The Realm of Venus Presents....

he talian howcase



Catherine Raymond

Malvern, Pennsylvania, USA

Costumer and LARP-er

A Versatile Venetian Gown

Catherine Says

Although I have plenty of friends who are, or at least have been, in the SCA, and although I have been to SCA events, I have never been a member of the SCA.  However, I have been fascinated by historical and ethnic costume since early childhood (when I had a serious collection of costumed “dolls of the world”) and have been sewing my own historical costumes since I was 15 or so.  I'm much more interested in learning how the costumes were made, what they looked like, and what it feels like to wear them, than I am in the actual mechanics involved in sewing them...but after three decades of effort I've finally learned enough about sewing to achieve reasonable results, when I put my mind to it.

Since I'm not in the SCA I get to wear my creations only at events such as science fiction conventions and live actions role playing games.  In real life, I'm a lawyer, a job which unfortunately does not give me as much time to pursue costume-related interests as I would like. 

My personal costume interests center upon the Migration Period and the Viking era.  But in 2005, I signed up to play a courtesan in a live-action role playing game set in early sixteenth century Venice.  Suddenly, I needed to take a crash course in Italian Renaissance fashion.  Naturally, I turned to the Internet for aid. I discovered this site, the Realm of Venus, which became being the foundation for the rest of my research.

The first decision was what style of gown to make.  Though the ladder-laced gowns of Venice 1560s scream “courtesan” to most people, the very fact that so many costumers have made such a gown turned me away from that style.  Besides, the game was set in Venice in the 1510s, and even though the costume was for a LARP, I wanted to at least come up with a good approximation of an appropriate period style.  So I began looking at portraits from that period.  I found that I didn't really care for the huge sleeves and high waists that were characteristic of the early Venetian gowns.  After agonizing for nearly two weeks about whether to go with a period style or a style I liked, I finally decided to make myself an Italian Renaissance gown in a style that I liked, even if it was inappropriate for the game's ostensible historical period.

Moretto da Brescia's Portrait of a Lady

 I found that I was particularly attracted to two Venetian portraits in particular:  Paris Bordone's Portrait of a Woman, and Moretto da Brescia's Portrait of a Lady.  Both are from the 1530s.  However, I noticed that both have simple, snug-fitting bodices that lace up the front (although the da Brescia portrait does not show lacing, I cannot imagine that such a dress would stay in position as depicted without them) and straight waistlines.  Then it occurred to me that, if I made a dress with a bodice that laced in front and had a straight waistline located at the natural waist position, I would have a dress that would be able to match the look of the Bordone/da Brescia gowns of the 1530s, the hanging-sleeves Venetian gowns you sometimes see in the 1510s and 1520s, and the simpler Florentine gowns of the 1490s, simply by lacing different sleeves into the bodice and changing the style of lacing slightly.  Making what would be, in effect, a multi-period gown really appealed to me, even though I only intended to make the simple early Florentine gown for my Venetian character for the game.


 Although a sane person probably would have decided upon a pattern first, I began shopping for fabric next.  Since my basic design was simple but my character would be interested in conspicuous display, I wanted a Renaissance-style brocade, and I expected it to be a synthetic fabric because I didn't have an infinite budget for the project.  More agonizing ensued.  A deep red, such as the color worn by the woman in the Bordone portrait, would have been very appropriate for my courtesan character, but was unbecoming to my pale, slightly yellow-tinged skin and copper-colored hair.  Black would be attractive, but rather un-courtesan like, and I didn't find any green or blue-based brocades that appealed to me.  For months, I hunted on Ebay for the right choice.  After losing an auction for a lovely brown and gold brocade, I saw a peach and gold brocade that I had passed up a previous opportunity to bid on, and won 5 yards of it.   A dull antique gold-colored medium-weight linen that I found at seemed appropriate for the bodice and sleeve linings.  


 Having chosen my fabrics, the next step was deciding how, and whether, to trim the gown.  I decided to trim the bodice in a similar manner to the bodice in the da Brescia portrait, using cream-colored velvet ribbon and gold cord instead of the dark velvet guards in the portrait.  Knowing that I was committed to peach-gold-and-cream color scheme made my accessory decisions easier.  Turning back to my friend Ebay, I found a beautiful, buff-colored knit silk sash that was really a reproduction of a U.S. Civil War officer's uniform sash, but that perfectly complimented the brocade, and ivory satin Chinese flat shoes.  Knowing that I had to make a costume for my husband (who was in the same LARP), I decided against trying to make an appropriate chemise, I bought a natural-cotton chemise from Peacock Design.  From a FAQ on Peacock Design's website, I found sources for gold-colored brass rings to use as lacing rings, and gold-colored charms to use as aiglets at the end of my lacing ribbons.   (I already had pearl drop earrings and necklaces to wear with the gown, once I got it finished).

While I continued to shop for accessories, I cast desperately about for a pattern for the bodice and sleeves, since I had never made a fitted garment of any kind without some kind of pattern.  I attempted to  purchase the Period Patterns Italian Renaissance gown pattern, but the vendor I contacted no longer had it in stock, and I was by now sufficiently close to the start of the game that I wanted to have the pattern as soon as possible.  So I decided to try designing my own pattern by following the directions on the Italian Renaissance Gown Construction site.  This idea particularly appealed to me since the proposed design was for a gown to be worn without a corset.  I don't believe that the earliest Italian Renaissance gowns were worn with corsets, and since I am small-breasted, I don't really need a corset unless the fashion in question requires major changes in the natural silhouette.  Unfortunately, my draft bodice turned out to be way too long and wide!  By this point I was running out of time to redo the bodice, and had begun to fear that my substantial investment in the lovely brocade would be in vain.

 Then I remembered that I already owned a pattern I had used for bodice-making once before—Folkwear's Number 126—Vests from Greece and Poland!  All I needed to was to trim a bit of fabric from the front closing, so that the vest would not meet in the middle but would leave a small gap as in the portraits, change the neckline slightly, and omit the pickadils from the bottom, and I had my bodice pattern.  I reinforced the bodice with commercial, iron-on interlining, and covered the interlining with my linen.  Into the linen lining I sewed channels for steel boning (robbed from a corset kit which I had never made up)  along the front edges and the side seams.  Finally I sewed the lining and bodice together,   leaving open the bottom seam so that I could stitch on the skirt.  Because I am short and my fabric was wide, I was able to make a skirt that used almost 5 yards of the fabric.  I constructed the skirt out of straight panels, sewed the panels together to form a wide tube, and gathered the resulting tube into the waistline, and hand-stitched the bottom of the bodice lining down over the gathers.  Last, but not least, I sewed lacing rings along the front inside edges of the bodice and along the edges of the armholes.  

1490s sleeves

 I made a simple pair of long sleeves that were based upon an old SCA standby—Simplicity Pattern No. 9531 (which I also found a copy of on EBay).  These sleeves were of a single piece on top, but were caught at intervals along the bottom with white and gold enamelled buttons I bought from yet another EBay vendor.  I also made a lined drawstring purse out of scraps of the brocade and linen, using the same kind of ribbon and aiglets I had used for the bodice lacing.

After the game was over, I started making extra sleeves.  I made a pair of hanging sleeves in the style of Lorenzo Lotto's Portrait of Elisabetta Rota (though not quite as wide or long), out of orange velveteen using some synthetic antique gold satin for the lining.  I also made up a set of sleeves inspired by the Bordone and da Brescia portraits.  This pair of sleeves has two components:  a padded roll made from the original peach and gold brocade and trimmed, in the style of the da Brescia roll sleeves, with the same cream ribbon and gold cord used on the bodice; and a long, closed sleeve made from the same brocade (in the same shape as the Bordone portrait).  Both sleeve components can be laced separately into the bodice.  I did that partly so that I could remove the rolls to add different sleeves, and partly to retain the option of making and wearing a pair of slashed undersleeves, just like the da Brescia sleeves, with the sleeve rolls.  Eventually, I will make a giornea in tan cotton velvet to wear with the gown and its original Florentine sleeves.

1520s sleeves

1530s Sleeves

1530s Sleeve rolls

1530s Sleeve with roll

Inside sleeve 

Because I was playing a courtesan character, I wore the gown with my hair down and a long veil over it for the game.  For the Showcase, I have had pictures of the gown taken while I was wearing hair styles that are period-appropriate for the various sleeve styles.  I have also made coifs out of orange silk organza to wear with the 1520s and 1490s sleeves.

1490s coif

1520s coif

Although I love historic costume I am not that accomplished a seamstress, and completing this project stretched my sewing skills.  However, I am very pleased with the result, which is closer to my original ideal than I thought I could achieve.  The gown, in fact, is much more successful than my LARP character turned out to be.  She was betrayed by her fellow courtesans, and after a change in the law made the courtesan's trade in Venice illegal, was forced to flee Venice for France in the dead of night with a moneyed lover!

The Full-Length Pics

1490s Version:


1520s Version:


1530s Version:



If you would like to contact Catherine you can do so at cathy (at) thyrsus (dot) com

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.)