The Realm of Venus
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.
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.
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.
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
found that I was particularly attracted to two Venetian portraits in
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
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.
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 Fabrics-store.com
seemed appropriate for the bodice and sleeve linings.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Sleeve with roll
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.
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
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