The Realm of Venus Presents...

he talian howcase



Chris Catalfamo

Indiana, Pennsylvania, USA

Costumer and Participant in Renaissance Faires and the SCA

A Outfit in the Style of 1570s Bergamo


 Chris Says...

I 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.

My 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 library.

The Venetian Province of Bergamo, The Republic of Venice
Giovanni Batista Moroni, c 1570s (?): Portrait of a Woman with a Fan
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseu


Although 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. 

Moroni’s 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.

Patterns, Fabric and Trim

Out 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.

When 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.

Fabrics and Trims

When 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 portraiture.

Gown: I found a similar fabric “look” at Fabric Carolina on Ebay. It is a chenille scroll damask.

Gown oversleeves: The 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. 

Gown Lining:  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.

Under-sleeves: 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.

Petticoat: 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.



Method and Fit

I 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.


I 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 stays.

I 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.

At 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 newbies!

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!




  If you would like to contact Chris you can do so at Chriscat53 (at)

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.)