The Realm of Venus Presents....

talian howcase


Kendra Van Cleave
(Angelica da Venzone)
Berkeley, California, USA

Costumer and Member of Rennaissance Faire Performance Group: Bella Donna Venetian Courtesans

A Venetian Gown in the Style of the 1560s


Kendra Says...

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!).

Regarding this 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.

After 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!






My 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.

The 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.



Underneath 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.

I 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.  

Because 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.



The 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.


The 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!

The 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.

Trimming 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.




Bella Says.....

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!

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© 2001 - 2009 Anabella Wake (Known in the SCA as Bella Lucia da Verona) I hold copyright on all information on these pages, and 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.