Introduction  Sleeves  Undergarments  Resources
Table of Contents  Embellisments  Bibliography  A Selection of Paintings

Bella - Titian

 Italian Renaissance
Gown Construction

Mistress Leona Khadine d'Este
and Mistress Enid d'Auliere

This article may be linked to, but do not republish it in any format.

The costumes we are going to teach you to make today are Italian Renaissance gowns that represent the period from approximately 1470 to 1540. We chose this particular style for a number of reasons:

It's elegant. It is a flattering, fitted style without being constricting and complements most figure types.

Ease of construction - While this is not a simple task, it is less complicated than later styles while remaining "showy".

Adaptability - Using the basic bodice pattern, you have tremendous flexibility in adapting it for different looks, which multiplies when you consider the sleeves.

NO CORSET - Through a few innovations in bodice construction, we have been able to duplicate the period look and fit without use of a corset. Included in these pages are instructions for a simple corest for those that would like to create a more authentic sillouette or require more support.

Table of Contents

SECTION I History and Documentation

SECTION II Bodice Pattern Construction

SECTION III Basic Gown Construction Without Sleeves, Back Closure
Skirt Construction

SECTION IV Variations on a Theme
Front Closure
Side Closure
Changing the Types of Closures
Varying the Neckline

SECTION V Italian Renaissance Sleeves

SECTION VI Embellishments

SECTION VII Undergarments


Web Pages

SECTION I History and Documentation

History - Documentation - This particular style was popular throughout the Italian Peninsula from approximately 1470 to 1540, before the heavy Spanish influence brought the dropped "V" from waist, corsets and stiff ruffs. Our research has been predominantly focusing on Venice and Florence, but this particular style of gown was also evidenced in other Italian cities, such as Rome, Genoa and Milan as well as the smaller town such as Verona, Padua, etc.

Most of our research has been studying paintings of the period, usually portraits, done by artists such as Da Vinci, Botticelli, and Umbeco among may others. We have studied descriptions of gowns and underclothing, period textiles and woven patterns, especially silk brocade patterns. Unfortunately, all of our research has been from second hand sources as we do not know of any actual gowns from this period still in existence. Articles make from cloth simply do not last well through the centuries, though there are a few examples of textiles in the Albert and Victoria Museum in London.

What we, as costumers, are attempting to do is take the historical designs and, while remaining true to the over all design, create original gowns in the Italian Renaissance period we are portraying. By taking period materials and combining them in a new way, we are able to add our own individual creativity. This is what we would like to pass on to you; the idea of experimenting with the basic design and including your own personality and individuality in the garment.

SECTION II Bodice Pattern Construction

Making a pattern is not terribly complicated, in fact it can be fun. Once you are successful at it, it can set you free from commercial patterns. The key to successfully making you own pattern is careful measurement! For this particular project, the only pattern piece will be the bodice (front and back) and the sleeves, if you chose to include them. We will lead you through this process step by step, so don't worry. We will make the bodice pattern first as everything else depends on this. You can record your measurements in this book for future reference.

A. ______Bust at largest point
B. ______Just below the bust line
C. ______Waist
D. ______From top of shoulder (over bust) to waist
E. ______Across shoulder from tip to tip
F. ______From top of shoulder to neck (each side)
G. ______From hollow of neck down to tip of intended neckline
(you decide where the neckline would be comfortable)
H. ______Across neck from hollow to hollow
I. ______From mid-shoulder to underarm
J. ______From neck to waist in the back

Using these measurements, draw the bodice pattern, back and front. Use grocery bags, newspaper or freezer paper for the pattern. Do not draw on the material.

For your first attemptbe a bit generous in the measurements for the sides (bust and waist measurements). You can always cut down, but you will find it difficult to add on. Be conservative on the neck and underarms, again, better to cut down. Match the front and back bodice pieces. The shoulders and side seams should match.

Once you have drawn the pattern pieces according to your measurements, make sure you draw a seam allowance of 5/8 in around them. It may seem unnecessary to remind you of this, but taken from experience,.it is all too easy to become excited after drawing the pattern carefully and cut the pattern as drawn without seam allowance. Cut both front and back bodice out along the cutting line.

This is your basic bodice pattern and it can be adapted in many ways to seem unique every time you use it. A suggestion at this point is to sew a test bodice out of scrap material to make sure it fits. All you need to do is cut it out, sew side and shoulder seams to see if it fits properly. It should fit snugly but not too tight, and the back seams should meet. If it is too large or too small, better to find this out now and adjust the pattern accordingly without wasting valuable and possibly expensive fabric.

Take your time with this part of the process. It is the most important step. Without a good pattern, no matter how well you sew, the costume will not fit properly. This pattern, once you achieve the fit you want, will last you for years. We have used our same patterns over and over, adapting it for different looks, but keeping the same fit. We have found this pattern to be well fitted, period in "look" and versatile. We will go into variations in design later on, so you are able to choose the style that appeals to you and vary the look of the gown.

It is important to note that while making your own pattern is a worthwhile project, there are commercial patterns you can adapt to achieve a similar look. It is not absolutely necessary you make your own pattern, particularly if you are uncomfortable with the process. The main thing to look for in commercial patterns is the seam lines in the bodice. If the bodice is similar to the bodice we have designed (and it is a basic design, not complicated) disregard the neck, skirt and sleeves. They do not matter, everything else can be changed to your specifications.

SECTION III Basic Gown Construction Without Sleeves, Back Closure

In this section, we still go into construction of the basic gown step by step, with tips along the way to (hopefully) make this project go quickly and easily.

The first thing you must do is choose the fabric for your gown. The bodice material does not need to be the same as the skirt material. You can make them of different fabrics and even weights. This is not only period, but it makes sense on a number of levels. First, often we prefer a heavier weight fabric for the bodice, particularly if there is any embroidery or beading planned for it. Also, a sturdier fabric for the bodice works well, looks good and can take the stress of a snug fit easily without having to be reinforced by layers of heavy interfacing and lining as will lighter fabrics. Finally, we plan about a yard of fabric for bodice fabric for our size. We often consider more expensive fabric for the bodice as it is a small amount, then make the skirt out of a less expensive fabric, as there are many more yards in it than the bodice. This idea can really dress up the costume and add interest to the garment.

Choose only woven fabrics for both the bodice and skirt. Knits and stretch fabrics are not suitable for this pattern. If you choose a light weight material for the bodice, compensate by choosing a heavier fabric for the lining or add additional interfacing.

Here is a list of materials you will need. Included are yardages that work for both of us (size 8-10). If you are considerably larger or smaller you will need to adjust the yardages accordingly.

1 yd. bodice fabric
1 yd. bodice lining
1 yd heavy weight interfacing (fusible is preferable)
4-5 yds. skirt fabric
2 yds boning
4 yds cording for lacing
hooks and eyes (dress weight)
straight pins
sewing needles
seam tape (1 package)

The bodice will take about 80% of your sewing time. In order for the bodice to fit well and have the proper look for the period, it must be constructed carefully. The process is listed step by step.
1. Cut out front and back bodice pieces along length of grain of fabric. In order to be a back closure, fold back bodice pattern piece in half and add 5/8 inch for seam allowance to center back seam. Cut one front piece and two back pieces (one for each half) along cutting line.

2. Repeat step one using lining fabric

3. Cut interfacing to bodice pattern pieces

4. Fuse interfacing to front and back bodice material on wrong side.

5. Sew two strips of boning on front bodice lining from neck edge to waist. To do this take the seam tape and machine stitch the tape in a straight line from the edge of the neck and measure down 1 inch to 1 inch above the waistline along each side making a casing for the boning and leave either the top or bottom open, your choice. Remove boning from the casing it comes in and cut to fit the casings, insert and stitch the end close.

Note: The boning inserted in the front gives structure to the bodice and support for those of us with more up front. It keeps the fabric in place and simulates the fit of a corset without having to use one. I HATE CORSETS!!! If you are not so "well blessed" as some of us, possible just the interfacing will give the bodice enough structure.


6. Right sides together, sew front and back shoulder seams

7. Right sides together, sew front and back side seams

8. Repeat 6 & 7 using lining material

9. Always remembering RIGHT SIDES TOGETHER, pin lining to bodice starting at bottom back seam, around neck and back down opposite back seam to bottom. DO NOT SEW UP ARMHOLES.

10. Machine sew lining to bodice. Trim seams to 1/4 in and snip corners.

11. Turn wrong sides together and press along seam line. This is always an exciting part because you can begin to see the bodice coming together and get an idea how it will look.

12. Back Closure Construction - You have a couple of options here, but using buttonholes for the lacings is preferred as they are sturdy (especially if you have a machine attachment that makes them). You can use grommets, the large brass ones, or coat hooks, but in any case, use boning down each side of the back seam or the fabric will bunch up from the pull of the lacings. Instructions for using buttonholes are given as experience has found them to work better and last longer than the other options.

13. Machine sew a line 1/2 inch in from the center back seam from neck to waist on each side of back. This provides a casing for the boning.

14. Using the casing line as a guide, place buttonholes (or grommets) about 2 inches apart down the either side of the back seam. Make sure they match each other.

15. Slide boning into casing along back seam.

NOTE: If you plan on having attached sleeves then skip #16 and follow directions in the sleeve section for finishing armholes.

16. Armhole Finishing - Turn under both bodice and lining fabric to inside and pin around armhole. You may need to cut small nicks along the curve so it lays properly. Hand sew lining to bodice using small, hidden stitches. Machine sewing just does not work, it always turns out poorly.

At this point the bodice is completed. All that is left is to attach the skirt to the bodice. Everyone does skirts differently, but this method described has worked well for many years now.

Skirt Construction

17. Skirt Construction - Measure from waist to floor, add 2 inches to measurement. Cut panels of skirt material straight across, from selvage to selvage at that measure. Cut however many panels you wish. The more panels, the wider the skirt depending on the width of the fabric.

18. Sew skirt panels, right sides together along selvages until you have one long piece. At the last seam, leave a gap of about 5 inches at the top to allow for the back opening.

19. To attach skirt to bodice we pleat the skirt into the bodice. It gives a smoother line than gathering and is the period method. There are a couple of ways to make this a little easier for you. One way is to divide the total width of the skirt by 4, then divide the bodice into four parts, 2 back part, 2 front parts and pin the skirt fourths to the bodice fourths, so you know how much skirt material must be pleated into each bodice part. You can work it out mathematically if you have a bent that way. Divide the number of inches in the skirt width by the number of inches in the bottom seam of the bodice. No matter how you do it, it comes down to patience and trial and error. Pleating by sight takes a little practice and no matter if you do fudge on the back, just keep the pleats even looking on the front. (Cartridge pleating is an option for people who want a really full skirt but instructions for this option are not included at this time.)

20. Once you have the pleats pinned onto the bodice to your satisfaction, machine sew them into place. Be careful to sew them to the bodice fabric only and not to the lining fabric. Trim seam to about 1/4 inch.

21. Press the seam salvage up into the bodice. Turn under edge of bodice lining and hand sew to skirt seam, securing bodice to skirt and finishing bodice.

22. Hand sew hook and eye to bottom of back closing where the bodice meets the skirt. Make sure it is sew it securely. If you want, you can sew another hook and eye further down the back skirt opening so it doesn't gap open.

23. Hem bottom of skirt.

At this point you have completed a basic Italian Renaissance overdress that should last for years. You may have noticed that by lining the bodice and using selvage edges for the skirt seams, you have no raw edges to unravel.

In the next section, we will discuss variations on this basic pattern, ways to embellish the bodice and sleeve treatments to make this a truly elegant garment.

SECTION IV Variations on a Theme or Changing the Closure Seam:

There is an amazing number of looks you can design using this simple bodice pattern. We have been using our same bodice patterns for years and no two gowns are the same. With a bit of imagination, you can have a wardrobe of gowns, all different, from this one pattern. Here are a few ideas on how to get these various looks.

Front Closure - Change the closure from the back to the front. Cut the back in one piece and the front in two pieces leaving a seam allowance in the center front. Finish the seam in front just as you did the back, inserting the boning at the seam and using buttonholes or grommets for the lacings. You can leave the front skirt seam open or sew it up as you did the back, leaving an opening so you can get in and out of it. You will want to sew hooks and eyes at the bottom of the opening where the skirt attaches to the bodice. When you put the closure in the front, you do not need the boning at the neck edges.

Side Closure - Cut the back and front bodice pieces as one piece. Leave side seams open. Finish each side seam just as you would the front or back closure, inserting boning at the underarm seams on each side. You can leave the side skirt seams open to show the underdress or sew them up, leaving an opening for the closure as you did the back or front.

Changing the Types of Closures:

Lacings work very well to keep a garment together and they are period, but there are other period closures you might want to substitute. Try some fancy button and loops instead. There are some buttons you can find in most fabric stores that can easily pass for period and are very pretty.

Either metal or fabric frogs are also period and add to the costume. These are only a few suggestions. Be creative!

Varying the Neckline:

The preferred neckline during this period was low and square, but you are not tied into this by any means. You may want to trace your pattern onto another piece of paper and experiment with some different necklines. Here are some ideas for you:

1. Round the neckline. Simply round out the corners on your experimental pattern piece.

2. Raise or lower the neckline to your preferred depth.

3. "V" neck. Insert a "V" shaped piece of contrasting fabric into the front bodice. Start with a pattern copy, then draw a line from the edge of the neck to the center front waist on each side (hence "V" shape). Cut this piece out of the bodice copy. Be careful to leave seam allowance on both the V piece and the bodice piece. Note: Insert boning along each side of the V rather than running it straight down when using this variation.

4. "V" Neck with lacing instead of fabric piece. This can be very effective, especially if you have a fancy underdress to show off. Instead of inserting the V piece, you close the seams and use buttonholes, grommets or, a tried favorite for this variation, eyes from coat hooks and eyes.

5. Adding a rectangular placket in front. This works very much like adding the V shaped piece of fabric to the front, but in this case, it is rectangular, going straight down from the edges of the neckline to the waist. Again, be sure to add seam allowance on both pieces and run boning down the front at the seam line.

These are just a few ideas. Come up with your own, or mix and match from many different gowns.

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 Table of Contents  Embellisments  Bibliography
Gown Construction  Undergarments  Appendix
  Sleeves A Selection of Paintings