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Katie McGittigan

Houston, Texas, USA

Historian and Costumer

A Venetian Outfit in the Style
 of  the 1570s - 1590s


(Highlighted/bordered images are click-able for enlarging)

Katie Says....


My name is Katie McGittigan, and I am a medieval historian (in training) just starting to dabble in historical costuming on the side. Although I have been a fan of historical costuming for years, this is my first attempt at a gown. While I love to do crafts of all sorts (particularly making jewelry), my previous experience consists only of some middle-class garb made for myself and my sister (simple skirts, bodices, and chemises) to wear at the Renaissance Festival. After admiring all of the beautiful dresses on Realm of Venus and other costuming sites, I decided to try my hand at making my own gown. What started as a simple project, soon became a research venture as the historian in me wanted to make my outfit as historically accurate as possible (without damaging the pocketbook too much, being a grad student and all.)


I decided to make an Italian dress thanks in part to the lovely images on Bella’s site and because the dress’s shape was more to my liking than the more structured Tudor gowns of the period. Rather than copy one portrait, I decided to try designing my “perfect” dress taking bits and pieces from a variety of paintings similar in time and place. I fell in love with the gorgeous paned sleeves in the famous portrait of Eleanor of Toledo by Bronzino, so I just knew my dress had to include those. Also, the idea of making the dress out of brocade was perfectly decadent. To add interest, I really liked the idea of having contrasting brocade in the underskirt with an open overskirt such as that in Portrait of A Lady by Giovanni Antonio Fasolo, 1565-70

I also really liked the idea of having an inset of the contrasting brocade in the bodice. It took me awhile to find an Italian example but I eventually discovered Paolo Caliari’s painting c 1570, Portrait of a Gentlewoman and Gentleman (left). My concept sketch shows my original ideas. (Although the plans for side back lacing and a partlet later were altered.)


Now that I knew for the most part what I wanted the dress to look like, I had to find my material. After seeing Portrait of a Florentine Noblewoman, I really wanted forest green brocade, but after a long search, I became resigned to other options. Just when I was afraid that I was going to have to settle, I found this gorgeous black and gold-shot brocade. (Not the desired green, but absolutely gorgeous.) Even better, the fabric is completely reversible (one side solid black, one side gold) so in one step I found my main brocade and its contrast (which I couldn’t possibly get to match better than being the fabric’s reverse!).



While searching for the right fabric, I went ahead and made my chemise. This part, at least, I had done before. I chose to make it ruffled on the edges of both the collar and the sleeves to add slight decoration. Knowing I was making paned sleeves for my gown, I designed the sleeves extra wide to be able to pull them through the panes. The chemise itself is made from handkerchief weight linen-look fabric (a linen-cotton blend), and the finished chemise hits a little above ankle-length when worn.

Okay, here’s where I deviate from historical construction somewhat. After doing some research, I decided to try another way to get the period lines without having to make undergarments. So, I derived a plan of making a complete under-gown. Instead of making a corset and petticoat, I combined them into one dress. It serves several purposes: as a replacement for a corset, as a petticoat of sorts to poof out my outer skirt to period proportions, and to serve as an underskirt with the piece of contrasting brocade in the front. The other beauty to this idea is that instead of undergarments that couldn’t (or rather, shouldn’t…) be worn in public, I gain an “extra” dress of sorts that can be worn by itself for another look. I chose a forest green satin for my under-gown (so I got some green after all!) since sadly solid brocade would have cost way too much and frankly, been way too hot for Texas faire weather to be worn in double layers. 

Construction began with the drafting of my bodice pattern. I liked the idea of the higher neckline from the Eleanor of Toledo portrait and borrowed the idea of a less deep V in the front bodice from the portrait of Countess Livia da Porto Thiene by Paolo Caliari (1551). As I had learned from drafting the first bodices I made a few years ago, I had someone duct tape me into an old t-shirt. (An interesting process from all perspectives.) From there, I sketched the desired lines, cut the pieces, and created my pattern. Hesitant to hack into my good fabric, I first did a mock up of the bodice using some scrap fabric. Not only did this allow me to test my pattern and get the proper fit, but I also used it to play around with boning placement. Thanks to the advice of several online costumers, I used large plastic cable-ties as my boning. (A wonderfully economical and practical suggestion - not only do they give the necessary support but you can get a pack of about 20 1-yard long ties for about $5 at Lowe’s.)

I began construction on my under-gown first. I heavily boned the bodice since it is to serve as my corset. I sandwiched the cable tie boning between two layers of cotton broadcloth for lining, and then added the good outer fabric. Before attaching the outer fabric, I ironed on medium weight interfacing to the wrong side of the fabric to give it a little extra structure. A good deal of the dress is hand stitched- anything that can be seen was sewn by hand, such as the boned lining to the satin.

Next I made the skirt using four panels of fabric about 60” in width. (I desired really full skirts.) The back three are of the same satin as the bodice and the front panel is of the black brocade. First I sewed the four panels together into a large tube of fabric using French seams to keep from having a raw edge on the inside, since I did not want to line the skirts. (I was going to have enough layers as is for the heat, and the material’s other side wasn’t that bad looking.) Once the panels were sewn together, I cartridge pleated them by hand using strong upholstery thread and again by hand, tacked them into the bodice. 

To close the under-bodice, I used center back lacing with (ashamedly) modern lacing holes (at least it won’t show once the over-gown is in place.) While I did use metal grommets to reinforce the holes, I covered the grommets with matching embroidery floss to make it look period. The skirts are left open for about five inches at the center back lining up with the lacings, which allows for an easier time getting dressed. This gap is then closed by four small hook-and-eyes.

Voila, an under-gown that doesn’t look too bad on its own! However that was only the beginning.


 Then, I began construction on the main gown, which followed similar patterns to that of the under-gown. First, I made a sandwich of the lining and interlining, again cotton, with the boning in between them. Unlike the under-gown, I only boned this bodice with the usual amount for a dress. Then, I attached the outer fabric (with a layer of interfacing already fused on to the wrong side with an iron for added structure) by hand. Most of it is from the gold material, except for the center where I used the contrasting black. This bodice also is laced along the center back but uses the much more period spiral lacing method, which I learned from Jennifer Thompson’s article “the Zen of Spiral Lacing.” Grommets were set following the second method she proposes, and then covered with black embroidery floss to hide their metal nature. To lace it, I’m using some black satin ribbon. Lastly, I added some ¼ in. gold braid along the edges of the center inset of the bodice. ( I make that sound so simple now looking back on it. For anyone who hasn’t sewn with metallic thread- be forewarned and give yourself plenty of time! However, after much cursing and thread tangles, I did finally get it attached…)

Checking the fit of the main bodice

With the bodice completed, which is the majority of the work, I began on the skirts. I used four panels of the gold brocade about 56 in. wide sewn together with French seams to form one really long piece. Unlike the under-gown, since I wanted an open skirt, I did not sew them into a tube. To help my skirts gain even more period bulk, I used the idea of adding felt. So I stitched a 2 in. wide strip of black felt to the top edge of the skirt fabric, and pressed the felt back unseen under the edge. Then, I cartridge pleated the skirt fabric. (For a wonderful “How to” on cartridge pleating, check out the article on it at “the Renaissance Tailor.” It was a huge help!) Then, I attached them to the bodice, starting at one side of the point and going around to the other. Now, here was the tricky part. Getting the fabric to fall correctly to make the skirt look open and let you see the under fabric. Since I obviously couldn’t pin it on myself, and I desperately needed it on a 3-D figure (my eye for a dressmaker’s dummy!), I managed to convince my sister to put the dress on while I pinned the skirts properly. She’s a bit smaller than me, but about the right height, and much more 3-D than a hanger, so it worked. So, once in place, I finished the front opening edges of the skirt by hand. After letting it hang for about a week so the pleats could settle properly, I hemmed the skirts to the proper length on both the gowns. (Although by this point, it had been much more than a week for the under-gown…)

Now the gown itself was finished! Not bad by itself. A fitting certified that the under-gown did just as planned- making the skirts properly poof out to more period lines. 

Fitting of the over-gown worn over the under-dress

The sleeves became a much more time consuming effort than I originally thought, but turned out beautifully and well worth the hard work and time. They are completely hand sewn so as to avoid any visible machine lines. I started with a basic sleeve pattern which I drafted myself using the suggestions from Artemisia’s Venetian Gown diary at her site “Dress Diary of a Novice Renaissance Seamstress.” Then, I took the pattern piece (half a sleeve) and divided into two pieces, to make four panes per sleeve. Using this pattern, I cut the panes from the gold brocade fabric. Then, realizing happily that I had enough left of the green satin, I cut panes out of it for the lining. Then I pinned the lining to the fabric pressing in the seam allowance, and slip stitched the edges of all eight panes. To these, I decided to add a border ( like in the Eleanor portrait) and so I used the same gold braid that I had used to accent the front of the bodice. 

Now that the sleeves themselves were complete, I had to attach a way to close them and make the flat panes into actual sleeves. I found these beautiful ½ in. brass buttons on e-bay for a great deal and managed to get 48, the exact number I needed, if using 24 per sleeve. I attached the buttons and then attached corresponding loops of braided black embroidery floss to the opposite sides. To keep the sleeves from falling open too easily, I made most of the loops rather too snug a fit for the buttons so that they stay in place, with the exception, of course, for the ones at the wrist. To attach the sleeves to the dress, I also added loops in the proper spots onto the shoulder strap and arm scythe of the gown. This way, as period, the sleeves are completely removable. In fact, it’s easier to dress without them in place first, and then attach them afterwards. (Better maneuverability to shimmy one’s way into the dress…) 

Having gotten into and out of the dress several times now, I must add that I truly understand why nobles needed servants to help them dress. While I can for the most part get the under-gown in place, it helps to have someone else pull the laces tight so they act as a better corset. (Every time, though, I keep remembering the scene in Gone with the Wind where Scarlet keeps saying to pull it tighter…) The over-gown, made entirely of brocade, is very heavy, and assistance is definitely needed. I believe the last time, my boyfriend stood on a chair and tossed the dress over my head. Then, I shimmied until it fell into place, and then he laced it and closed the hook and eyes. By this time, you truly start to feel noble, when you are holding out your arm for someone else to attach a sleeve too.


With the gown and sleeves complete, I had to have accessories! After all, one can’t be truly noble without them. Now for me, jewelry was the easy part. I’ve been working with wire and beaded jewelry for a number of years now (just for fun), and this gave me the opportunity to work on something new. 

The most obviously necessary piece was a girdle, as it is featured in almost every painting. After doing some research, I decided that I really loved the look of the ones with the metal-work ouches. Luck was one my side, and again with a wonderful purchase off of e-bay, I discovered the perfect brass ouches, 16mm square with a flower design that was eerily similar to that on my buttons! Combine these with some small freshwater pearls, some black cut glass beads, and tiny gold seed beads and after quite a bit of beading, I wound up with a girdle that dropped nearly to floor, just as in the paintings.



For ease of dressing, I hid a small hand-worked clasp in the back. After debating for some time over how to end the piece, I finally got my hands on a set of four Swarovski glass teardrop pearls, and used two to end my girdle. The other pair quickly became my earrings. Since no modern posts are proper, I got a pair of small gold-tone hoop earrings, and strung on these a teardrop pearl and black bead apiece.


For a necklace, I realized that a simple strand of pearls, with or without a pendant, was the most common. Using the leftover freshwater pearls, I strung and knotted a necklace with a hand-worked clasp in back. Realizing that I really wanted a pendant, I started playing around with some Fimo clay and ended up creating a piece which I baked and painted with gold enamel. It looked ok, but unfinished. After digging through my pile of junk jewelry (broken pieces), I found a small brass piece with a green gem in the center, and it fit perfectly when attached to my clay pendant. The end product doesn’t look to bad and fairly period, especially from afar. The only piece of jewelry that I wear that I didn’t make is a brass and black poison/locket ring that I picked up because it matched my dress perfectly.

While researching for my girdle, I learned about the sets of prayer beads used in the period called “pater noster” beads (Our Father, in Latin) which were precursors to modern rosaries. Largely because I found a set that I was dying to recreate, I decided that my persona as a good Italian catholic should have a set of these hanging at her waist, as a lady of the time would have. While the original beads used real gold and jet beads, I used instead some pretty, round green agate beads and slightly larger gold-tone beads for the counters.



My final accessory is a Venetian flag fan. From the very get-go, I knew I wanted one of these, and from past experience, a fan in Texas serves a delightfully practical purpose as well. The handle is made from a dowel and end caps, which I stained a golden oak color and varnished. The flag part is made from a very thin piece of wood to which I attached scraps of fabric from my dress. The fabric is decorated by small flowers of sewn on pearls and gold seed beads in the outline of a cross. To finish the edges, I used some black cord that I had on hand. The flag is attached to the handle using eye hooks, which allow it swing freely. I also attached another small eye hook to the end in order to hang it from my waist. The end result puts up quite a nice breeze and doesn’t look all that different from the one pictured in Titian’s “Portrait of a Lady in White”!

And, of course, there is my favorite “accessory” of all- my boyfriend Clayton. Together, we designed and created his ensemble in the style of an Italian nobleman to match my dress.  I believe we make quite the matching pair! The semi-professional looking pictures are thanks to the skills of a wonderful friend and colleague of ours who offered to take pictures of us in costume. 

Overall, I am very happy with how things came out, especially for my first real attempt at something so large scale! Although, of course, looking through the pictures I see little things here and there I need to fix when I get a chance, I believe it came out very well, and it is so much fun to wear!



  You can contact Katie at kat.solo (at) juno.com

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(© 2001 - 2008 Anabella Wake (Known in the SCA as Bella Lucia da Verona) I hold copyright on all information on these pages, and 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.