The Realm of Venus Presents...

he talian howcase



Alexandra van den Berg and
her model, "Bia"

(Location withheld)

Costumer and SCA Member

A Florentine Dress in the Style of  the 1540s

Alexandra Says...

 Hello. My name is Alexandra, and I love historical dress—studying it and reconstructing it. I don't know why I feel this way. It is a true infatuation—I can't eat, I can't sleep, it uses all my money and takes up time I could be spending with my family and friends. I hope it lasts. 

 As soon as I enrolled in college, I started looking up classes that could be related in any way to costume history. One class later I had basically exhausted my school's resources, so I started taking classes in the construction aspect of costume. I found myself majoring in Art History (for the visual side of costume research) and starting a minor in Costume Design. The minor never panned out, but in my last year and a half I decided to do a final thesis, focusing fully on my one true love. This love had taken on two distinct sides, however: the research/historical side and the construction, sewing and dress-up side. So for my thesis I decided to recreate a dress and write about its social significance. I chose the portrait of Bia de' Medici by Bronzino to recreate A) because I fell in love with the solemn little girl's portrait in my first costume history class ever and B) because it was a costume for a child and would be cheaper to recreate. Plus, I was able to ask a girl I know from church, a budding costume designer herself, to be my model. She was thrilled (though our innumerable fittings tempered her enthusiasm over time). 

I was fortunate enough to receive a student research grant for my materials, so I was able to buy white silk satin for the dress, linen for the lining and the camicia, and wool for interlinings and guards. I was starting this dress from scratch. I had really never created anything large-scale before; for a costume design class I made a poet shirt and a pair of pyjama pants, but that was the extent of my skills. Many brilliant people gave me advice while I travelled to Florence and England (Thank you Bess Chilver, Ninya Mikhaila, and Thessy Schoenholzer-Nichols!!!!), and I researched the period and style with an excuse to buy books. But by then I was down to my final semester, and I knew I had to start. 

I decided to be picky about historical accuracy in terms of materials and loom widths of fabrics, but I was not going to sew it all by hand. I did end up using one random anachronistic material, but you will read about that in a paragraph or two. 


Detail, Madonna in Trono e Santi, Jacopo Bassano

(Editor's note: the above image can also be seen in colour here, albeit as a smaller image)

Detail, Ritratto della Famiglia Colonna, Scipione Pulzone

My inspiration started, of course, with Bronzino's portrait of Bia. I also looked at a myriad of other 1540's Florentine portraits, like the Lucrezia Panciatichi, also by Bronzino. Images of children were helpful as well, though there aren't many. The two pictured here I found in Abbigliament e costumi nella pittura italiana, by Bestetti—from these in particular I decided on the removable lower sleeve and a trained skirt.

I also used the two extant dresses from this time and place, both attributed to Bia's stepmother, Eleanora di Toledo; one is the white burial dress in the Palazzo Pitti of Florence and the other a red velvet dress in Pisa. I was able to see the Pisa dress in person. I sat and sketched it for about two hours, I think; seeing the leaning tower was the afterthought of my visit. Janet Arnold's book, Patterns of Fashion, with the pattern for the burial dress was really helpful, as well as Thessy Schoenholzer-Nichols article about the Pisa dress. Moda a Firenza by Roberta Orsi Landini was indispensable, especially for the appendices reproducing Eleanora di Toledo's wardrobe records. I'll stop with just those three books, but my full bibliography is chunky. 

 I started in muslin. I made about four muslin bodices (side-back lacing) before I made one that fit well, and then I realized that it wasn't the right shape, so I went back and made another one. I wasted a lot of time (mine and my model's…), but I honestly had no idea how to fit something! Finally it worked, with the shoulder straps clinging to the edges of her shoulders and all. The final bodice was lined in linen and interlined with wool and buckram. In a completely anachronistic turn, I decided to try some plastic buckram that my costume design advisor praised—I hoped that it would give the same impression as 16th century buckram or a glued or starched fabric while being washable and happy to spring back to its original shape. It certainly gave me the stability I needed, but I can't say as I would ever use it again—cut edges were sharp and its curl from being on a roll was unforgiving. 

  The sleeve puffs (baragoni) were hard to figure out and even harder to make. Even with machine gathering it took me about three hours per satin sleeve puff! I sewed them onto the bodice and made separate lower sleeves to be laced in under the baragoni.
The skirt piecing was fairly straightforward—just full widths of fabric (meaning 21 ¾ inches—I cut the satin in half with a little left over to get this historic width) and a few gores. On the bottom edge of the skirt, I added some details found on both of Eleanora's extant dresses: a satin-covered wool guard, sewn into the inside of the hem of the skirt, slightly peaking out underneath and cut into tabs, as well as a tuck above the trim.   


I then cartridge pleated the skirt to the bodice and hid the openings with the system described in Arnold's pattern of Eleanora's burial dress:
Now you see it… now you don't!

I trimmed the dress with a simple satin ribbon, mimicking the layout of Bia's trim while not even trying to look period—since I didn't have the money to get really authentic-looking stuff, I made sure no one would be able to accuse me of trying to do it authentically and failing! 

I made a chemise of linen. I had a heck of a time deciding how to piece it. In the end I got very serious and technical and created my own pattern based on the width of the linen and cutting for minimum waste. It may have been a waste of time instead…but it turned out a lovely chemise. Sorry I don't have a picture of it, it only peaks out at the neckline and you can see the sleeves in one picture when the lower satin sleeves are off.

I pieced together jewelry with odds and ends, from fake pearls to clay and foam balls, just for effect. It was the dress itself that was my main concern. 



  I presented it at a student research conference, and it was just perfect! I introduced my topic at the podium, putting Bia's portrait on the projection screen, and then I introduced my model as she walked down the aisle in the dress… The registrar of the School of Fine Arts said she thought at first my model was Bia's ghost! Yeah. That is the smell of victory, my friend. 

Looking back and having learned an awful lot about making a dress from this project, I would definitely have done things a little differently. I would not have used plastic buckram, fittings would have been more efficient, I would have created the bodice in a much more organized and sane fashion... And I don't think I will ever do puff sleeves again—they don't store well. But live and learn, they say. So. Here is my first, but definitely not my last, dress!! 
Presenting Bia de' Medici!




You can contact Alexandra by viewing her Blog. 


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.)