-L. That's what I did when I first laid eyes on Jennifer's wonderful creation. That and bounce up and down in my chair with excitement! This is a truly remarkable recreation of a portrait gown, demonstrating fantastic attention to detail and craftsmanship. It is a delight and an inspiration. Bravissima Jennifer!

If you would like to contact Jennifer you can do so at jubilima (at) yahoo (dot) com

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.)