Sottana nel 1589 (1589 Italian Dress)

The Sottana is a fascinating garment (FYI: it shares its name with an unrelated clerical dress).

As far as we know it appears as an undergarment in the 1520s or 30s, more a petticoat than anything, then Eleonora di Toledo arrives in Florence in July of 1539. By the time of the guardaroba entries of 1540, the Sottana is listed as a decorated and supported garment intended to be seen. Eleonora’s fashion sense changed the trajectory of Florentine fashion and quickly established her political acumen. That, however, is a story for another day, for our purposes we are looking at the Sottana of a slightly later period. By the mid-1550s, one of over-gowns worn with the Sottana began to become more fashionable. What is often called a Veste in modern times was a structured garment resembling and built like a doublet with a long skirt. As the bodice closed completely, the Sottana did not need to be overly structured or decorated. In fact, it could be a Sottana senza busto (without bodice) which may have been a sottana without supportive interlining. It is this Sottana, that I recreated for my Investiture as Baroness of Carolingia as we are dressed circa 1589.

The pattern:

We have a basic pattern shape established from Eleonora di Toledo’s burial gown (extant) which is studied in Patterns of Fashion by Janet Arnold, among others. This is where most of us begin. Then one must consider Eleonora di Toledo herself. She was not tall, was considered slight especially at the end of her life, and was described as both lithe and athletic. Based on the descriptions, her portraiture, and the cut of the bodice one realizes she was both thin and not busty. First alterations to the pattern begin there. My first Sottanas were cut exactly as her bodice is cut. Sixteen years, a pregnancy, and lots of good food later — I must accommodate more of me.

I begin with bara tapes. Bara are proportional tapes used in patterning in a system codified in 16th century Spain. We know that proportional patterning was used extensively by tailors throughout Europe but we don’t know how those systems compare to the bara. I have no way of knowing whether the patterning systems used in Florence were codified at all but the bara is easy to learn and use so I do. In any event, they are likely closer to Florentine practice than our contemporary methods.

After making new tapes to accommodate my COVID 19(lbs), I drafted a block on paper where I would build my pattern. I was taught this method of blocking onto paper by Mathew Gnagy, the Modern Maker. In period, the patterns would have been marked directly onto the fabric. I also tend to do this when I am used to the size I am drafting. However, when my size shifts, when I am learning a new garment, or when I am building for someone else, I revert to patterning on paper and doing mockups. I have not been able to document either (paper patterns or mockups) to 16th century Florence. In any event, I drafted a paper pattern, made a denim mockup, and then used these to cut my silk.

The alterations from the extant pattern to my current shape beyond just being larger is an adjustment to the shoulder height of the front of the bodice and by extension, the armscye in order to accommodate my bust. There is also an adjustment to the angle of the sideback as I do not have a flat stomach. These adjustments are more subtle on garments I intend to wear with my stays which maintain the conical shape of these garments better than the supported garment alone. By 1589, stays appeared in the guardaroba with regularity so I designed this Sottana to worn with them. My stays are designed on an extant pair from 1598. A blog entry for them is here.

The fabric:

This gown was made of yellow silk taffeta. The silk was washed in vinegar, air dried, and moist heat pressed (using a modern iron). It is lined with silk dupioni and interlined with linen canvas in the bodice and a light weight linen in the skirt. The trim of Sottana is a synthetic velvet trim of 7/8″ that washes and responses like actual silk velvet but is $4 a yard instead of $40. The hem is 2″ wool felt encased in dupioni.


This garment was constructed with modern needles as I had some Bohin needles to hand and they sew very quickly on silk (speed was important for this project). I used Gutterman silk thread and 30/2 and 60/2 linen thread (sourced from Burnley and Trowbridge) to construct the garment. For the eyelets, I used two strands of Soie d’Alger silk embroidery thread. Modern scissors, rulers, pencils, and tailors chalk were also used. Eyelets made with my trusty bone awl which got a workout on this one.

Design Considerations:

Once I grasped how yellow this Sottana truly was I knew I wanted to break it up a bit. I have admired the trim pattern of the featured painting for a while and decided this was the moment. After pricing real velvet trim (that might not have actually arrived in time from Italy), I decided to use a quality synthetic (#012 Nylavaouk, made in Switzerland) as my dresses must be able to be washed and pressed.


The Sottana was sewn entirely by hand using running, whip, and backstitches as appropriate. In general, stress bearing seams get backstitch, not stress bearing seams get a running stitch. I try to make the stitches small and even but I didn’t aim for a specific stitch per inch. Whip stitch was used to secure the trim to the garment.


The bodice is three layers (outer silk, linen canvas, and inner silk linen) across two pieces — A front and back. They are then spiral laced top to bottom. I always make the bodice first as if this doesn’t fit, the garment is wrong. Of course, as soon as I finished I found that I lost some weight – ugh. The flow of the gown is uninterrupted so I am ignoring it until things stabilize.


The skirt is unlined. It consists of the silk taffeta interlined with linen for more body. It consists of four pieces: A front, a back, and two sets (2 each) of gores which attached to each side of the front and back. These make the conical shape of the skirt which allows one to forego a farthingale. I used a hybrid of the very similar patterns in Alcega and Freyle to draft the skirt. This skirt was drafted without a train. The skirt is then cartridge pleated and hung to allow gravity to show you how the skirt will flow. It will hang again after being attached to the bodice to make sure the fabric is behaving before you hem. Rule #1: gravity works. In this case, it revealed that the fabric needed to be secured differently under the point of the bodice in order to drape nicely.


These sleeves were cut as two halves (front and back) because I got distracted and had just cut Frithuric’s doublet sleeves which are designed that way. It was not an incorrect pattern, just not what I meant to do. The sleeves on the extant sottane are in one piece and that was what I intended — alas. No matter. I used my Tudor Tailor pinking tools to slash the silk. After consulting with another skilled sewist, I elected to remove the linen interlining before slashing and the sleeves are just taffeta lined with dupioni. I used the velvet trim to stabilize the top and wrist. The wrist is slit and the closure is my very first set of self-stuffed cloth buttons. These are wonky and not exactly the same size but they are functional and I am quite pleased with them. The ties are purchased blue silk ribbon with purchased aglets sewn on them. They attach to the bodice via hidden rings in the sleeve caps and bodice. The extant garments have ribbons sewn directly into the garment and sleeves rather than using rings but I like to swap the color of the ribbons.


The Sottana has a tuck (3″ of fabric all around the skirt approx 5″ above the hem. This tuck was likely used to alter the length of the fabric depending on the footwear being used. There is a reference in Moda a Firenze to there being tokens and talismans hidden within the tuck. I cannot find a single other source for this statement but I like the idea of it so there are tokens in all of my silk dresses. I place smaller items left on my A&S tables or given to me as favors within the tucks. This is a picture of the original batch and the basted tuck waited to be filled with goodies. There are a few more things going in that I will photograph later.


The hems of these Florentine gowns are super nifty. They consist of wool felt that is encased in fabric, in this case slub silk (dupioni). This trim does two interesting things. First, it protects the silk of the dress from making contact with the ground. It can and does get destroyed and is easily replaced saving the fabric in the gown. Two, it creates a bell-like movement as you walk — just like a farthingale but much less fuss. As frustrating it can be to have to sew this type of hem at the end of a project, I cannot beat the results.

Inside Felted Hem on Yellow Silk Sottana

Well, that is probably enough. This is long for many and not detailed enough for others. This garment is squarely in my area of expertise so I am happy to speak further if you would like more information. Here are my usual suspects on the source front:


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.

Christiansen, Keith and Carlo Falciani. The Medici: Portraits and Politics 1512-1570. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Exhibit Book. Yale University Press: New Haven and London, 2020.

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, R.I., 2002. 

Freyle, Diego el. Geometria e Traça Para El Oficio De Los Sastres. Sevilla, 1588. (Facsímile)

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.

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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s