Wednesday, October 29, 2014


When I'm making a historical costume the most important aspect for me is the silhouette. I'm not a stickler about hand sewing the entire garment or using 100% authentic materials. I do those things when I can, but they aren't my top priority. The most important part for me is capturing exactly the shape and style details of a particular outfit. The bodice shape is the most important part and one of the hardest things to capture, particularly in a 16th century Venetian. They are pretty weird.

Lady in White - Titian
Portrait of a Woman - Veronese

Portrait of a Woman Holing Gloves - Veronese

These three portraits are pretty close, chronologically speaking, and have nice clear examples of what I'm going for. So what are we looking at here? The bodice is a typical 16th century cone shape, narrow at the waist, a low point in the front (which is actually rounded off), and wide-set straps. In the first one, Titian's Lady in White, you can very clearly see the straight slope in the bodice from the bust down to the point. The second image gives a nice front view. Again, it's pretty flat, and possibly slanted like the first one. The third image shows some hint of padding around the belly, almost like a peascod belly, which would require padding to achieve, just like a men's doublet. I also was heavily influenced by Laurie Tavan's Showcase on The Realm of Venus and my own research into bust support and 16th century corsetry. The main problem with heavily boned, cone-shaped bodices (on my figure, at least), is the bodice collapsing into a concave shape under the bust and flaring back out again over the belly. You can see that here, on my old Venetian.

You've seen this, but in case you forgot.
The first step, as in any dress-making, is making a pattern. I based it on a former version of this bodice, with a few tweaks. The left is the front, the middle is half of the back, the right is half of the  stomacher.

After I got the bodice pattern finished, I started this dress with a padded stomacher stiffened with buckram. The majority of the padding is right under my bust to prevent the whole thing from collapsing at that point. The stomacher itself is shaped like the front of the bodice, going almost all the way to the side seams. It has one layer of buckram on a linen canvas foundation, many layers of padding (which is pad stitched to the base), and another layer of linen canvas to finish it off.

Because we have so few examples of 16th century Italian gowns I had to get a little creative when it came to stiffening the bodice. Moda a Firenze confirms for us that buckram (or buckram-like substances) and padding where used in 16th century Florence, but we don't know exactly how they were used. I was skeptical that the bodice was one continuous piece of buckram, because it tends to collapse, but I wasn't sure how else to arrange it. Then, I got Seventeenth-Century Women's Dress Patterns and saw that fabulous x-rayed bodice. It has boning in it, certainly, but also it has buckram. It's also a fully century too late, but beggars can't be choosers. I used the placement of the buckram strips as inspiration for my lay out.

It's a combination of vertical and horizontal pieces, doubled up in some crucial places like the center back, side seams, and center front. The straps are also lined with buckram and I added diagonal pieces to help keep it from collapsing. It's all stitched down by machine to a linen canvas interlining. 

Then, I added a thin layer of cotton padding to the outside to make a nice smooth foundation. Someday I want to try that with felt as well and see what that looks like.

Then I assembled the whole thing, leaving the stomach loose (for now), and tried it on with some lacing strips. 

Oh look! The unflattering bathroom mirror shots are back!
So slanty!

Pretty solid, right? I added more buckram after the try-on but even with minimal stiffening it held its shape pretty well. My theory is that the padding supports the bust and smooths out the figure and that's what helps keep the buckram itself from collapsing in places it would be prone to, like right under the bust. These period materials are steering me right.

Next Up: Sleeves! Pretty fabric! Roller Derby World Championships!

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Venetain Obsession

I've had a bit of a thing about 16th century Venetian gowns for a very long time now. At first, it was pretty simple. They were pretty and popular and I wanted one. It did not stay that way.

Let's get in the way back machine!

Here's my first effort all the way back from 2005/2006. It's a self supporting bodice, boned with cable ties. I made a classic full camicia to wear underneath. There's no petticoat, which is why it's so limp, because how do you wear a petticoat under an open ladder-laced gown? There's nothing to hide the waistband! It was a lovely effort, especially considering how little sewing I'd actually done at the time. It was fun to wear and I felt really pretty.

But, of course, me being me, that was not enough. Ultimately I didn't feel like I'd really captured the true Venetian silhouette. So I read many dress diaries, stared at lots of portraits, and started a new dress.

Still love that hair.

This is effort number two, from 2007. Getting closer! This time I wore the gown over a corset and a false camicia stomacher. I also had a padded petticoat underneath. During the construction process I experiment with a padded stomacher but abandoned it for a reason I can't remember now. I was very happy with how the gown looked, and it was
lovely to wear,
I was almost there! Why did I abandon that?
but I still wasn't happy with the bodice silhouette.

Fast forward a few years and I'm still obsessing. How do you get the bodices to look like that? See how the bodice slopes down from the bust to the stomach instead of curving in under the bust, near the waist, as it does on both my versions? How do you get that if it's nothing but a bodice over a camicia? Where are the petticoats? How do you keep the camicia (fake or real) so straight under the lacing? How do make the bodice that stiff when there is not actual evidence of bonding in this period? How do you keep the laces so straight?

What is this witchcraft?!

A Lady in White - Titian   She's probably a witch.

I read more blogs. I got my hands on Moda a Firenze, which is not Venetian, but that's as close as we can get. I thought more about padding and how boning wasn't really a thing before the 1580s, especially not in Italy. I bought fabric. I plotted. I took unflattering bathroom mirror photos!

And now I'm in the middle of my Cunning Plan.

I'm a great photographer.

Do you want to know more? Do you want to see how pretty this is going to be? Do you want to see what kind of witchcraft this is?

Stay tuned, my friends, stay tuned!

So what is this blog?

I've been making historical costumes for just over a decade now, and I've had some kind of web presence on and off over the years. The list includes a long gone public LiveJournal, at least two websites, and a blog I abandoned in grad school. I've decided to take another stab at it, this time with a little something extra. Maybe this one will stick.

Mostly this blog is about what my blogs have always been about - historical costumes. I do, however, have a new love in my life, and sometimes I just can't help but talk about it. That new love is roller derby. The Women's Flat Track Derby Association kind, with real games and real hits. I discovered it two years ago in the midst of grad school madness and I haven't looked back. I'm known in those parts as StitcHer Up, number 36, and I skate fast and hit hard. It's a strange combo of hobbies, and it works really well for me.

Rest assured, though, I'm still a pretty pretty princess and wicked with a needle and thread. 

Photo Courtesy of Chuck Fong
Also me.