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I’ve been making historical costumes for ten years, longer if you count the stuff I made in middle school and then lost interest in. The point of starting faire was initially to hang out with friends, but all of this was waylaid by involvement in a guild for which garb could not be purchased, and thus had to be made. Without money to commission a seamstress (my high school job was pretty good, but not *that* good!), I took to sewing for myself. My first attempts at
garb are not to be described, but with my entry into the Theater program in
college, my access to better research materials improved the quality of my designs, and my access to the costume shop improved my
skills and seamstress’ discipline.
A fateful knee injury switched my focus from lighting to costuming, and the rest they say, is history. After a torrid affair with
the Anthropology department, and their heady blend of research and
"experimental archaeology" (my now-favorite hobby!) I matriculated and was cast upon the outside world unsuspecting. Unfortunately, I
was unable to make costuming pay in the post-college Real World, and so now I line up words in software manuals for
pay. Nine years into my faire "hobby", I joined a singing group and created this
dress. I somehow managed to finish this gown despite illness, work
pressure, then layoffs, and subsequent involvement in a fast-moving Silicon Valley
start-up. We just won't mention how *late* it was finished. ;)
This entry is long, because it’s as much a story about what I’ve been up to the last year and a half as it is about the dress. The dress
is finished in that it is an entire ensemble. But it is unfinished in that I have bigger and better plans for it... someday.
I joined the group in the spring of 2009, not really sure what awaited me. Fortunately, my good friend and then-housemate
Rose Award winner!) had a handle on the fabric situation and had extra yardage that I could purchase from her. While I had the choice of
a black and gold (which appealed to my inner Goth), I ended up choosing the red and gold which complimented my skin tone much better.
When our local fabric shop started blowing out decorator silks at $3 US a yard, I bought a bolt
of a plain chocolate brown to use for underpinnings, and another of a red-shot copper gold to use as
lining and contrast. The bodice's padded lining came from the stash - the
striped linen is soft and comfortable, and makes it easy to tell when you're cutting off-grain. The cream
damask for the stays came
from the stash also, but from further off; the fabric came to me third hand, from a friend who'd got it from an SCA fellow who purged
her stash as she moved to the East coast, and who (so I am told) had originally gotten the fabric from an SCA fabric-swap. I was glad
to finally put it to use, I must admit.
I started out in the design phase with what I knew:
due to the theatrical constraints of Renaissance Faires, there were
certain limitations imposed on the undergarments. Period or no, I wear bloomers, stockings and comfortable shoes! A corded petticoat
would provide fullness and an air gap between me and my skirts on hot days and it would have to be extra high to keep it out of the
mud. Durability was a first priority in that regard. Slashed sleeves would give me a bit of extra airflow, and a high hem would keep the
gorgeous damask from getting splashed (as much). The gown, per the group’s
theatrical convention, would have a pointed bodice, closed front skirt, and a pointed bodice back.
Then I moved on to the areas where I had some wiggle-room
design. I've always liked Venetian gowns, but I can't admit to being a fan
of the wide-spread open fronts. I was bound and determined to do a narrow opening gown with matching sleeves. I figured that a
narrower front would also help me prevent what I call “buttress corners” in
the event that I gained weight and laced the gown open wider. Interestingly, I did find evidence of gowns where the bottom points
of the bodice touched, but most were either *very* young ladies or children. (Which leads me now to wonder -
was the bodice gap a mode of economy, like growth tucks in a skirt? Get one gown, wear it until the bodice gap is six inches top to
bottom?) When I saw this image from the Fasolo frescoes, I was determined to
make this, this very dress, right here! Of course, the best laid plans...
Learning lace, photo courtesy of Shirley
The Grand Plans
The Fasolo frescoes are unique (in my opinion) because they show embroidered
camicie showing through the lacing gaps of the
bodice. This made excellent sense when I saw the camicie
from the Museuo del Tessuto in
Prado. After studying the picture of the red embroidered smock in 'Moda
I picked up a set of lace making bobbins, and began teaching myself to make bobbin lace.
I also began drafting an embroidery design to apply to a new linen camicia I'd
pencilled out on medium weight linen. I had a partlet of butter-yellow silk cut
out, and all sorts of jewelry findings stashed away to make a pomander girdle. I even found some patterns for needle lace, the thought
being to add a lace band around the cuff of each sleeve.
The Foundation Layers
Shoes were had from my fellow
performers, and stockings and
long bloomers (for modesty, if not necessarily accuracy) were already apart of my wardrobe from previous incarnations as various
Italian noblewomen. I decided to take the risk of beginning my underpinnings
using an old chemise, giving myself the option to take everything in later if necessary.
I started on the corded petticoat first, and that was fairly simple. Since the petticoat is the "dirt layer", the least seen,
and occasionally a stand-in for a napkin or towel, I'd chosen the chocolate brown silk to hide dirt. Also, the silk was lightweight
and durable, and, oh did I mention inexpensive? Into the wash it went, along with a skein of cotton clothesline in a lingerie bag. I
sewed the corded petticoat using the self-channels method, then threaded the
cording laboriously in using a bodkin, and stitched up the seam openings by hand. The top of the skirt pleated quite nicely into
a narrow waistband, which then closed with ribbon ties that wrapped all the way around my body. (I hate dress hooks. Or specifically I hate
the dents they leave in my skin.)
There was no question about what I’d need for a support layer. It appears that I have the dubious talent of putting on weight in
one area only, so a corset for extra support was a *must*. Laurie had been fortunate enough to attend the Janet Arnold conference
in Florence the previous winter, and had picked up the detailed booklet
(previously, but no longer available as a free PDF from the publishers of Costume) giving an analysis and pattern of the Queen
Elizabeth Effigy stays. I pored over it greedily!
A few interesting things struck me about the stays that had not been noticeable from previous
research: first, that they were only two pattern pieces. The mythical third
piece had been, as the photos in the articles showed on closer examination, merely a stitched boning channel that had given
way, giving the appearance of another seam line. I managed to find (in my
copious backups and costume research downloads!) a copy of the original .gif file everyone had been going off of, and confirmed
this. Second, that the front of the corset piece was not actually on the
straight of grain, but tilted in. It sounds strange, but I found in the mock-up
phase that this gives much better bust support without giving the wearer either the “high tide line” effect or the “melons
on a platter” look. Third, that the reed was not of a consistent thickness or
direction. For the most part the bents ran vertically, but when they reached the
center diagonal, a thicker bent ran from the bottom edge straight up on the straight of grain, leaving a triangular flap to be boned in the opposite direction.
Fourth, the tabs were mostly, but not quite, entirely boned. Cutting the front from one piece of fabric and then adding holes for
points meant that the vertical channels for the side most tab bone were
interrupted by worked eyelets and the angle of the cut tab. While this wouldn’t stop someone intent on boning the tab all the way
down if they were really intent on it (especially since it would have been
completely hand-sewn!) it appears to my eye that the garment was at least partially stitched, then
boned. Lastly, the deep front point was pieced on. I figured I could leave that off, since my gown would be some 33 years or so ahead of
its time, and, well, *English* otherwise. (Not to mention the difficulty of managing to sit and loll in a courtesan-like fashion with so deep
These type of stays, I reasoned, would be more comfortable made and fully boned if I used reed instead of steels, so I picked up
some half-round reed from the Caning Shop in Berkeley and started experimenting. Surprisingly, I was able to
draft a fitted version of the corset with little trouble, though I made it both front- and back-lacing for ease of expansion. (It had been
my experience that one never ever shrinks to fit the gown one is making in the someday-size, so it's best to be prepared to let out, as well as take in.) I spent several days threading reed through
channels, cutting, tapering, and recutting reed to slide it into the stays. And
when I was too exhausted from that to do anything more than watch TV, I made lucet cord to tie the stays together with and worked hand
bound eyelets. The last death march was binding: I gave up, machine sewed the binding on one side, and hand whipped it down for speed. By
now it was May, and I had less than a month to go.
Of course, my then-employer had the poor taste to ramp up
production right around the time we began rehearsals in earnest. I found myself
dragging myself home and throwing myself in front of the sewing machine night after night, finding that I only had an hour or
so before I was too exhausted to safely sew more. Clearly, this plan was too ambitious. Clearly... the fancywork would have to take a backseat. Especially if this gown was going to get finished by the
time we had our first performance in early June... Eeek!
With Laurie's assistance, I was able to get a good working pattern
with secure off-the-shoulder straps. The mock-up stage went quickly, but then I was absolutely paralyzed when it came to cutting fabric -
I had never, ever, worked with a silk damask so expensive and slippery, and the pattern was so beautiful and complex that I spent a good
hour just staring at it and planning. I procrastinated by making bias from the golden copper silk, and cutting an interlining layer from the
All the while, Laurie herself was working on her entry for her knighting ceremony last year. While I’d decided to use
the fabric with the red figured side out, Laurie decided to use the gold side out. Independently, we each decided to use it in
different directions, too - I decided that the flowers were pointing up, and
Laurie decided they were pointing down. We joked later that we would have to get a picture of us both standing side by side, one of
us doing a handstand.
It was time for the bodice. I cut and pattern matched it painstakingly, making sure to show off the red lilies that were to
be my namesake: Fiametta da Fiore means the little flame of the flower. :)
Since I didn't know of any resources
on extant 16th century Venetian garments, nor would I have had time to view them if I had, I drew from previous experience in
theatrical costuming. I opted for a hybrid of Renaissance finishing techniques
and Victorian dressmaking skills.
The bodice panels are flat-lined in linen, and the silk is then turned over, pressed, pinked, and
whipstitched back to the linen interlining. The two back seams are also reinforced with flexible, curved pieces of1/4" spring steel boning encased in copper silk bias. The
top neckline is bag-faced with more of the copper silk which is then whipstitched down to the interlining, because one of my pet peeves is
for the linings of clothes to roll up and become visible. The bottom edge of the bodice is also faced in wide bias, which is then rolled up
and (sensing a pattern?) whip stitched into the interlining. (For those of you who moonlight
in Victorian costume, the only thing this bodice is missing to make it a
Victorian take on a Renaissance gown, construction wise at least, is a waist tape.)
I patterned a two inch button stand style panel into the front bodice panel, and rolled it over to enclose a long piece of steel boning
on either side. I added ribbon lacing using Jen Thompson’s instructions.
The bodice was done, and now it
was time for the skirt.
The skirt panels gave me a chance to indulge my pattern matching OCD in safe, straight lines.
The waistband with its back point gave me
trouble, but the cartridge pleats (something I used to get hired to do by people who hated them) did not.
A strip of
woollen flannel from a long since finished cloak project padded out the pleats to give them a
bulk that would just not be possible any other way in such lightweight silk. I added to this a strip of stripe-woven cotton, which I used
to gauge my cartridge pleats. (Cotton gingham is also a great choice.) The cartridge pleats were approximately six stripes
I bag lined the panels in the golden copper silk, and left a pocket slit in one of the side seams. With Laurie’s help, I pinned up
the hem so it floated like a little cloud over the corded petticoat. I was completely out of time.
I had begged the costume committee to give me a break, and one was granted: I was able to borrow some coordinating sleeves from an
older dress (of Florentine make) and use them as a stopgap so I could finish my gown in time. It worked out quite well I think. Because they
were red, they matched well enough that only *we* knew.
The night before the first event, I dashed home and spent fifteen minutes making a tie-on pocket. While I know these are more
commonly thought to be a Rococo dress item, the painting of a lady at her
dressing table in 'Moda a Firenze' shows one tied on with
points. I made mine on a tied ribbon, but also sewed a
small extra pocket inside it to hold my identification. (A handy thing to have at Renaissance
Faires!) The pocket took me approximately 15minutes to make (With “Lucy Locket lost her pocket” stuck in my
head the whole time), and all came out of my stash: cotton canvas, and polyester satin ribbon. It’s been one of the most useful parts of
the ensemble, because nothing ruins a period line like a cell phone stuck down the
Our first faire of the season went well, despite rain and cold and
mud on the first day. (My hem stayed miraculously dry!) It was the second day that was awful, not during faire but
On the car trip home I got a call from my lead at work asking if I'd gotten any strange emails from the automatic payroll system.
We both knew what that meant: the next day, my entire department at work was laid off.
Needless to say, all things Faire and Venetian immediately fled from my list of top priorities. Wrangling with the unemployment system
and spending hours seeking out and applying for jobs didn’t leave me with a lot of energy for sewing and costuming projects. At some
point however, I realized that I’d already paid for a Costume College 2009,
and kicked myself into high gear working on projects I’d neglected.
Between repairs to other outfits and a dashed-though 18th century gown, I made some repairs to the front of the gown, and made a pair
of simple sleeves to make the dress feel more finished. Without the energy to pattern new sleeves to match the ones in the fresco, I
ended up using the same pattern as the sleeves I had borrowed from the
Florentine dress, which were based on Janet Arnold’s Patterns of Fashion, page 84, Doublet 19. Out the window went the plans for
are production of the Fasolo fresco. After making them up once, I decided they were too plain and piped the front and back seams with
a gold round braid I found in my trim stash. I had just enough time to sew the sleeves into the bodice before packing the car full
of costumes and costumers and heading to LA. (Special thanks to Bess Chilver for
the brief loan of the
Back to the Grind
Shortly after that, an opportunity to work for a fast paced
start-up presented itself. For someone without a computer science degree, this was a one-in-a-million opportunity and I
jumped at it. If I thought I didn’t have much time before, now my time was
non-existent. Due to various economic and personal reasons, the group took a hiatus for the year, and the gown sat,
still not-quite-finished, in a garment bag in the closet. Finally, I took it down, and slashed and lined the upper parts of the sleeves,
then re-set them into the straps of the bodice. To give you an idea of the free-time contraction you get working for a
start-up, it took me a week of working in the between-work-and-sleep hours to do four slashes.
I finished the four on the other side in approximately two hours on a weekend.
The slashes themselves are also edged with a delicate gold lace pulled from my stash. This lace was a huge pain, and almost caused me
to ruin one sleeve. It is so incredibly fine that any cut edge immediately frays, so I had taken to daubing the place I needed to
cut with superglue before cutting. There was a bubble in the pipette of glue, and a large blot fell on the fabric of one sleeve. I
panicked, but my boyfriend, ever quick on the draw, was able to remove the stuff
by pouring acetone over it. That’s probably as near to having a heart attack as I’d ever like to get, and I don’t know what effect this
will have on the fabric in as it ages. But it beats having a stiff black spot on one arm!
The Wrap Up
And so you have it. A Venetian gown of approximately 1570 in a red and gold silk
damask, with fitted sleeves sewn on to the bodice with
a slashed upper puff. A pair of bodies of cream damask, tabbed and stiffened with reed, worn over a corded petticoat of chocolate
silk and a full length camicia with wide sleeves to pull through the gown’s
sleeve slashes. The jewelry comes from my various and eclectic stashes: pearls from
faires, rings from thrift stores, earrings from
a gem sale.
Perhaps someday I’ll get back to my grand plans - I promise you all an update if that happens. Lace, needle lace, silk and embroidery
will have to wait until my company IPOs and we’re all filthy rich and rolling in
My true talent lies in finding and making props - so pictured here you see me with the pocket mirror that is an essential for any
Courtesan of merit (wink), and the opposite end of the spectrum, in the persona
of the ghastly old Scapino (in a mask I made myself). A flag fan and some lovely books complete the persona.
My abject thanks to Laurie and Jeremy Tavan, without which this project could not have been fitted, furnished or photographed.
And always, of course, to Laurie for her skilful assistance with my rebellious hair. ;)
can contact Laura at rubin.laurad
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