The Realm of Venus
Participant in Renaissance Faires and the SCA
A Outfit in the Style of
began making historical costumes in the early 1970’s when I was in my late
teens for American Civil War re-enactments and interpretive programs in the
National Park Service. My first “authentic” dress was made on an 1850’s
Wilcox and Gibbs sewing machine when I was a historical interpreter at Harper’s
Ferry National Historic Park in 1973. I
did 18th Century for the American Revolutionary Bicentennial and
began adding other 19th century decades to volunteer in various
historic programs over the years including 19th century historic
sites in Virginia, West Virginia and Arkansas. During that time as well, I
completed my B.A., M.A. and Ph.D. with a focus on American Civil War, Slavery
and social/political/cultural and material culture history 1830-1870 as well as
museum methods. My museum artefact focus was historical costume.
first Renaissance Festival was in Texas in the mid-1980’s where I made garb
for myself and non-profit vendors
from Pueblo to People, with whom I was a volunteer. I went into premature labor
with my daughters at this Fair in 1987 while portraying the well kept very
pregnant mistress of a local noble hanging out at the tavern in Italian
Renaissance garb. Seventeen years later (2005) my twin daughters would join the
cast of the Greater Pittsburgh Renaissance Festival and I began making
Renaissance garb again -- this time with wonderful online resources and
Margo’s patterns. I also began accumulating what is now a very good research
Venetian Province of Bergamo, The Republic of Venice
Batista Moroni, c 1570s (?): Portrait of a Woman with a Fan
I am only a mediocre seamstress and I consider these crude attempts
(this is partially due to hands crippled by scleroderma and an amputated
right index fingertip) I like to attempt to copy period images.
Woman With A Fan intrigued me
as did some of Vecellio’s Neapolitan matrons. And so last year I
concentrated on two images. The Vecellio took Second Place in the Margo
Anderson Iron Dress Contest and the second, the Moroni, I sent to Realm of Venus, not really expecting to be chosen. The hardest part
of this for me is appearing in the photographs!!!! Scleroderma distorts your facial features because the excess
collagen pulls them tight and makes you look like a mummy! Plus I was
not that great before the disease! Ha ha. And you know what the U.S.
does to persons of dark complexion. In my 19th century
persona, I try to portray “people of color” whenever I can and one
of my fields as a historian is ethnic and African American history.
Fabric and Trim
of all Bella’s images on Realm of Venus, I liked Woman
With A Fan
the best. I have always liked eras of strong woman rulers where fashion takes a
decidedly masculine turn. American Civil War in the wake of other European wars
does this as well with fashions replicating uniforms and men’s jackets, coats
and accessories and lots of “a la militaire” passementerie. Being a dark
complexioned Calabrese-Sicilian, (not a plus for Renaissance standard of beauty
or Victorian for that matter unless you are a New Orleans courtesan), I have
also always loved red and black. In the other early era I have done—14th
century---I do Moorish influence so I’m pretty consistent with this. My SCA
name Is Caterina of Sicily.
I started the Moroni, I had little knowledge of real Italian Renaissance
construction, but since the doublet bodice is a late 16th Century
style all over Europe I felt that it was feasible to use Margo Anderson’s
Elizabethan Ladies Wardrobe patterns. I could not see the skirt in the Moroni so
I decided to use the split skirt/petticoat with overgown doublet ensemble with
the long hanging oversleeve and narrow undersleeves. Already had 16th
century shift and purchased ruff.
I am doing an image, I am going for LOOK not fabric authenticity especially for
upper classes since so much is a compromise anyway unless you are a millionaire.
(cloth of gold, silk brocades, damasks and textiles and weaves and processes
we are still trying to footnote given the lack of many extant examples.) Italian Ren gowns throw many different patterns and fabrics
together in mid to late 16th century, much more intricately than the
English, at least according to Moda a Firenze and Vecellio and some
found a similar fabric “look” at Fabric Carolina on Ebay. It is a
chenille scroll damask.
oversleeves are lined with black China silk. The beaded gold trim is
from Ebay. (I surfed for many hours a day!) Lots of cheap gold
trim—15 yards for $17.75--- were purchased. Lined
with black China silk. I did it in the wrong order so had to cover
visible machine sewing with more trim. LOL. Trim –you gotta love it.
Wrist ruffle is actually a manufactured pleated trim that I have used
on 19th century collars but of course can be easily made. The
bodice is lined with drab colored canvas and is slightly boned at
front and seams with Rigolene since I don’t need much support.
Skirt is not lined. Body is lined with a drab cotton canvas and
is minimally boned with Rigolene because I don’t need support. I do
also wear Elizabethan stays.
On Ebay I found a gold pearled diamond embroidered dupioni (not
too slubbed) for undersleeves.
I don’t usually like to use dupioni even though there is still
debate about its use, but if it has some other attribute that
recommends it, I will use it. I also cut it into bands for the forepart. The undersleeves
are lined with modern fustian, natural oatmeal color, a very soft
cotton-linen blend. It made my daughter her first Ren lower orders
smock in 2005. Sleeves
tie on or are whipped on since they are usable with several late 16th
gowns including the Vecellio Neapolitan matron.
Black medium weight linen. Forepart is black 100% silk taffeta and the
strips of pearled embroidered dupioni from Ebay. Trim is a common one
also from either Ebay or Calontir trims.
am no tailor and have a strange
figure difficult to fit. I have no bosom at all—33 1/2 -34 inches and a 30”
waist (twins in 1988 and peritoneal dialysis in 1994-95—this time around I am
on hemodialysis—I chose it so as not to impact my costume wearing) I’m 54
years old—too old to want to flash some cleavage anyway and am only 5’ 1 ¼”
tall weighing about 109. In addition I now have a Pacemaker which makes it
difficult to do any “manoeuvre” to position the breasts anywhere but where
they are. Which is nowhere. LOL.
I am also very short waisted. Margo’s patterns teach you how to adjust
very detailed sizes so that is a
major plus. But I am still never satisfied with the fit. The best thing is a
custom bodice if you can afford it. I paid $35 to finally have one made for mid
19th century and it’s much better than the one I used for many
years because my measurements, like most people’s, are different on the left
and right. A 16th century bodice is not unlike a 19th
century bodice in fit minus the front darts.
wore purchased stays although I am still puzzled about whether or not
Italians wore them in late century. Since I wore this first at an
English themed Pennsylvania Renaissance Festival I decided to wear the
am also held back by never being satisfied with the research. My
doctoral advisors dealt with this problem as well. They told me write
a little everyday - at least pick it up and touch it once every day -
even if you change it later. This works with research and sewing as
well. But at some point the research has to cease and you have to plunge
in. I keep various books open when I’m sewing and look again and again
at the sources. I also have several large notebooks of internet
printouts and I usually have the dress I am working on as my desktop
background so I look at it many times a day. Getting started is my
biggest problem and I always have too many projects at once and too
little time. Sometimes I
think I enjoy the excitement of kamikaze “on the brink” racing against the clock”
sewing. Not good for
stress levels though.
the beginning instructions looked like gibberish to me. I learned 19th
century by doing and watching work with extant examples in the National
Park Service in the early 1970’s. One thing you need to do is abandon
everything you think you know. Leave ego aside. If someone has expertise
that you decide you can trust - like Bella and Margo - leave ego aside
and carefully follow directions. Don’t always assume you can find a
better way. Knowledge is cumulative and cooperation advances it. But of
course, always exercise caution and look with a critical eye. Since
extant examples are so rare, there has to be guesswork, but some of the
better costumers combine sewing and historical knowledge. The best are
willing to share their sources and show compassion and patience for us
It took me a year to get comfortable with this era as a seamstress so don’t
get discouraged. It is a lot like learning a language. Eventually something
starts to click and then you are no longer afraid!
you would like to contact Chris you can do so at Chriscat53
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