The Realm of Venus
Kendra Van Cleave
Berkeley, California, USA
Costumer and Member of
Rennaissance Faire Performance Group: Bella Donna Venetian Courtesans
A Venetian Gown in
the Style of the 1560s
I’ve been making
historical costumes for well over ten years, although only seriously for about
half of that time. I began with
Renaissance Faires and Victorian balls, then branched out into other eras as I
became involved with the Greater Bay Area Costumers Guild (GBACG) in the San
Francisco area. I am a true member
of the Costume ADD club, finding it very hard to focus on one particular area,
but I do tend to focus my costuming on about 1750-1919 (with forays into the
Renaissance and the 1920s-1950s – see? I can’t ever make up my mind!).
costume, I portray Angelica da Venzone, a Venetian courtesan, with Bella
Donna Venetian Courtesans. We
perform at various Renaissance Faires in the northern California area.
It all really began
with the fabric, really. In one of
my usual trolls through eBay, I found two yards of this beautiful mulberry (not
purple!) and gold silk brocade for only $32 – and the seller added the
tantalizing phrase, “More yardage is available.”
Being a confirmed lover of natural fibers, silk most especially, I knew
it had to be mine – and when the seller agreed to sell me 7 more yards for
$15/yard, I knew I was in costume heaven (although I didn’t yet know what I
would do with it!).
A few months later,
I joined Bella Donna Venetian Courtesans. This is a small group who portrays
these fascinating women at various Renaissance Faires in northern California. We sing, we dance, we read and duel with poetry, and we try
to add both the glamour and the intellectualism of these women to these Faires.
Of course, I had to have a Dress.
Our group aims at
the styles of the 1560s-70s but modifies them for theatricality.
Some of the changes we have made are made based on what is attractive to
us – for example, shortening the long V waistlines. Others are based on needing to come up with a practical
solution for recreating the look – for example, we all wear corsets because
they give the right silhouette and take the weight of the dress.
looking through numerous websites and books, I found myself
particularly inspired by two images:
Giovanni Antonio Fasolo’s Family Portrait for the
rich fabric and simplicity of cut (see right), and Fasolo’s The
Concert for the gold partlet and the ladder-laced bodice (see
below). My fabric was
approved, which was very lucky as purple isn’t allowed at the main
faire where I would be performing (it’s reserved for the queen) –
but of course, my fabric is mulberry as I kept insisting!
camicia (version 2) was made
of a white cotton batiste. I’d created version 1 out of a handkerchief-weight linen
that proved to be too bulky. Although
I was determined to gather the neckline to exactly match that of the
dress, thereby showing the white ruffle all the way around, I found that
the gathers quickly stretched out after repeated wear and I quickly had
to tuck a lot of the fullness down my back (notice that most portraits
don’t show the camicia edge at the back neckline – hmmm!).
I used the instructions at A
Festive Attyre for the pattern shapes.
corset was a tough one,
mostly because I hemmed and hawed over the great debate (did Venetians
wear corsets?). I find
arguments for and against convincing, and while I thought about just
heavily boning my bodice, I’m glad in the end that I did go with a
corset. It really does take
much of the weight of the dress off of your body, as well as the strain
of lacing on the fabric. And
on the one day at faire when I forgot my corset, I found myself
distinctly physically uncomfortable (especially around my neck and
shoulders), although my bodice was not heavily boned so that may have been the culprit.
I also debated whether or not to add straps to my corset – I
tried creating a high backed, on-the-shoulder strapped version, but
found that it was completely annoying to lace and the straps kept
showing under my bodice. The
final version was made without straps, of corset coutil covered with a
yellow/white shot silk taffeta and edged with a burgundy silk shantung
(seen in the wrong light, it’s the Ronald McDonald corset!).
The pattern was based on Margo Anderson’s Elizabethan corset,
although I found I had to take it in a good deal.
my skirts I wear a roped
petticoat, which is basically a corded petticoat made with larger
cords. It’s made from a
basic A-line shape, and gives a nice fullness to the skirt without the
look of a hoop or the need to wear multiple petticoats. The casings are
made from self-fabric bias strips, and the whole thing is made of cheap
and sturdy white cotton muslin.
knew I wanted to do a ladder-laced bodice,
both because it was so specifically Venetian but also because no one
else in my group had used the style; and also the V back, again so
typically Venetian. I
draped the pattern on my dress form (a Uniquely You, which after much
trial finally approximates my shape).
One practical pattern change that we’ve all used successfully
in Bella Donna is to cut the bodice back high – this helps to keep the
on-the-shoulder straps from falling down.
of the ladder lacing, the center back became a design focus, and I
worked hard to center a nice motif there.
Besides the obvious silk brocade outer layer, there’s a layer
of silk organza (SO great for giving shape without stiffness) and cotton
muslin (to create a bit of padding to hide the boning) as interlining,
with a mulberry-colored cotton broadcloth lining.
I boned the center back point and the center front edges with
spring steel boning, and used Jen Thompson’s two-lacing-row technique
(detailed at A Festive Attyre) for the ladder lacing (her technique
really does work to keep the lacing nicely horizontal, by taking the
lacing strain off of the front edge).
Because I wear a corset, I made a false camicia front out the
same batiste I’d used for my camicia (backed with a layer of corset
coutil; the whole thing basically looks like an 18th century stomacher);
I basted this to my bodice on one side, and just tucked the other layer
under after I’d laced up.
skirt was stressful, as my
yardage was shrinking and I knew I still had sleeves to do.
The down side to using a brocade like this is the need to match the
motifs. Because of the length
of the repeat, I ended up with only two 55” wide panels for the skirt
– luckily I eked out another 30” panel by cutting the sleeves
judiciously for a total of 135”. This
meant that my skirt wouldn’t be as full as it should, and that I
didn’t have enough fabric to do shaped gores.
Instead, I used straight panels which I cartridge pleated to the
waistband, concentrating the fullness at the sides and back – the flat
front is quite pretty, although it’s not the full front that you usually
see on Venetian dresses. Again
because of the motif, and because it made wearing easier, I kept the skirt
and bodice separate (to sew the two together, I would have ended up with a
center front skirt seam because of the center front bodice opening).
I ended up making a shaped (V-ing front and back) waistband to
which I cartridge pleated the skirt.
The waistband hooks to the bodice with hooks and bars. It works relatively well, with only a little gapping that’s
hidden by my girdle. Because
my fabric was relatively light, and because it would be worn outdoors, I
flat-lined the entire skirt with the same mulberry cotton broadcloth used
throughout. I edged the hem
with a burgundy velvet ribbon for protection.
sleeves turned out to the
weakness of my entire group. We
all fell in love with our director’s very Florentine-influenced
sleeves, and I believe there are about five of us with the same style.
We’re going to work on some variation there, but in the
meantime – it’s pretty! It’s
a split sleeve (based on a pattern in Jean Hunnisett’s Period Costume for Stage & Screen), with a back seam and a
center front opening, bag lined and then stitched closed along the front
every few inches. It’s
laced to the bodice with gold rings found at a jewelry supply store. All of us in Bella Donna spend our day fixing each others’
camicia so that it puffs out at the armhole and at each opening down the
front of the sleeve!
partlet was made from a 1/3
yard piece of a wide gold lace that I cut in half to create each side.
I lined it with a white silk organza to reinforce its shape, then
basted it into the bodice to keep it in place.
this dress was the really fun part. I used a combination of real pearls and garnet beads, which I
hand-stitched to the sleeve openings, the neckline, and the center front
opening, as well as a metallic gold lace.
All of my jewelry were thrift store finds.
I cannibalised a hideous gold and pearl dangly grape pin for pearl drops,
which I turned into earrings and hair accents. I turned two gold belts into a girdle and found a filigree
pearl necklace with a broken clasp. Being
someone who has a horror of gaudy jewelry, it’s amazing how you can re-purpose
some truly tacky junk into perfect costume accessories!
The key part of the makeup that I wear is the pale foundation (we all love L’Oreal Air
Wear in a paler-than-natural shade), although all of Bella Donna has found that
we need to amp up our makeup both to create a Renaissance look and to avoid
being overpowered by our bright dresses. All
of us wear semi-theatrical hairstyles
– the buns, braids, and jewels (all fake!) illustrate the elaborate hairstyles
worn in the period; while the long curls in back (again, fake!) contrast nicely
with the styles worn by the English court.
Wow. Just....wow. Just like in sixteenth
century Venice, the fabric says it all. Gorgeous from top to toe. Bravissima!
If you would like to see more of this gown,
please do check out Kendra's dress
diary for this project at her terrific website Démodé.
It is a fantastic costuming resource!
Would you like
to be Showcased? E-mail