This project was submitted for the East Kingdom’s Crowns Championship Competition on February 29,2020. Fiore was chosen the Consort’s Champion.
The purpose of this project is to create a Florentine veste for Fiore Leonetta Bardi suitable for wear at the Music Festival of Ferrara of 1570.
The Veste (or Soppraveste) is executed in red changeable silk (hereaafter cangiante), interlined with medium weight linen and lined with a yellow changeable silk of rougher quality.
Fiore Leonetta Bardi was born in 1552. In 1570, Fiore would have been eighteen and would certainly have had such a garment in her guardadroba to be worn over a sottana (florentine fitted dress), or a sottana senza busto (underskirt) and Giubbone (doublet). This is my first attempt at building a veste.
This project is an exploration of patterning and construction methods. The garment is the result of the project rather than the point. In fact, this garment would not be considered complete and is instead ready for a final fitting before the goldwork embroidery is affixed. Of most interest to me is how clothing was created, materials, and methods. I am intrigued by the adaptations required to fit clothing to bodies of varying dimensions, and for different materials. I also love the political theatre of wearing certain garments for certain occasions.
My initial reference painting is Isabella de Medici (1555-8) by Alessandro Allori currently in the St. Petersburg, Hermitage Museum (Moda a Firenze, p 81).
Florentine fashion up until 1562 has highly influenced by Eleonora di Toledo who brought the Spanish silhouette with her when she married into the Medici household (1539), with a twist. The Spanish silhouette was achieved through the use of foundation garments — stays, a farthingale, and sometimes a roll — underneath the gown. Eleonora was an active woman enjoying outdoors activities including hunting and horseback riding. Her preferred activities were not necessarily possible to enjoy in all of those undergarments and so her sottanas were designed to create the right shape without the restriction.
Late in Eleonora’s life we start seeing the sopraveste entering Florentine fashion. This overdress was more fitted that Florence’s Zimarra or Ropa (two variations of overdress) and was very influenced by French and Austrian fashion at the time. The garment first enters the Medici guardaroba in the wardrobes of Lucrezia and Isabella de Medici, Eleonora’s daughters. The first painting is Isabella from 1555 by Mirabello Cavalori. The second is Lucrezia from 1558 and the third Isabella from 1560 both by Bronzino.
There was even German styled gown in Eleonora di Toledo’s wardrobe. Eleonora tended to avoid fads and fashion so it is a big deal. The veste will not have full sleeves and will depend on the sleeves of a sottana or giubbone to complete the look. I will initially wear this over a sottana and later build a doublet and skirt under it.
Societal Place and Garment Cost (an aside):
Fiore is the illegitimate daughter of Giovanni Bardi, a nobleman of Florence and Lucrezia Guarini, a musician and noblewoman of Ferrara. This poses many problems in navigating Florence and her status. While she is recognized (illegitima) and lives her father, her dowry comes from her mother who comes from equal wealth and a more liberal court.
That said, her expenses would have come from Palazzo Bardi which makes cost a real factor in the building of a gown.
The following is speculation on cost based on reading and research in Florentine familial finances and the cost of garments in and around 1570.
Eleonora di Toledo had 12-14 dresses made per year but, she was Grand Duchess. An illegitimate daughter from a powerful house who is out in Court (because of a prominent mother) would have to dress well. Fiore has lived with her father from the age of 8, sent to Florence so that her mother a musician in Ferrera could tour.
How much of the household resources would have been dedicated to her and how many dresses would that buy?
Giovanni Bardi was unmarried until 1580 (Lucrezia Salvati) though he undoubtedly had a mistress or two. It was therefore likely that Fiore would work as head of household and help manage the portion of the books entailing the running of the household. It is also quite likely that, like most women with extenuating circumstances during that time, Fiore likely sold items for which she had no additional need in order to maintain some financial independence. Such practices happened at all levels of the household and would have given her additional financial stability.
The approximate cost of a silk Florentine gown without speciality fabric such as damask would have been 400-800 florins. Fiore’s dowry includes 8000 florins (from her maternal family) matching that of Isabella di Medici, though her trousseau would be much humbler. The dowry speaks to status and her family’s wealth but not to the funds available for her expenses. If I assume the mid-range cost and one third of the low-end of Eleonora’s guardaroba output we get to four gowns per year costing ~2400 florins in total.
The occasion of visiting her mother during the Music Festival of Ferrara would definitely rank as a time to spend out on a new veste.
At this time, Giovanni Bardi is already beginning to build the Camerata of Florence and this trip is important in the creation of this group and establishing a new vocal music form in Florence.
Historically Equivalent Materials:
35/2 coarse linen thread
60/2 linen thread
Unplied linen thread
Beeswax for thread
Silk filament in Black
Bone needles (2 sizes)
Bronze needle (for silk)
Small Tailors Sheers
Six yards of Cangiante silk (red and black threads)
Six yards of linen for interlining
Six yards of Cangiante silk (yellow and blue threads) for lining
Wool felt for bodice interlining
Cotton Fustian for bodice stability and shaping (interlining)
Linen Canvas for bodice interlining
Embellishment as time permits either pre-made trim or goldwork embroidery.
John James steel needles
Gingher tailor’s sheers
Modern hooks and eyes (fundamentally unchanged since at least 1445)
Modern woven fabrics with period equivalents
My over educated mind
The first step of this process was creating new bara tapes for myself as I have changed size since I last built a gown. I used Alcega’s reference for this process, and also referred to The Modern Maker to make sure I hadn’t gone astray at some point.
The pattern for the veste will rely on Patterns of Fashion garment no. 47 — 1598 gown worn by Pfalzfräfin Dorothea Sabina con Neuburg for inspiration.
Keeping the general shape of Alcega’s Saya de Paño para Mujer (pattern 64)
Also, I will also use Gnagy’s pattern for the ropa (Freeyle/Burguen/Anduxar 1588-1620) as a guide for proportions and since he also uses bara measurements it is a good check on my pattern.
The pattern is drafted onto paper first. I cut a toile out of denim for stability and used it to adjust the fit . I always have to alter four measurements. The shoulder line, the armscye, collar height (where applicable), and the back.
I am fairly busty so the precise arch of the armscye can be the difference between comfortable fit or impossible. I am also shortwaisted — more so in the back. In order to avoid ripples in the back of the garment, I must adjust the bottom of the back pattern by inserting a small curve and following that arch through to the front point.
The application of curvature to patterns is a technique I learned from a master tailor in a mundane context. I cannot document it to history (yet) except to say that people have always had curves and geometry works. The back of this garment is cut on the fold, meaning that there is no seam down the back that can be adjusted in sewing. This can result in ripples or lines where the straight lines negotiate with your body’s curvature. A good rule of thumb is that horizontal issues have vertical causes and vice versa. In order to resolve these issues you must sometimes employ bias stretch. In the absence of folds, seams, or tucks for adjustment, we must use curves. None of the curves are visible in the finished garment, they just make it wear properly.
The Veste skirt pattern models the classic Alcega/Elenora di Toledo extant shape with one variation. As this garment will not have a train the gore cut and shift in the back panel is not done. Instead the full width of the back panel is used to give more fullness in the skirt.
I spend a lot of time moving pattern pieces around to control waste. I suppose I could also cut the fabrics down to more historically accurate warps and see whether that was even more effective as waste reduction and will likely try this in a future project.
The pattern for the baragone was a bit of a flyer. I had a pattern start in Alcega but I had to make an alteration for the cap sleeve I wanted and because I was considering a double roll effect. It is at this point in every project that I doubt everything because I have left knowing and entering guessing. As it turns out I should have stuck with Alcega as my experiment was wrong, wrong, wrong and his pattern works just fine. I wasted four hours on that detour and in the end the baragone are not correct and must be redone.
I used modern equivalents of period textiles. As such my warp lengths were longer. 54-57” on average.
The use of cangiante silk in these garments is interesting for a few reasons.
- Up until the later 16th century these impressive silks were used for linings and to create costumes for angels or saints in religious plays. They were an impressive flash not the main event.
- Eleonora di Toledo does not use this fabric for any of the outer garments (ropa, zimarra, or veste) of the guardaroba. They appear in the documents for her daughters’ clothing and later in that of Cammilla, and her daughter.
- The elevation of this fabric from interior to exterior is not unlike the elevation of the sottana to outer garment followed by a return to life as an undergarment. It implies to me that they were quite flexible when it came to pushing a boundary in fashion. In order to compensate for the inexpensiveness of cangiante, I suppose, many of those veste are eleborately decorated with trims and embroidery of metal thread.
Fustian was the only common fabric in sixteenth century Italy that might contain cotton thread. It featured a linen or worsted warp and a cotton or wool weft. The moleskin weight used in this garment was sourced from The Tudor Tailor. They have been having fun sourcing period equivalent fabrics from textile manufacturers in English. The quality of this fustian is so nice I almost didn’t use it for the padding.
Linen Canvas and Wool Felt are unlikely to be vastly different now than they were in period particularly the unbleached variants I used. It is likely that no one pressed flex in urine for the linen fiber but in feel and usage they are likely very similar.
Once the pattern was drafted and tested it was time to prepare the fabric. All of my garments must be washable which means that the silk must be washed, and pressed prior to cutting the pattern out.
I could dive deeply in to fabric treatment and laundry but will leave that topic for another project. Suffice to say, I wash everything. The cangiante silks were hand washed in white vinegar and cool water, rolled in towels, and ironed damp with a piece of silk organza as a pressing cloth. The linen was machine washed and dried three times to avoid shrinkage or variance as it is used as interlining here. The wool felt and fustian were also machine washed. Modern towels were required as I live in a 800sq ft apartment and cannot use more historically accurate techniques in this space.
Once the fabric was ready. I used the paper patterns (excepting one collar piece which I mislaid so had to use its denim equivalent) to cut both silks and linen interlining. Once I had all of pieces cut, I began constructing the bodice.
The bodice of a Veste requires quite a bit of structure. Shortcuts in interlining tend to distort the line of the garment and also allow the over garments to assert their shape too much.
The interlining creates that structure. In this case linen canvas matches the bodice pattern. Wool fustian creates the shape of the upper body front and back, and a layer of wool felt reenforces that shape. This additional padding shapes over the breast in the front and shapes the shoulder blades and upper back in the rear. The layers are pad-stitched to the linen canvas creating one strong but flexible textile.
Pad-stitching thoughts: Very clearly no one was uses a bronze needle to padstitch these types of fabric. At least not one as fine as the one I was able to source. An attempt through just the wool and fustian completely bent the needle. None of my bone needles seemed up to the challenge. So, either it was customary to use brass or iron needles or they had a thicker or otherwise stronger needle. In any event for sanity’s sake, and because my hands are still recovering from injury, I moved to a modern needle (John James). Even with the modern needle, pad-stitching is hard on the hands. I have since had several useful discussions with a black smith and we will attempt to recreate the look and function of sewing needles for this use in a future project.
As I worked on the bodice, I very quickly changed to the coarser linen thread as it is stronger and held to the work better. Observation about the John James needle. It is machine made and the eye is machine tooled which can and does wear the thread as you work sometimes causing frays and breakage to even waxed thread. In period, needles were made by hand and the eyes would have been sanded which was likely much easier on the thread use. I do liberally wax my threads.
The bodice edges are completed and the hooks and eyes are applied now to help additional fittings.
The construction of the skirt is much more straight-forward. If not for a silly shortcut it would have been much easier. When interlining silk you must baste the interlining material, in this case linen, to the silk. If you do not you risk the very slippery fabric sliding as you so and distorting a panel. Which is exactly what happened to me. I have to rip out two long seams of strong hand stitches in waxed linen thread (Aaaaaaaaah!). I went back and did the basting that would have saved me heartache and reconstructed the skirt. Next, the skirt must be hung onto the bodice. This skirt will be cartridge-pleated.
The process of cartridge pleating requires one to measure the length of your fabric and the length of your bodice waist and then calculate how many pleats per inch will get you close and what you need to fiddle at the end to make up the inevitable variance. I mark each interval in chalk and in three rows. I tend used my strongest thread to run the length of the fabric through the holes I have marked, gathering as I go to avoid too much waste thread. I then attach the skirt to the bodice right side to right side using 6 strong stitches per pleat (front of gown to front of pleat). The skirt is then inverted so the the pleats hang down and the whole dress hangs for at least a day. Gravity works, and this step always gives me a truer hem that moves the way I want it to when I walk,
The final step of the skirt construction is the hem. As traditional for a Florentine hem this one will contain a 3” strip of wool felt encased in silk all around. This stiffening with the shape of the skirt provides the bell-like movement usually attributed to the farthingale.
The final step will be decorating the veste with goldwork but that is beyond the scope of this project.
Basting stitch (silk and interlining)
Whipstitch (cartridge pleats)
Backstitch (all others)
For seams that are not load-bearing, I could have used a running stitch but I prefer the stronger seam as my seam allowances are about 6mm. My backstitch averages 10-12 stitches per inch.
The challenges in building this garment were those common to anyone approaching a new garment. My sewing skill was a strength I brought into the challenge but patterning something new is always a hurdle. That is the process of coming to a place of agreement with the resources both extant and modern and then conforming the pattern to my unique build.
One item that I cannot neglect is that while my process provides me with a fit and wear that matches the paintings of this type of garment in period, it is a personal fit. I would be remiss if I failed to mention the elephant in the room. I trained and worked for 25 years as an opera singer. My ribcage and back expansion at rest are dimensions not found in women of the 16th century of my size. In that sense the biggest anachronism is my torso.
Time remains the biggest challenge in a project like this. Compounded by errors made in haste that cost even more time. My largest challenge was in trying to understand and reflect the process of garment creation as a tailor’s apprentice might — Seven years in and authorized to cut and form garments but still unsure of what mastery looks like. I learned a great deal more about 16th century apparel in this project but I am still a long way from mastery.
Ajmar Wollheim , Marta and Flora Dennis. At Home in Renaissance Italy. London: V&A Productions 2006.
Alcega, Juan de Tailor’s Pattern Book 1589. Fasc. New York: Costume and Fashion Press, 1999.
Arnold, Janet. Patterns of Fashion: The cut and construction of clothes for men and women c1560-1620.
Crowfoot, Elizabeth, Frances Pritchard, and Kay Staniland. Textiles and Clothing 1150-1450. London: Boydell Press, 2001.
Florentine Renaissance Resources: Online Catasto: STG, Brown University, Providence, 2002. http://cds.library.brown.edu/projects/catasto/main.php
Gnagy, Matthew. The Modern Maker Pattern Volume 2: Pattern Manual 1580 – 1640. New York: Matthew Gngay 2018.
Kuehn, Thomas, Illegitimacy in Renaissance Florence. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002.
Matchette, Ann. “Women, Objects, and Exchange in Early Modern Florence.” Early Modern Women 3 (2008): 245-51. Accessed January 9, 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/23541538.
Monnas, Lisa. Merchants, Princes and Painters: Silk Fabrics in Italian and Northern Paintings 1300-1550. New Haven: The Yale University Press, 2008.
Orsi-Landini, Roberta, and Bruna Nicolai. Moda a Firenze: Lo stile di Eleonora di Toleeo e la sua influenza. Firenze: Pagliai Polistampa, 2005.