Laurie Tavan

San Jose, California, USA

Costumer and Renaissance Fair Participant

A Florentine Outfit in the Style
 of  the 1560s

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

Laurie Says....

My name is Laurie Tavan, and I am known in various historical re-enactment venues under different names from different eras, usually royalty. I've portrayed Mary, Queen of Scots, Princess Elizabeth, and Queen Victoria, as well as various other nobility. These eminent roles have contributed to my addiction to sumptuous fabrics and ornately-decorated attire. Like many costumers, I began sewing casually at my mother's knee, sewing for dolls and such, but graduated to big girl dresses in 2001 when I began taking part in the local Renaissance faire circuit here in Northern California. Gowns and corsetry are my passions and I've made them my life's work.

I had never studied Italian Renaissance fashions, having been mostly involved in various British or Polish re-enactment groups, but I was very aware of Janet Arnold's indispensable publications detailing her work with extant garments, and last year had the supreme good fortune to be able to attend the Janet Arnold tribute colloquium in Florence, Italy. During this extraordinary event, I had the opportunity to view numerous extant garments and listen to well-studied people sharing their own research. After all that, I was compelled to make an Italian gown of my own.


One particular gown caught my eye - it was a red velvet gown circa 1562 that had recently been conserved and restored to its original configuration. It came from the Convent of San Matteo, and is currently held in the Museum of the Palazzo Real di Pisa. We saw it at the facility of the Center for Textile Restoration in Pisa, who carried out the restoration on the gown. I remembered it from Moda a Firenze (ISBN 8883048679, page 70), but it has now been rebuilt to include a train that I had to have. You can read more about the trip and see some additional photos of the gown here


Design Considerations

Now, who in their right mind constructs a trained gown for wearing to Renaissance Faire? No comment. I had a particular event in mind, my dame-ing to the Order of St. John of Jerusalem for my years of service to the Renaissance Faire community, and decided that for a one-time use and then future static display, a train was not impossible.



 That said, given the weather here in Northern California, I decided that velvet was probably not the best idea. Also, given my time constraints, highly ornate trim work was out of the question as well. Instead, I happened to have twenty yards of an ornate fabric that I'd purchased off another costumer. In fact, I'd bought a sample of it, brought it to show to her, and it turned out she'd just bought it - all of it - but eventually was convinced to part with it.

At the time I had no particular design in mind for the fabric, but once I saw the trained gown, I knew it would be perfect. The fabric is a gold and red silk damask pattern from Luigi Bevilacqua, and it has a depth of color and a rich shine that were over the top and a perfect match for a once-in-a-lifetime event.

To make the project more challenging, I decided that I was fed up with always buying new materials for outfits, and chose to work entirely from my current stash and remnants for this project. I succeeded in this goal - I purchased absolutely nothing new for this gown, working entirely from stock on hand and materials scavenged from other costuming.


To begin with, let's start with the various components that I had already constructed and re-purposed for this gown. First, the embroidered silk chemise/camicia, which I made a couple years ago for a different outfit. You can see in the picture (below, right) how I modified the neckline, adding an embroidered band shaped to match the Florentine bodice. You can read about the original construction at these links:  first, second, and third. This shows that I do have a bad habit of making my undergarments pretty. I am now making all my linens from...linen, but the silk is a luxurious touch, even if I wouldn't do it again. I now know that handkerchief-weight linen breathes better and wicks nicely.



 On top of the camicia I'm wearing a corded red linen petticoat for comfort, to prevent my skirts from sneaking between my legs while I walk. It's a simple, straight-panel cut skirt, pleated to a front and back band for ease of adjustment. The bottom edge is corded with 100% cotton clothesline using a cording foot. I made this petticoat for this project, but have since used it under several other outfits, always with satisfactory results.


Over the corded petticoat we have a pair of bodies and a skirt, both finished in the same red and gold fabric. These were also completed a couple years ago. I won't go into the question of whether or not corsets were worn in period - I chose to wear one and moved on. I would, however, like to learn more about undergarments of the period and the evolution of the stiffening of Italian bodices through the Renaissance period. 

The pair of bodies I made are based on those found on the effigy of Queen Elizabeth, fully boned and covered with the silk damask. You can find details on the design and construction of the pair of bodies at these links: first, second, and third

The skirt is documented here and here. The skirt made its first debut under another gown, visible on my website. I definitely like to re-purpose things when I can - it's fun to mix and match. Actually, my initial thought on seeing the fabric was to use it as the kirtle for a Tudor gown - you may see it again in another guise in the future!

The outer layers of the gown (which are what most people are really concerned with, as they're the visible bits) consist of a square-neckline bodice, a gauged (cartridge-pleated), split-front trained skirt, and a pair of smocked silk sleeves. The trained skirt was completed first, then the bodice fitted over it. I intentionally kept them as separate parts, mainly due to my habit of mixing-and-matching components. Keeping the trained skirt separate meant that I could wear the bodice with the trained skirt removed and still have an acceptable gown with just the floor-length silk petticoat. I chose to split the skirt down the front because I had the matching underskirt.

The trained skirt is one layer of silk damask lined with linen, the pleating padded out with felt. You can see in the photograph the damask, white linen, and black felt layers that went in to it.

To construct the skirt, I developed a pattern based on personal observations and a 3cm by 7cm illustration on a poster handed out by the museum. Naturally, a train of this size cannot be made with a single width of fabric, and it required piecing, which is very much in line with the construction of the historical inspiration garment. The outer silk layer is 9 pieces and the linen lining 14 (I used pieces left over from other projects, and this economy resulted in a bit of extra work). Due to time constraints, all the long seams were stitched by machine, but all the hemming and detail work was completed by hand.

The hem details I chose to implement are similar to those used in the actual inspiration gown, though instead of silk satin, I used a very non-slubby gold silk dupioni (again, limited by what I had available in my stash). The hem is padded with wool felt and has a slashed bias-cut decorative silk edge as seen in the extant garment and described in both Janet Arnold's Patterns of Fashion (ISBN 0896760839) and in Moda a Firenze.

The bodice is based off that found in the red velvet extant garment, and has a square neckline and pointed front. I patterned it by eye, then draped it over my undergarments and adjusted fit. While there is a pattern diagram on the poster I have from Pisa, it's about 2cm square and provided the style lines I needed to sketch out a pattern. It's similar to that found in the Eleonora de Toledo burial dress documented in Moda a Firenze page 72 as well as by Janet Arnold. The bodice has slashed bias-cut silk edging detail matching the skirt hemline. I've seen this type of edging around the neckline in numerous Florentine portraits. The neckline is finished with some red/orange velvet ribbon trim for my stash.

The bodice itself is entirely hand sewn, and is stiffened with buckram, padded with wool felt, lined with linen, and the whole affair sewn into a curved, convex shape in the style of portraits of the era between 1540s through 1560s (for example, see Moda a Firenze page 76). No matter how much I bind down my breasts, I don't become this perfect cone, so my solution was to pad the bodice under the breasts (where I go slightly concave even in a pair of bodies) with stacked, pad-stitched layers of wool batting. The end result is a smoothly curved front surface, capturing the ideal seen in portraiture. The bodice also features hand-bound eyelets for the side back closures and as attachment points for the sleeves. Until such time as I learn to make lucet cording, I've compromised by covering cotton cord with a layer of matching silk for the closures.

I had in my stash a few remnants of a heavily smocked gold shot with red silk, too little for anything but
sleeves. The color was too close a match for me not to make sleeves from it, so I varied even further from the inspiration garment by using it. The strips had to be pieced together with strips of a solid gold silk, then panes created by sewing them together at roughly 5cm intervals and slashing on the straight grain for decoration. Unlike the slashing on the hem and bodice neckline, the straight grain slashing frays more readily for a wispier effect. In the future I'd probably test each fabric ahead of time to determine how prone to fraying they are when slashed. I chose not to interline, fuse, or bind the slashes, which would have prolonged the life of the garment, but was not the look I wanted. The underarm portions of the sleeves are done in plain silk, both to conserve the precious smocked material and to reduce overall bulk in that area. The sleeves have hand-bound eyelet holes matched to those on the bodice straps, and are tied with silk fabric ties with portrait-inspired bows. You can see an example of what appear to be triple loop fabric bows matching a gown in Bronzino's "Portrait of a Girl" (1545) in Moda a Firenze page 119.

No outfit would be complete without a set of accessories and jewelry. For this ensemble I decorated a zibellino (fur, species uncertain - maybe a marten?) that I'd found in a second hand store years before with metal filigree tips and a pearl collar/leash that attaches to my girdle. You can see one example showing the pearls in Moda a Firenze page 164. The filigree was an attempt to add some decoration to the zibellino, without going to the extreme of fully metal-encased heads seen in some portraits. I'd love eventually to cast the head and make a reproduction of such wretched excess, but instead I made a gesture in that direction.

My girdle alternates pearls and clear and black glass jewels, and it supports a metal perfume bottle on a chain. Silk stockings are supported by silk garters decorated with remnants of lace and a few pearls for weighting. In one of the portraits I have added my fine-plaited straw hat with low crown, as well as a tassel-ended bone and coral pater noster (Renaissance-style rosary). A few garnet rings, a pearl necklace with fabric ties, and some pearl drop earrings complete the image of a wealthy Florentine lady. At the last moment I added the looped trim across the bodice neckline, a close facsimile of one seen in Moda of Firenze, page 98, plate 39.

For the photo shoot, I needed to figure out what to do with my rather long hair. I split it center-front, then plaited it into braids held in place atop the head with red silk ribbons. For the final run-through on the day of the event, the front unplaited sections of hair were slightly twisted close to the head.

Sure, there are a million things I'd like to do differently were I re-making the gown now, but I'm very pleased with the final results. I'm extremely grateful for the opportunity I had to visit Italy and see the garments in person, and that inspiration carried me through to the completion of the project. Needless to say, the dress was a big success at the event, and it remains one of my favorite projects to date. Who knows - I'm heading to Costume College for the first time in a few weeks, and maybe a trained gown wouldn't be so bad to wear indoors in hotel hallways, so I may get another chance to wear it!

Of course, I do still have an itch to do an actual reproduction of the Pisa gown...

All photos Jeremy and Laurie Tavan - please do not use without permission


  You can contact Laurie at Laurie (at), and her website is available to view here. 

Would you like to be Showcased? E-mail me!


2001 - 2009 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.