Kendra Van Cleave
(Caterina da Venzone)

Alameda, California, USA

Costumer and Performer with Bella Donna Venetian Courtesans

A Venetian Outfit in the Style
 of  the 1560s

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

Kendra Says....


The Bio

I’ve been creating historic costumes for about 15 years now, although I only really started getting serious about this craziness in 2002. I’ve always loved history and once I discovered historical dance and Renaissance fairs, I was hooked on getting to play dress up and pretty pretty princess… and at the same time to experience history on a visceral level. When I really started to focus on improving my costuming skills, I found that I loved both to research as well as to manipulate fabric and other shiny bits into something amazing with my own hands. I still maintain that I am a charter member of the Costume ADD club, with interests ranging from the 16th century through the 1960s (although I’m particularly fascinated by the 1770s-80s, 1870s, and 1910s). 

Currently, I’m involved in about a billion different costuming venues. I’m a past president, and current newsletter editor, for the Greater Bay Area Costumers Guild. I’ve started an 18th century in-persona group. I teach at Costume College, perform at Dickens and Renaissance fairs, and occasionally attend historic balls, Costume Cons, and SCA events. But my current passion is Bella Donna Venetian Courtesans, a performance troupe that provides songs, instrumental music, scripted shows, and improv at Renaissance fairs and private entertainments. Not only does this group allow me to spend time with some of my best friends, but we get to do it in fabulous costumes, singing gorgeous harmonies, and do it all in character, an element that I adore. 

The Inspiration

I’ve performed with Bella Donna for four seasons, and while I was thrilled with my first attempt at an upper class Venetian costume, it’s hard for a costumer to wear one dress that often! After the first wearing, that fabulous gown you slaved over becomes “this old thing.” I’ve been plotting and scheming about a new dress for a while, but always knew that it would come down to finding the absolute, most perfect fabric. Our group tries to present a cohesive look, one element of which was our warm color palette (anything from gold to red to burgundy); when we decided to open up to other colors, so long as they included gold, I had the instant reaction that any redhead would have – GREEN!

Insert many, many months of trolling for the perfect green silk damask. Of course, I could have used many other fabrics – but they all present their difficulties. Velvet is too warm for most of our events, which take place in summer in California (think 80-100 degrees Fahrenheit). Satin or taffeta wouldn’t stand up to the wear we give our dresses, which includes wearing them about 10 hours a day walking in the dirt, sitting on hay bales and wooden benches, and other travesties that gorgeous Venetian gowns really shouldn’t have to endure. Plus, my first dress was made of silk damask and it help up incredibly well (far better than I expected)! And no, I just Don’t Do Synthetic.

So I checked Ebay. Repeatedly. I searched every online fabric store, including all the crazy expensive designer outlets. But I couldn’t find ANYTHING in the right shade of green (especially given that it had to be green and gold), and even those that were in the not-quite-right shade were blisteringly expensive. I did find a gorgeous forest green and gold Scalamandre silk damask on Ebay, but it would have cost me an arm and a leg for only four yards. I looked at that fabric daily for months, and kept searching elsewhere. When I finally accepted that green is just really not in style (I’m serious!) right now for designer upholstery fabrics, I contacted the Ebay seller to see if there was any way they had more yardage (I’m 5’11”, so four yards would maybe make me a skirt) and if they would negotiate the price. They turned out to be open to both, but the price was still astronomical. However, the seller suggested that they had another Scalamandre green and gold silk damask that wasn’t listed on Ebay, and which they’d be willing to sell for less… was I interested? You bet your Titian I was! It was green. It was gold. It was gorgeous. It had lovebirds. It was really, really, really expensive, but at least it was cheaper than the first fabric… I closed my eyes, sent them a LOT of money, and it was mine. Insert lots of maniacal laughter!

After that, the story gets less dramatic…


I’ve always loved the Goltzius engraving, “The Venetian Ball” from 1584 (but based on the Barendsz drawing which depicts costumes from the 1550s or early 1560s). Not only is it my favorite era of Venetian costume – after the huge sleeves, before the crazy wide V front openings and super long bodice fronts – but it has a lovely variety of dresses, particularly in sleeve treatments. I found myself drawn to this lady, with her patterned damask/brocatelle/lampas fabric, split/puffed sleeves with jeweled accents, and lace trim.

I started with a new camicia, as my existing one was in a sad shape. I made it from a sheer cotton batiste and based it on Jen Thompson’s How to Make an Easy Italian Chemise, which had served me well in the past. One tweak I added was to stitch the neckline gathers to a narrow white twill tape, which has done wonders to keep the neckline from stretching.

I had already made a 16th century corset and roped petticoat for my previous Venetian ensemble. Since that time, I have done further research (and followed Bella’s research) on the great corset debate. I can say that I am 75% sure that Venetian women didn’t wear corsets… but that doesn’t change my approach, given that wearing a corset is comfortable, requires less engineering in the bodice, and takes the strain of wearing the dress. And it is at least possible…


The bodice  features a ladder laced front and V waistline back, both of which are defining elements of Venetian dress. While there are of course many examples of Venetian dresses that don’t include these, I have found that they serve to make my costume recognizably Venetian in a sea of English, Spanish, and particularly Florentine dresses at Renaissance faires. It is cut high in back, which helps to keep the shoulder straps at that very Venetian on-the-shoulder (and not off the shoulder) point.

Now there is a general rule when laying out patterned fabric that goes along the lines of, “Don’t put the flowers right on your bust point.” I hemmed and hawed about how to lay out the fabric, but finally decided to embrace the lovebirds and yes, I put them Right There. In back, I played around to find a way to both center a large motif, and to use the angle of the pattern to highlight the V waistline.


 The bodice is interlined with silk organza and a layer of cotton muslin, and lined with green cotton broadcloth. It is boned with two steel bones at the center front edges to support the lacing, and three at the center back to maintain the V. It is trimmed with a gold metallic Venetian lace which creates a lovely standing effect around the neckline. The ladder lacing is held in place, and made much more horizontal, using Jen Thompson’s two lacing strips technique (although obviously I’m not nitpicky enough, or my lacing wouldn’t be slightly askew!). The false camicia front (as I don’t buy the smock under corset under camicia argument) is a layer of cotton batiste (same fabric as my camicia) gathered to a piece of corset coutil and basted into the bodice on one side.

Yes, the bodice and skirt are separate. I had originally considered sewing them together, which would be more historically accurate, but as this dress will be worn hard, I’ve found it much easier to deal with and store separate garments. The bodice hooks to the skirt with hooks and bars, and the girdle serves to hide the join for the most part.

The skirt  is made of straight panels of the silk damask, lined with green broadcloth, and cartridge pleated to a shaped waistband that echoes the line of the bodice (i.e. Vs in front and back). I had carefully patterned the waistband only to make it up and find it too small, so I split the sides to add more fabric; when I finished the skirt, the waistband was mysteriously too large, so I had to take back in that inch I had added. Sigh. In addition, I had a bit of trauma on the first wearing in that despite my careful measuring, the skirt front was about 2” too short and the back about 2” too long, so this necessitated undoing ALL of the cartridge pleating, re-leveling the skirt, and redoing all the pleating and waistband attachment. Double sigh. The hem of the skirt is bound with 3” wide coordinating green velvet ribbon, which worked fabulously on my last dress to protect the hem of the dress from dirt and even rain. 

The sleeves  turned out to be the most difficult part of this costume. Although many Venetian puffed/slashed sleeves appear to have the upper puff cut separate from the sleeve, the gown in the Goltzius engraving has the puff cut in one with the sleeve. I drafted many, many versions, and was lucky to have help from friends, before I came up with a nice mockup. The sleeve is constructed as follows: two-piece sleeve (in order to create a close fit), with slashes in the upper sleeve at the sleeve cap; the slashes are finished by first a narrow bit of fray check, then a narrow/tight machine stitch at the edges, then a 5mm velvet ribbon was herringboned on top of the machine stitching (i.e. only on the outside). The white puff is only sewn to the upper sleeve lining, and made of sheer white batiste lined in white cotton organdy. Unfortunately the organdy isn’t as puffy as I would like, so some day if I ever have the patience, I need to take these apart and try organza or net.

Sleeve mock-up 1

Sleeve mock-up 2

Sleeve mock-up 3

Sleeve in progress

Sleeve in progress - lining

All of the layers are held together by stitching at the jewelling at the bottom of the slashes. I wanted to jewel the sleeves as in the engraving (which shows a diamond shape of jewels at the top and bottom of the slashes), but couldn’t figure out a way to do so at the top without flattening out the puff. At the bottom of the slashes, I used a topaz stone in a setting, with pearls around it to create the diamond shape. The sleeves are attached to the bodice using lacing rings (sewn to sleeve and bodice), and laced through with more of the 5mm green ribbon. The cuff is trimmed with the same metallic gold Venetian lace as the bodice.

Sleeve in progress - exterior

Sleeve jewels

 If, as my friend Sarah so brilliantly put it, hand-sewing is the veganism of costuming, then this dress is vegetarian – interior seams are machine sewn, but all finishing is done by hand, particularly any topstitching, trim, cartridge pleating, etc.

Two other elements that I wanted to include from the Goltzius engraving are the partlet  (although I loved the ruffs, they won’t work with my hairstyle – more on that in a bit), and the girdle made of large beads.

The partlet was actually inspired by an entirely different artwork and city – this 1543 Bronzino portrait of Eleonora di Toledo, which was the inspiration for a Florentine dress that I made a year or two ago. I had never gotten around to making the partlet that I wanted for that costume, and decided to create something that could do double duty for both styles. While most Venetian partlets do not have collars, I did find a few examples from late in the century; they were worn more open than the Florentine style, so I followed that line to make the partlet more Venetian (since I’ll get more wear out of it that way). I found a gold metallic net that looked perfect to create the geometric effect, which I lined with white silk organza for support. Then I sewed pearls at the joins, spacing them out enough to suit their scale (and to avoid having to sew 100 pearls, I’ll admit!).

For the girdle, I searched high and low for gold beads that were large enough to match the scale of the Goltzius engraving. Shockingly, beads that large are expensive, especially when you need a lot of them! So I was thrilled to find a big bag of large gold beads in an antique store for only a few dollars. In order to liven up the girdle, I made bead wraps using two pearls on either side of a square gold bead on gold wire. At the center of the girdle, I wear my fabulous flea market dress-clip-that-looks-like-a-brooch with a red stone and a pearl drop.

Other accessories include a LOT of rings, a gold lion pin, and pearl and unknown-green-stone earrings.


The hairstyle  is one that we have created in Bella Donna for theatrical purposes. While the jewelling in Venetian hairstyles is nice, the rest of the hair is frankly pretty boring. Instead, we were inspired by images of Venetian brides who wore the back of their hair down, and we create that look with wigs, false hair (and a bit of our own), and lots of jewels in opulent hairstyles that are, frankly, very pretty pretty princess even if they’re not historically accurate. My hair includes a jeweled braided bun, braids, and a ton of pearls and gold beads – the bling-ier, the better!



  You can contact Kendra at kendra (at) and you can view her fantastic website here.

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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.