The Realm of Venus Presents...

he talian howcase



Baroness Catherine Grace Fitzlewis QC

Washington DC, USA
(Barony of Storvik, Kingdom of Atlantia )

Costumer and SCA Member

A Florentine Outfit in the Style
 of  the 1550s - 1560s


Catherine Says...


My goal for this dress is to fairly closely replicate the details in Eleonora of Toledo dress seen in this portrait, with a few alterations based on taste and material restrictions. I am slightly lowering the neckline, which in the portrait is higher then many previously seen Florentine dress portraits, due to the Spanish influence Eleonora’s background inevitably had on her at this time. The reason I am doing this is because I feel that the scale of my fabric print is better suited to a lower neckline, or another lozenge shape would be beginning to infringe on the central design. I am comfortable lowering it without jeopardizing the integrity of the dress as it still falls well within the norm for this time period, even if not seen on this particular dress. When I found the fabric for this dress I have to admit to a happy dance and it screaming Italian at me, I have had it for about a year now and have finally decided what to do with it.   
Eleonora of Toledo with her son Giovanni de' Medici, 1550
Agnolo Bronzino: Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

Extant burial dress of Eleonora 
Pictures from Moda a Firenze 1540-1580 by Bruna Niccoli & Roberta Orsi Landini

Full scale drawings of the burial dress can be found in Janet Arnold’s book Patterns of Fashion on p.102. Even though I know that this is not the same dress, I used many of the details to help me construct the pattern of this dress.

Italian Fabric Swatch
Civic Museum of Turin
The fabric is described as white silk ground with Silver weft floats, cut black velvet with uncut looped colored velvet, voided. 

This striking fabric, that draws most people into this painting is not quite as unique as it was once thought, with the advent of the internet, it was easier for me to compare fabrics from all across Europe, more easily, and discover that the yellow black and white coloration mixed with a pomegranate pattern was quite popular in Spain, Italy and throughout Europe for both ecclesiastical and civilian purposes. The pomegranate design was thought to symbolize fertility.

Spanish Chasuble back
Fabric Textile Museum of Lyons

Isabel of Austria 1573
Monastery of the Descalzas Reales
 (Colour Photo by Serena Lyons)

The Fabric I have chosen to use is black and gold silk damask that has a pattern very close to the original, without the cut velvet or the white. 

The Dress

I started with the sleeves on this dress; I sewed the entire outer sleeve by hand using a 2 piece bent arm sleeve pattern that I had drafted for an earlier dress, and simply split into 4 pieces by dividing them down the middle. I lined them up on the silk in as even a manor as possible and cut them without a seam allowance. I added 3 inch strips of hand gathered linen to the pieces, and bound all of my edges in black velvet ribbon. I used black silk thread for all of my stitching on this dress. I then measured out 9 points to hand gather and stitch for the edges and buttons. This dress was my first attempt at any kind of sleeve panes. I used linen strips to puff through, a common practice in period, as opposed to attempting to push my camicia through, which I doubt would have ever been attempted sanely with this dress. (at least not with children hanging off you all day.) 

I sewed the lining into the sleeve adding the silk tie points at the same time.

I then drafted the bodice with side back seams as seen in this portrait of the time, and in Janet Arnold’s patterns of fashion examination of the burial gown. I also placed the shoulder seams slightly off set towards the back.


I centered the main medallion shape on the bodice front and back and sewed the lining in, I edged the neck with the black velvet, and added the shoulder puffs, and I took the measurement of the top panes of the sleeves and added enough for a pleat in the center of each shoulder piece and bound the edges in the black velvet. My shoulder caps are intentionally slightly less full then the original portrait, but still in keeping with the style I am going for. In total between the sleeves and shoulder caps, there are 80 buttons on this dress. I dropped the back of the dress a little lower then the burial dress version to match other dresses from this country and period in reference to dropping the front lower. I hand bound the eyelets in black silk thread using a leather awl to make the holes; I also staggered the eyelets so I could spiral lace the dress. 

The lacing cord is black silk that I luceted while flying to visit my sister in Denver. I know that I am mixing mediums with the luceting on this 16th century Italian dress, but it looks good, and has just a bit of give to it that I like for the purpose of bending over and stretching, while having enough strength and body to hold the dress well.

The skirt is 4, 60” wide panels; I used straight panels because I like the fullness at the top for the cartridge pleats as well as not wanting to interrupt the design on the skirt with gores. I know that in period, the miss matched pattern would not have bothered anyone, but the seamstress in me doesn’t like to gore if I have the fabric to get away with out doing it. And I also realize that I have a little more fullness then I probably need for period, but I love my princess skirts. I lined up the pattern in each of the panels, and in order to do this I found that the dress was going to be about 2 inches shorter then I like to wear my skirts unless I wasted a good couple of yards in cutting off the repeat, so instead I added a cotton velvet guard at the bottom (as seen in the portrait below).

Unknown: The Outdoor Concert (detail),
Hotel Lallemand, Bourges, France

I put strips of wool flannel into the top waist seam for the skirt, because I find that it adds to the fullness of my pleats and makes the skirt stand out nicely. I attached the skirt by hand to a waistband of silk first, and then hand sewed it to the bodice. 

The Partlet

A partlet would have served a few purposes in a 16th century Italian ladies wardrobe, not the least of which would be, modesty, adornment, variety and a display of wealth. The partlet I have chosen to make for this dress is a sort of combination of two partlets from period, both of which were owned by Eleonora of Toledo. I wanted to stay fairly true to the shape of the partlet worn in the painting of Eleonora with her son (2.), but I really liked the black detail in an earlier painting of Eleonora. (3 a,b) 



I started off by making a net design on my dress form by basket weaving the gold trim and pinning it in place. The gold trim is in a 1/8 inch figure 8 design, giving a natural spacing for my stitches. I used the black silk thread to do a running stitch along the length of all the vertical strands, catching all the cross pieces in the process. I then reversed this and went in the other direction, essentially filling in the dotted lines. I now had something stable enough to take off the dress form and could repeat the process on the horizontal strands. 

Since I cannot see what the original partlet edges look like uncovered by the dress, and have found no extant examples, I decided to make what for me was a fairly logical leap and use some white silk bias tape to finish all the outer edges and add the ribbon ties with aglet tips. I feel like this stabilizes the arms and gives a little natural stretch that will not make this piece binding when worn.

I used a cream silk thread to sew on the pearls, in order to match the ivory color of the pearls as best as I could. I used the black threads on the wrong side of the partlet to wrap the cream silk threads around, in order to keep the back tidy. I added a second row of gold trim to stabilize and pretty up the neck in a sort of sandwich, with the middle being all of my ends sewn down. 

I then pearled the neck with an even distribution of my remaining pearls. This piece was entirely hand sewn and took me quite some time, but I feel it captures a lot of the elements of the original. And it has a weight that although in the grand scheme of things is not substantial, feels a little heavy for its size and is fairly strong.

To complete this dress, I added a belt made of brass plated chain with 24k gold plated enamelled Italian buttons as a detail, with enamelling in the centers. I made a pearl tassel out of 2mm freshwater pearls; I also used a few jewelry findings. The total cost for the belt was around $25 

I also wore it with my freshwater pearl necklace that my husband bought me for mother’s day and a miniature portrait of my daughter, that I made from a photograph of an oil painting I had done of her dressed as Bia de Medici shortly before her death. (Bia’s death, not my daughter.)

The fan is one I wood turned out of walnut, inlaid with antique ivory and brass, and carved with a leaf motif. 

And I added my wool velvet beret and mink stole. 

I added an Italian camicia that I already owned, although I would eventually like to replace it with one that has blackwork, the one I am using is from my middleclass 16th century Italian dress, the corset and petticoat are not figured into the cost either because they were from other projects too. The reason I only followed my cost as opposed to my time is because, I really worked on this dress in patches, and during flights, a little here, and a little there. I am afraid that I was never dedicated enough to keep track, but if I were to guess it would be well over a hundred hours of construction time with about 6 months of research time.


The Loose Gown


I found some fabric at G-street Fabrics that spoke to me as a loose gown; unfortunately it also spoke of $50 a yard, which is a little cost prohibitive for me to say the least. I went to visit my mother in Tucson and went to Hancock Fabrics in order to buy some fabric to make her an awning, and surprise; there was my fabric, for $19.99 a yard, and it was on sale for 50% off, $10 a yard!!!!! It is natural oatmeal colored linen that is flocked with a black velvet large scale graphic design. 

Now I know what you are saying, flocking? Well there is evidence that flocking is period. And frankly the rather rough linen is a little iffy too, but I found it bold, symmetrical, graphic, and did I mention it spoke to me? I feel that the fabric reproduces the look of velvet applied to another surface, a very period practice in the 16th century, as well as giving a fairly accurate few feet away look at what someone in period would have looked like in something this sumptuous. And short of the fiber content of the flocked portion, linen is period, and quite honestly I love it!!! 


My fabric

A 16th century Italian pattern with similar feel  from Fischbach's Historic Textile Patterns.

Janet Arnold’s line drawing of dress, and a picture of the extant piece in the Victoria and Albert in London.
The pattern that I used for my loose gown was one from Janet Arnold’s Patterns of Fashion, c1560-1620. The original garment is in the Victoria and Albert museum, and the piece has been dated to c1600 I altered my version a little to reflect some earlier effects in order to align it to a slightly earlier time frame. I made my example to the measurements of the original only making slight alterations for my greater height and girth. The original gown is made of slashed Italian silk that is more likely then not, a remake from another article of clothing. There are a few seams that show clear piecing that I left out, as it seams silly to cut up perfectly good fabric in order to recreate a seam that was potentially the result of making due with what was left over from another item of clothing. I used the exact same finished width for the back panel of my gown, only eliminating the center back seam. I know that the center back seam would have been there as a result of limited fabric width in period, but I again couldn’t justify cutting my fabric width in order to sew it right back together again, for a seam that the garment originator attempted to conceal in the first place by placing it off center in a fold.


The foundation yoke in the original is made of ivory fustian, with a linen warp and cotton weft, covered in yellow coarse linen. I cannot tell you what the warp or weft threads are but I did use a linen cotton blend fabric as an interlining, along with some soft cotton batting, covered in a black linen fabric. I pad stitched all of the lairs together by hand in as was done in the original. 

My version, and Janet Arnold’s line drawing of the original


I gored this piece with the same 2 gores and dimensions as the extant piece. The changes I made were to the collar and the shoulder tabs; I also have added sleeves to mine, which are not seen in the original. The extant piece is designed to be worn with a standing ruff, and has ties that come around the front to help support it. I hate things being around my throat and will not be wearing this with a standing ruff, which were not popular in Florence anyway, and as such I extended the collar around the front more and slightly altered the shape, it stands on its own now and is now more reflective of collar shapes on some garments from c1560-90.

Most of the European loose gowns of the mid 16th century closed in front, the late 16th century, early 17th century brought on a change in which the all loose gowns hung permanently open with a different collar. But the change started to be seen in Italian paintings around the 1560-70’s.

Lady with a Dog
1560 Domenico Riccio
Bonn, Procinzial Museum

Emilia di Spilimbergo
Veronese 1560
National Gallery of Art

Lavinia Vecellio
Follower of Titian 1570-85
Madrid, Prado Museum


The shoulder tabs have been replaced with short sleeves similar to the 4 piece sleeve like the ones in the Lavinia Vecellio painting above, and then I added a full under sleeve that is removable. I trimmed this piece with black velvet ribbon and finished all visible details by hand. 
The first time I put this on I was amazed at how it felt, it was heavy and draped beautifully, but what surprised me was how the yoke completely holds it in place, one would look a loose gown with out knowing the inner workings and assume that they were fiddly and wanted to pull back off the shoulders. Instead it is firmly and comfortably held where it should be, and it almost makes you want to act differently, more regally when worn I more fully understood this comment by Ann Rosalind Jones:

"Every culture has some connection between the way people live and the clothes they wear. In medieval culture, clothes declared one's status and role in society just by looking at someone you could discern if they were married, widowed, a peasant, or a lord. People read each other's clothing and knew, for instance, if someone was dressed in certain colors, they were a page in the household of a certain noble. In a way, it was the equivalent of a uniform. And clothing was not just external. When a nun gets up in the morning and puts on a nun habit, she is going through a ritual that tells her who she is." 

I hope that you have found my delving into 16th century Florentine informative, I would be more then happy to answer any questions that you might have.

Baroness Catherine Grace Fitzlewis QC





  If you would like to contact Catherine you can do so at griffith_paul (at) hotmail (dot) com


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