The Realm of Venus Presents...

he talian howcase



Bess Chilver

Suffolk, England

Costumer and Historic Re-enactor

A Venetian Outfit in the Style of  the 1560s/1570s

Bess Says...


In March 1993 I discovered Kentwell Hall  in Suffolk (UK) where the award winning Great Recreations of Tudor Life were held. To attend as a Tudor Participant, I had to make my own gentry gown for the year 1593 and as I was accepted in the Easter, I had barely 2 months in which to make it.
Despite the trauma of this introduction to costuming, the bug bit me hard and I’ve been making 16th century costumes ever since and have recently branched out into other costume periods such as the Regency, Victorian (Natural Form/1875-79) and the Edwardian (Titanic) period.

As much as I adore being at Kentwell, it does restrict me as to what type of costume I can make. The gowns can only be 16th century (in particular specific to the “year” portrayed) and have to be “English”. Therefore an Italian Renaissance gown cannot be worn there. 

However, the summer of 2006 was the year of the “Great British Invasion to the USA” where my husband Edmund and I decided to go to the Bristol Renaissance Faire. I decided to wear one of my favourite and recently made English 16th century gowns (c. 1569/70) but also wanted to make another gown and decided that a Venetian Noblewoman’s gown would be perfect. (Note: I was NOT portraying a Courtesan in way. I have noticed that the open “V” fronted gown that many refer to as a courtesan’s gown was, in fact, worn by any lady in Venetian society).

In addition, I had purchased from a friend on my 'Livejournal' list a gorgeous moss/sage green and creamy/gold silk damask (see left) which just demanded that it be made into a “Venetian Gown”. 

I decided to make a conscious decision NOT to “copy” a specific portrait. This is something I do a lot for Kentwell costumes and I think I wanted a bit more freedom with my creation this time albeit still following the “rules” of what was typical for gowns in Venice in the 16th century. To find out the rules, I still had to go back to the portraits where I found a few examples of gowns that I quite liked:

Damask fabric, “V” laced front to gown.

Green Gown.



I decided not to use my usual English bodice patterns for this gown so that meant I had to make the pattern from scratch. I had a “lightbulb” moment of what the pattern “could” be when I was lacing up my Effigy Corset in the front. I noticed that when the point of the corset was laced up edge to edge but the rest wasn’t (as I was about to tighten it) the shape of the corset gave the perfect “V” shaped front that the Venetian gowns had!   
The open “V” shape of the corset can be seen under my green bodice here.

I hunted out the paper Effigy Corset pattern that Ninya Mikhaila had sent me to pattern test for her recent Tudor Tailor book. To start with, I made a toile using the exact pattern but knew that I would need to make a number of changes. The changes started with removing the tabs and adapting the waistline. This I took from the “Elizabeth Vernon” corset pattern that Ninya had also sent me. 
I also moved the side back seams further round to the side of the bodice. I lowered and “straightened” the back neckline of the bodice and only slightly adapted the front neckline to fit. I was now ready to start making the boned bodice from the calico I had.

Like a lot of costumers making this style of gown, I used Jen Thompson’s excellent technique for lacing the bodice to ensure the lacing stayed straight! This worked perfectly but because the lacing is threaded through tapes inside the bodice, it is a pain to lace up!! What we do for fashion!
Pics of bodice in the making.


I do not have the back “V” waist to this gown. My primary reason for not adding it was that I didn’t have the time to figure out this pattern in relation to the skirt as I had barely 4 weekends to make the whole gown. When thinking about whether or not to add the “V” back waist, I then stumbled across a portrait which I think shows a gown of this kind WITHOUT a “V” back waist!


Once the bodice was completed and fitting beautifully I then turned my attention to the skirt. I made a decision NOT to cartridge pleat ALL the way round. This is because of the fabric’s beautiful damask pattern. It really is rather lovely and I spent a lot of time ensuring that the pattern matched perfectly on the centre front seam.

If I pleated the skirt around the “V” point of the bodice, then the damask would start to disappear in the folds of the skirt. I haven’t found a portrait that backs this up but I don’t think it “jars” as being very wrong.

Sewing the skirt into the bodice was an interesting and tiring experience as it was the last thing I did the night before my husband and I flew out to the US. In fact the very last few stitches went in the night before it was actually worn! 

However, I am rather pleased with the cartridge pleating – it makes the skirt very “bouncy”.


I was always going to have different sleeves to the normal run of the mill “puffed” shoulder/straight lower sleeve arrangement. I love the “paned” sleeves that are seen in other Italian portraits and also in English gowns of the 1580s/90s but for a long while I nearly despaired of seeing a paned sleeve on Venetian gown. Then I found the hint of these sleeves in these portraits.

Paned Sleeves.

 They were approximately what I wanted for my sleeve – so I made the paned ones. This was done by using a basic sleeve and by “eye” working out the dimensions of the four panes. Each pane is made of an interlining fabric, the sage dupion silk lining and the damask. I wanted to make the outer sleeve panes “match” in terms of the placement of the damask pattern but was not so worried about the panes underneath the arm. Each pane is made up individually and then is stitched to the next one at certain points. Narrow sage green velvet ribbon edges each pane. Cloth of Silver Tissue was made up into narrow tubes of fabric and then stitched into place as “puffs” between each pane. This work was done on my journeys to and from work in London!

Once the sleeves were made up, they were sewn into the bodice but with a small section right under the arm NOT sewn to give me a bit of “ease” when wearing the gown.

Lace Neckline and Cuffs

As one of my periodic purchases on online antique textiles sites, I found a length of Schiffli lace. This is a chemical lace made in the late 19th century that reproduced renaissance needlelace patterns. The lace I had was a perfect complement to my Venetian Gown so I used it for the neckline and the cuffs. I found the following image on the  'A Step Through Time' website...

which shows the neckline decorated with fine needlelace. Many portraits show the lace sitting neatly on the chest, but this portrait showed the lace dropping downwards over the neckline of the bodice.

My lace drops over the neckline on the shoulders and the back. I did not have enough extend along the front of the neckline. It is also used for the cuffs.




My sister has been making accurate reproductions of period jewellery – which is helpful for me. She made a necklace from a 1560s portrait of Jean D’Albret for me to wear when I went to the Faire.

 The other version of it is with silver with black Onyx stones instead.


  I would have loved to have made a flag fan, but I was a bit concerned about whether it would allow me shade from the sun as they are not terribly large. In the end, time prevented me from even attempting to make a flag fan so I stuck with my Elizabethan Feather fan which has lasted 14 years at Kentwell.

I wasn’t sure whether this would be the kind of fan an Italian lady would use but happily there is evidence of them:



I have very long hair but this would not have been enough to make the plaited hair styles of the Venetian Noblewomen. I managed to purchase a lovely long hair switch, removed the claw clip it came with and was left with a very long “pony tail” which I then plaited just below the top section that had held the clip. This section then was able to act as an anchor to my own hair and as a decorative element in the hairstyle I had in mind. This consisted of the braids starting underneath an open beaded green silk cord lattice caul which I had purchased from a friend in Kentwell a number of years back. The plaits come out from underneath this caul and are then pinned over my head.   


The smock or camicia is one I already had and wore with my Elizabethan gowns. It has a very wide gathered neckline so was perfect for this gown.


For the past 2 years, I have been working on a Drawn Threadwork Partlet inspired by a portrait of Eleanora de Toledo. This year, I finished the front parts of the partlet and decided to give it a dry run with a plain back and collar. I am very pleased with this partlet.


This Venetian gown was a real challenge to make for me mostly due to the tight time slot I had. I wasn’t able to start it till 4 weekends before it was to be worn, due to Kentwell and work constraints! The last 2 weeks of the 4, I was surviving on 4 hours sleep per night and then working in London during the day before coming home to work on the dress. Some parts of the dress were done on the train journeys to and from London. My colleagues were VERY understanding even to the point of asking for updates in the weekly team meetings. Though, I think they thought I had completely flipped!! 

I wore the gown for the very first time on the Sunday August 20th 2006 at the Bristol Renaissance Faire. Despite the severe lack of sleep the previous fortnight, I do think it was a small price to pay for the finished gown – don’t you?



The above image shows me at the Faire with my husband Edmund in his rather glorious suit made by Ninya Mikhaila.



  Bess has more gorgeous creations on her website, and you can contact her at myladysw (at)

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(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.)