An Easy Italian Renaissance Gown

Madonna Contessa Ilaria Veltri degli Ansari

front of my dress side of my dressback of my dress

This dress is a simple version of the dresses commonly worn around 1490 in Italy. There is no shaping and few pieces. It is made to slip on over your head. You will need a belt, to be worn high around the ribcage, just under the bosom. This belt can match or contrast. If you want to embellish the dress, the left sleeve is the place to start. Dresses at this time and place could be strikingly plain. Any firm but not too stiff fabric will do, it can be made of corduroy, upholstery velvet, twill, or damask. I have even made it of high quality washable velour for tourney wear. If you are concerned about colors, look to the paintings for inspirations.
I strongly recommend that everyone have a basic sewing book or two. Most of the pattern companies have them and there are many others on the market. In it you will find terms identified and construction techniques illustrated. You can usually find one at you local thrift or used book store.

Approximately 4 yards of "fashion" fabric, minimum 45" wide. Wider is better.
About 1 1/2 yards lining to match. This doesn't have to be modern "lining" fabric. Any un-napped fabric will work.
7-14 yards ribbon. (or more) To match or contrast, any width you like. 1" is commonly available and a nice size.
A bodice pattern from a basic dress in your size, or a shirt pattern that fits you with a non-dropped shoulder and a tight sleeve. Think 1960's and 70's here. Newsprint or other pattern making paper and tape.

14 or more pairs Bolo tips
28 or more, 2 piece silver or gold grommets
I use the ones easily available at the fabric store.

To measure how much fabric you will need, measure yourself from the top to the shoulder to the floor, down the front, if you are large bosomed, add several inches extra, as you will be wearing a belt. Add several inches to this for hems. Multiply this by two. Measure yourself from the point of the shoulder to the wrist. Add this to the above. Divide by 36 to find the yards.
sleeve detail sleeve detail sleeve detail
a. A detail of Beatrice d'Este's sleeve from 'Madonna and Child with Saints and with Ludovico il Moro and Beatrice d'Este; known as the Pala Sforzesca, Lombard School, c. 1495. Note the ribbons without aiglettes.(bolo tips)>
b. A sleeve detail from 'The Madonna della Rondine' by Carlo Crivelli. Note lacing instead of ribbons and side opening.
c. A back and sleeve detail from 'The Triumph of Venus and the Sign of Taurus, an Allegory of the Month of April', by Francesco del Cossa, c. 1470. Note sleeve only open from elbow down and side opening.

diagram of basic sleeve pattern diagram of slashed sleeve pattern
A basic pattern will have a sleeve like Figure A. Trace this off on the paper and slit it down the center back (there should be a mark for this spot on the pattern, at the top). (figure B) If there is a dart at the elbow, ignore it. Move the smaller piece over so the underarm seam allowances are overlapping. Tape this together. (figure C).

diagram of finished sleeve pattern diagram of folded sleeve pattern
This sleeve should be tight and close to the arm. Measure across the sleeve and around your arm at about the same points. Wrist, forearm, and bicep are good. If you pattern is less than any of these, that is ok. If it is more than 1/2 inch bigger, pleat the pattern lengthwise in 3 or 4 places to make it narrower. You want the sleeve to be at least 1 inch smaller than your arm when complete. If you had to pleat the pattern, put it on the paper again and draw around the new outline. The curve on top will be stair-step-like. Just draw it smooth. (figure X) If the sleeve pattern is longer than your arm, Cut a little of the top off. Cut out your new pattern, if you want one sleeve piece, you're done. If you want upper and lower sleeves, cut the pattern in half across at the elbow, (figure D). If you want to do fancy cut outs on the edges, now's the time, (figure E).

diagram of cut sleeve pattern  diagram of fancy cut-out sleeve pattern
Cut out one sleeve for each arm in lining and "fashion" fabric. Place the right sides together of each piece, and sew around the edge. Leave a couple inches to turn it right side out. Clip the corners; "fray-check" if necessary. Turn right side out, hand-stitch the opening closed. Press.

Now the dress:
You will need the front and back of the bodice or shirt pattern, but none of the other pieces. If there is a dart on the back shoulder, ignore it. Leaving the shoulder about 2" wide, cut the neck down front and back. I usually cut the front down 2-3" and the back a bit less.
diagram of bodice patterns
Remember to leave a seam allowance. You want the neckline to be wide but not extremely low. A moderate scoop is good. We aren't trying for cleavage here; sometimes the necklines were lower in the back than the front. If the back shoulder had a dart and it isn't gone, trim it off (pretend it is gone). Make sure the back shoulder seam and the front shoulder seam are the same length. Fold your fabric in half lengthwise and lay one pattern piece at the top. Put the center front on the fold.

lay-out of fabric and pattern
Draw a line from the armpit to the selvage at the length you want the dress to be. (Measure from your underarm to the floor, and add enough for a hem). Mark where the hemline should be on the fold. (measure from your neck to the floor and add enough for a hem, remember to add extra for the belt) Between these two marks you should cut the bottom of the dress in a slight curve. Cut on the sideline up around the armscye, shoulder and neck. Do both the back and the front like this.

The triangular piece beside the dress can be turned upside down and added to the side-seams for added width in the skirt. I have done this often and even if the fabric is napped, or is brocade, it doesn't really show. Sometimes in period they paid attention to the nap and sometimes they didn't.

Cut the Lining.
The lining is really just an extended facing. It only needs to be about 3 or 4 inches below the armscye. If you want to fully line the dress, you can. Just cut the lining the same as the dress and then attach it as shown.

At this point you begin sewing the dress.

You can sew the shoulder seams and the side seams, of both the dress and the lining, and lay the two together right sides together and sew around the neck. Clip the seam allowance and turn and press. Now you will need to turn in the seam allowances and hand sew the armscyes.
You can lay the right sides of the lining and the dress together and sew around the neck and armscyes. Clip, turn and press. Then you sew the side seams and hand sew the shoulder seams closed.

Hem the bottom of the lining. Put the dress on, wearing a belt high under your bosom, and have someone mark the hem. Make sure you are wearing the right shoes. Heels aren't period yet but chopins (platforms) are. Hem the dress. I usually like mine right at floor level. Make yours a comfortable length for you.

The last thing you need to do is put in the holes. You will need three or so at the top of the shoulder, the same at the top of the sleeve and at least four down the back of the sleeve, on each side. If you have two piece sleeves or fancy cut outs you will need more. (figure D) If you know how to work eyelets or your sewing machine does, go for it. If not, set in the grommets according to the package and then sew over them with thread to cover them. Cut the ribbon into pieces 18-36 inches long and attach bolo tips, with glue and sewing, if desired. Bolo tips are a nice version of aglets, but not necessary.

Da!Da! you're done!

view of my dress
Under this dress you will wear a Chemise. Make one with sleeves at least one foot longer than your arms, and nice and wide. That way there will be plenty to poof out of the back openings and around the armscye. Sometimes the chemise appears around the neck and sometimes not. It is your choice. If you are large bosomed you will want some support under this. You can wear a flat fronted corset, but as you usually see curvature in the front on the ladies in the paintings, perhaps a sport bra or tube top will work for you, to give you a nice smooth curvey look.

Often you see the slashed sleeve on a dress with a separate bodice. I deliberately simplified this. There are a few examples though.

a. A detail from 'The Birth of Saint John the Baptist', by Ghirlandaio, 1485-90.
b. A dress detail from the Birth of Mary by Domenico Ghirlandaio, c. 1485-90
c. Back view of a dress from 'Miracles of Saint Vincent Ferrer' by Ercole de Roberti.
If you are really interested in Italian Renaissance,try to get ahold of a copy of:
Dress of the Venetians
Stella Mary Newton
This one recently came back into print. It is pricey at $80.00 but packed with information.

Renaissance Dress in Italy 1400-1500
Jacqueline Herald
From the History of Dress Series.
It's out of print and I paid $63.00 for my copy new, 15 years ago, so if you want to buy it, it won't be cheap, but I like it. You can probably inter-library loan this and most other books.
Become friendly with your local reference librarian. Offer to teach at their summer juvenile program.

For more inspiration go to the Art section and look for books about individual artists. At the very least you should be able to find books on Pisanello, Bronzino, Titian, Fra Angelico, Mantegna, Giotto and Botticelli. If you are lucky enough to live near a University, go use their libraries. You can usually look all you want even if you can't check them out there. Then if you must have it at home for a while, resort to inter-library loan.

When looking at clothing remember that anyone wearing a halo is suspect. You need to find out who they are before you can make that piece of clothing. The Virgin Mary usually wears "Mary" clothes, whereas Saint Barbara or Catherine can be dressed in the height of fashion.

Aoda's Follies - a cool Italian Ren site
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