The Realm of Venus Presents....

he talian howcase



Dawn Duperault

Kansas City, USA

Costumer and A Winner of the 'Iron Dress' Competition

A Venetian Gown in the Style of  the 1560s


Dawn Says

 I was intrigued by the 2006 Iron Dress contest, and you might say I had been preparing for it for years. I buy likely fabrics whenever I can find them on sale, and I have a stock of notions on hand for convenience. There was no question that I could do the dress completely from my stash, I just had to come up with a good design. 

The rules of the contest were that I had to use a pattern from Margo's Historic Patterns, I had to use fabric and notions already in my possession (my stash), and I had only 3 months to complete the outfit. 

At first I was planning to go with a typical Elizabethan dress straight from the pattern, with a low necked bodice, tabbed sleeves, a full skirt and forepart, but as the weeks progressed (and my sewing did not) I fell out of love with the idea. I wasn't sure I even wanted to complete the dress. Three weeks before the end of the contest I decided to do something "different". 

After deciding what I wanted to do, I browsed around on the web for a bit looking up images, including those on Realm of Venus, so I could get a good feel for what I was doing, and what some of the variations were. I'd made period dresses before, but not in this style, and I needed to feel comfortable with my design choices. Looking at pictures is a lot less scary than cutting fabric. 

I'd never made a Venetian style dress before, so I was willing to jump in and give it a shot. There's a really neat "Dial a Dress" tool at that I used to make my design sketches. Then I colored them in Photoshop using the fabric as fill patterns. 





The fabric I chose to use is a heavy dark blue-green upholstery velvet cut with a large repeating floral design. I'm pretty sure it's not a 16th century pattern, but it looked pretty good anyway, and I was obligated to use what was in my stash. The velvet has a nice bold pattern, which I really liked, it mimics a lot of the fabrics shown in the paintings and really gives you a good feel for the time period. I thought it would work much better than a plain solid fabric, and of course, I wouldn't have to put so much trim on it to get it to look right. I had a 60"wide 3.5 yard piece I'd picked up somewhere. I can't recall where I found it or how much I paid. The blue-green color doesn't match with much else I have, so I chose to use a lot of gold and beige colors with it. Contrast is always good when picking out design details, anyway. 

I decided not to make a new corset for this dress, even though I'm not entirely happy with the one I have, mostly because I didn't have the time, but also because it wouldn't be judged as part of the contest. So I started with drafting a pattern from the Margo pattern. I always trace my tissue or paper patterns onto different paper, and store the originals safely in file boxes. For this dress I traced the low necked bodice and the straight sleeve pieces from the "Elizabethan Lady's Wardrobe" pattern by Margo's Historic Patterns. Once I had those on tissue I made a muslin copy of the pattern and started fitting it to myself.  

For the most part, the pattern alterations and fittings went very quickly. I knew I had to modify the front opening of the pattern, and that was simply a matter of lopping off part of the front. I chose to combine the front and side pattern pieces into one piece, to avoid additional seams in the heavy fabric. I shaped the back neckline and slope of the shoulders to fit me, and I adjusted the angle and placement of the shoulder straps to fit me also. It took a couple of hours one afternoon, working by myself with a mirror. Then, I carefully laid out the muslins on my green velvet and cut them out. 

I'd already cut two panels of the fabric for my skirt and I was working with about 1 yard of leftover velvet for the bodice and sleeves. Since there was no possibility of getting extra fabric, I was very careful about placing the pattern pieces. I needed to do two things, center the pieces on the design so they looked good, and make sure I had enough fabric for the bodice and sleeves. I agonized all afternoon over the best placement, and finally found one that let me have symmetrical bodice pieces and sleeve tops. The underside of the 2 piece sleeves would not match, but I knew nobody would be able to see that, so it didn't matter so much. 

I cut identical bodice pieces out of some gold silk dupioni and used that for the lining. The bodice went together easily according to the original pattern. I sewed a strip of plastic boning inside each half of the front opening, so that when it laced it would stay straight and flat. I hand finished the armscyes and waist, and then worked on the skirt. 

 The skirt panels were cut across the width of the fabric, with selvedges in the side seams, due to the direction of the fabric pattern. Usually, if I can, I prefer to put the selvedge at the waist and hem. I cut the skirt panels to fit from waist to ankle, with a couple extra inches for the hem and waist.  I sewed the two panels together on the selvedges. For the waist, I folded the fabric down 1.5 inches and pinned it, then marked the seams as center front and back, and marked halfway on each side to match the side seams of the bodice.  I pinned the skirt at those points and worked on pleating in the rest of it. In order to get perfect pleats I mark those 4 starting points, and then mark points halfway between each of them and pin again. Then mark points halfway between each of those eight.  I whipstitched cartridge pleats to the bodice, and went around the inside afterward with carpet thread and sewed through the pleats to keep them from spreading out. That's backwards from how most people do it, I think, but it works better for me.   

I tried the dress on at this point and was not happy with it. It hung too low on my waist and did not look right. Also, the underarm area was too tight. I decided that I would need to remove the skirt and raise the bodice waist by an inch, and cut away a half inch of fabric under the arms. And, of course, re-do all those seams by hand. There were only 6 days left in the competition and I wanted to wear the dress to our local ren-fest the day before it was due, so I really only had 5 days left to work on it. Off came the skirt. It took a couple days to get it fixed and sewn back on, but it finally got done and it fit very well. 


 This left the sleeves, which were not very difficult. I checked the Margo pattern against one of my own that I knew fit me, to make sure I had the right length, and started in on them. After consulting a few portraits, I decided on a simple gold trim for the sleeve, which was almost drowned out by the bold velvet pattern. I sewed the trim on by machine before completing the sleeve, because I was not in the mood for more hand sewing. I did not have enough of the gold silk to fully line the sleeves, so there is a band of silk at the wrists, folded to the inside to look like a lining. At the top of the sleeve, where it connects to the dress, I used bias tape to cover the raw edge, since it would not be seen once it was sewn inside the shoulder strap. I wanted the sleeve to be removable for warm weather, since the velvet is very heavy, but I did not want them to tie on since I wasn't seeing that in my reference pictures. I think a lot of clothing from this period was probably tacked together so it could be adjusted for size later, or remade easily.

At the last minute I decided that the sleeves needed something more, and I did the puffs at the shoulder. I measured and marked where I wanted the slashes to be, and cut the fabric with a seam ripper. Since I was in a hurry, I used Fray-Check on the raw edges. I didn't figure they would be seen, anyway. For each puff I cut a large rectangle of sheer fabric about 4x6", the same fabric as I would use for the false chemise, and folded it so all the raw edges were inside and I had a little body to each puff. They were tacked in place into each slit.

I was also working on a partlet for the dress. I had this funky beige silk with designs embroidered on it that I really wanted to use, and even though it's not a historically accurate pattern, it had the right texture to imitate some of the Italian partlets I had seen pictures of.  There's a free partlet pattern on Margo's website and I used that as the basis of my pattern. I cut a back piece and two fronts, and shortened them quite a bit, shaped the neck into a V and left off the collar. I ended up with what looked like a sheer vest. The fabric was stiff and scratchy, but it looked so nice I put up with it. The things we do for fashion.  In the end, so little of the design shows that you'd have a hard time telling it was embroidered with shamrocks.

The last thing I had to work on was the chemise panel that shows in the front between the lacings. Because I was wearing a corset with this dress I opted to make a false chemise that would show in the front. The fabric I used was a synthetic sheer drapery fabric with a slight gold metallic sheen to it. It's lovely and does not show up as beautifully in the pictures as it does in person. It was also pretty stiff, so it didn't gather as nicely as I would have wanted it to. It's simply a large rectangle cut from a width of the fabric (about 45") hemmed and gathered with a couple of rows of stitching at the top. When I wore it I pinned it to the front of my corset to keep it in place.  Once the chemise panel was in place, I decided the sleeves needed a false ruffle at the wrist to continue the chemise look. I really did not want to wear an entire chemise made out of this synthetic fabric, and I felt this was the best compromise. The ruffle is simply a folded strip of fabric gathered and tacked inside the sleeve.

For the lacing up the front of the dress I used the round eyes from two packages of hooks-and-eyes. They are sewn inside the bodice along the boning line, by machine. If your machine does a button stitch it's very easy to do eyes, too. If you have a zig-zag with an adjustable width and the ability to lower the feed dogs on your machine, you can do it, too. What a time saver that was!  I laced the dress with thin black ribbon.


 I wore the dress as planned to the ren-fest that Saturday, despite the rain and cold temperatures. It was actually quite comfortable, being such heavy fabric. I chose to accent the dress with a necklace and earrings made of pearls and glass beads strung in the renaissance style. I also wore a shawl of brown pashmina (cashmere wool) which also was probably not historically correct, but it looked very nice and it kept me toasty warm all day. I received many compliments on the dress, including some from complete strangers who walked up to me to tell me how much they liked it.  


Then, to top it all off, I found out 3 weeks later that I won first place, tied with another entrant, in the Iron Dress competition!



If you would like to contact Dawn you can do so via her blog.

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(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.)