The Realm of Venus
(And her model, Heli)
(Barony of Aarnimetsä, Kingdom of Drachenwald)
SCA Member and LARP Costumer
A Venetian Gown
in the Style of the 1560s and
Kristiina Prauda, the
My adventures in costuming didn't begin until I was well into my twenties, and I still don't consider myself a proper costumer. My education is in linguistics, but the feeling actually dates from high school, where it was made very clear (in a nice way) that there are Dressmakers and Not-Dressmakers, and that despite diligent work, I belonged in the Not camp. I believed this until I wanted a
ball gown for a university ball and was on a budget. I bought a pattern and materials, and look and behold! I found sewing wasn't a magic gift bestowed only upon certain lucky ones at birth! It was simply about knowing what you wanted to make and following instructions to accomplish that!
A while later I found people who actually did what I had always wanted to do - dressed up funnily and pretended to be medieval or fantasy people - as I became acquainted with both the SCA and live-action
role-playing, and I never looked back! It seems like a long time to gather experience, but mostly those years have been spent putting together quick
fixes for live-action games. However, I have slowly become more and more fascinated by costume history while studying for games oriented towards historical re-enactment, and my fascination has exploded with all these great costuming sites, diaries and original portraits on the net! I love seeing examples before I dare my own interpretations.
A few years back, I returned from a long break to the SCA, and also started to make more costumes for
LARP-er friends. I can still come up with costumes that come together mainly with loads and loads of safety pins and get their
'bling' mostly from accessories and makeup, but I do love making actual outfits that can be reasonably documented. My main interests in the SCA frame are Iron-Age Finnish, the
bliaut age, and Italian Renaissance.
Even so, I'm too impatient to be a real costumer. I just can't be bothered to sew anything by hand that isn't showing, even though I really should, and I have immense admiration for the people who do! I actually don't mind
hand stitching or embroidery as such, except that they take so long! So every time I see the exquisitely finished work on sites like the Realm of Venus or Featured Attyre or the beautiful embroidery and gorgeous
tablet woven work done by people around me here, I feel my inferiority acutely. There are some wonderful costumers here in Aarnimetsä (Finland), and I really hope you get to see their work
This dress came about because my friend Heli wanted something knock-out pretty for a courtesan character in a fantasy game where the dress code was
"vaguely-renaissance-ish, preferably decadent and luscious". I had been in lust over the fashions of Renaissance Italy for quite some time, and had already made a couple of Italian outfits for other friends. Heli had seen the film
' Dangerous Beauty' and had her heart set on the style of sleeves found there. Having learned that the costumes in the film were not period-correct, I was able to persuade her to go for the deep, ladder-lacing V shape of the 1560s seen in Titian's and Veronese's portraits and frescoes, and for the option of making another pair of sleeves and a camicia later. A full camicia was out of the question for the movie look, so we decided on a false
front piece only. As Heli is a small woman, and as I already had had some successful experiences of making the bodice self-supporting, it was decided we'd go that route.
We needed to find fabric that would not bankrupt Heli's student budget, so I thought the best compromise might be some nice upholstery brocade in a suitable pattern. Though so many people make these gowns in bold red-and-gold brocades, I was surprised to learn that the portraits don't seem to show that many patterned fabrics after all. I did find some -
woodcuts, Titian's Girl With A Basket Of
Fruits, Fasolo's Family Portrait and the lute player in
The Concert - and these became my main inspiration. Heli was not excited about red and gold in any case, but she thought she might like purple or burgundy. I had scraps of velvets in many colours and several options for trims in my stash, as well as a few choices of satin for the open hanging sleeves. In a month or two, I happened upon a length of quite nice
raspberry-and-cream fabric in the kilo sales bin at the fabric store and immediately liked the design. Though not period-perfect, I thought it was close enough to pass. It seemed to be a cotton-polyester mix, but we'd have to deal. A nice bonus was that the pattern was woven sideways, so the skirt wouldn't need more than one seam, and I could just squeeze out the bodice from the leftover width.
At first I grossly overestimated the amount of dye needed, and the red threads turned so dark a navy it was almost black, the overall impression nothing as much as gray! So I put it in the washing-machine for another round with colour remover - not enough - and another - and then one more dye job with more raspberry! Finally, the pattern came out a rich burgundy, which was deemed acceptable and in which I had both velvet and satin. The polyester threads took on just a hint of colour, no more, but this was as expected.
I cut the bodice mock-up in a strong linen mix and used that for interlining. The lining is pure linen in an old rose colour.
The bodice has two bones at the back, two in the side seams, three on both sides of the front opening (the furthest one diagonal). The bone channels are simply sewn between interlining and lining. The ladder lacing strips were a stroke of luck: bits of curtain tape. I'm not quite happy with the lacing though. There are two strips on both sides, according
to Jen Thompson's excellent
instructions, but it doesn't seem to want to lie straight even so. The shoulder straps had to be pieced, but
Alyxx's Showcase writeup said this is
period, so I didn't worry about it. I deliberately cut the back of the bodice higher and the straps less sloping than I've seen other people do, because for such a slender woman, I wanted to maximise the "push-up-and-out" effect for the bust.
As the first pair of sleeves were going to be mostly burgundy velvet and satin, I wanted to use the velvet in the dress itself somewhere, to tie it all together and also to bring out the colour in the pattern. So I ended up edging the armholes and the front opening with it, even though I know this has no basis in any image of the time (some have decorative strips all around the edges of the bodice, but not like this, though
The Lady In White has some sort of edging to the front opening). The velvet is edged with narrow gold-and-burgundy trim. The neckline seemed to need something as well, so I used similar trim but in old gold only. Most of the decorative trim is machine-stitched, since the stitch practically disappears in the trim anyway (the front is
hand stitched though).
The skirt is four meters wide - I thought it was plenty for a woman with a waist measurement of 61cm! As noted, since the pattern was woven sideways, I could cut it with no side seams at all, which made it very easy to decide between straight and gored. Also, the fabric is not too thick, though it is nicely stiff. Because of the stiffness, there is no lining, and because of that, I could cheat and not do cartridge pleating (which I hadn't learned by the time). The skirt has a narrow-ish guard of velvet, though I learned later it has no pictorial basis - but it suits the guards in the bodice and helps to emphasize the burgundy in the pattern.
Here's a picture of the first incarnation of the dress: a fantasy courtesan.
The Dangerous Beauty sleeves are imitations of this style seen in the
My actual reference was a picture of Moira Kelley in a similar style, but with the sleeves set lower, with longer bands holding them. The actual sleeves are are simple bands of cotton velvet lined with cotton satin, with hanging pieces of polyester satin. The shape of the hanging part is a result of trial and error - it's just a U-shaped piece that is loosely pleated to the armband (the pleated edge very slightly curved). The trims have a base of silver ribbon, and old-gold trim on top of that. I used gold buttons and more of the trim to attach the sleeves to the shoulders, Here's a side shot of the sleeve:
And a back shot, also showing the pattern to advantage:
The Dangerous Beauty camicia is a false front piece made of a some mid-weight linen that I had in my stash. It's pleated on with a string (actually, elastic - ssshh!) that's pinned to the inside of the bodice on both sides. Before pleating, I sewed on some narrow machine-made lace that I thought made a nice touch, and shaped it a bit. Heli borrowed the jet necklace and a couple of tulle petticoats from me and had roses in her hair - suitably seductive, don't you think?
One more picture, this one showing the richness of the colour best:
Here, then, is the new incarnation:
The full-length sleeves could not be cut in one length without the pattern ending up sideways, so my original, simple design had to be modified into something fancier. I cut the strips for the shoulder and upper arm separately, sewed them into tubes with the lining (a lovely, high-quality lining satin in dark wine) and turned them, then pinned them together at the ends and middle and trimmed off any extra. They are held together by three strips of velvet with a gold cord trim in the middle (machine-sewn as well, unfortunately). The lower sleeves are cut in two curved, shaped pieces, the outer seam is left partially open, and the whole is edged with gold cord and attached at the wrist with three gold buttons.
Since the false frontpiece seemed to work so well, and since I wanted some more use out of a very, very old silk chemise of mine, I made another false frontpiece out of some more scrap linen and a bit of black trim (to reference blackwork - can't really say it imitates it). I had some quite lovely lace that I had already used for the sleeves of the trusty old chemise, and I used the rest for the frontpiece after seeing the last two pictures on Bella's page of camicia portraits
Venetian Woman by Marietta Robusti). Here's what it looks like on its own:
Here's a picture of Heli wearing the old chemise without oversleeves. It's silk dupioni, but softened by age (also discoloured, stained and ripped at the neckline, where it's not properly pleated anyway).
And so the new combination, with the old silk camicia with lace at the wrists, and the new frontpiece with lace at the top, continuing up the neckline (it's simply pushed in).
There are four petticoats under the dress: one in cotton with a ruffle at the hem, two in netting, and one in organza with lots of fullness at the waist. For accessories, Heli is wearing clip-on pearl-drop earrings and my garnet pendant on a string of pearls. There's no belt - Heli didn't care for one, and I agreed it would only distract from the effect of the pattern and the velvet guards. The prop mask I made for a dance production in a
role-playing convention a few years ago.
I did actually make a partlet for use with this gown, but since the lace was so pretty, we thought the partlet would have been too much. Here's a shot of it anyway. It's made of ivory silk gauze that was already embroidered, and the front edges are hemmed with gold thread. Perhaps I'll get to show it with my own gown someday.
Some final shots from different angles:
So pretty! And versatile too! One minute Heli
is a 'Dangerous Beauty' courtesan, the next a Venetian Gentildona. Excellent
idea, no? Bravissima Kristiina - you have bedecked Heli gorgeously!
If you would like to contact Kristiina you can
do so at svaha (at) iki (dot) fi
Would you like
to be Showcased? E-mail