Costuming Research

Something that I haven’t managed to write up in my blog is my hobby-love of historical costuming, though my ongoing saga to finish my costume for the 501st Legion is fairly well known (I am foiled by leather work). I have a few projects that are actually coming near to the whole sewing stage, but, as with any costume, everything starts with a little research. Okay. Sometimes a lot of research. That involves looking at a lot of paintings. That’s what this post is about.

Two projects I am working on are 1. A Genovese Renaissance outfit for my mother-in-law, and 2. A Venetian Medieval gown for myself. Here’s the artistic reasearch

The Genovese Gown

My mother-in-law often borrows costumes for the school Ren Faire and I made one last year for another teacher and offered to make her one. Since her family is originally from Genoa, and the Renaissance is something any Italian can be proud of, the task was to make a distinctly Genovese outfit. Not Milanese, not Florentine, but Genovese. Genoa, like Venice, was once a great shipping and trade republic, but was eventually upstaged by it’s neighbors during the Renaissance. So, pulling out what styles were really big in Genoa is a little tricky. To the rescue is a female artist, Sofonisba Anguissola, who painted her Genevese family and other noted people, eventually the Spanish court.

This first portrait is of the artist herself,which shows a simple and functional outfit, but with an interesting twist I had not seen before: while her sleeves match her dress, they appear attached to a cut-away coat in a contrasting color. This seemed very unique, especially compared to other Genovese. I’ll use more of Sofonisba’s paintings for the examples.

This next portrait, of her father, brother, and sister, shows her sister in a Florentine styled gown. Her doublet styled bodice is a trademark of 1500’s Florentine fashion, which dominates the region.

On the other hand, we have this portrait of her mother, whose dress is more reminiscent of Eastern Italy, Venice, and Milan. Like today, fashion is as much concerned with looking put together as it is with where you’re from.

But out of these pictures, what stood out was Sofonisba’s self-portrait with the cut away coat which I’ve never seen in researching either Venetian costumes for myself or Florentine for others. Fortunately, Sofonisba has another family portrait that shows this mysterious coat, which I still do not know the name of:

 Here is a beautiful portrait  painted in 1555 of the artist’s sisters Lucia, Minerva, and Europa playing chess with a nursemaid looking on. Four of Sofonisba’s sisters including Lucia and Europa, also became painters. Here Lucia is showing us her wonderful cut-away coat, again in a contrasting color than her dress and sleeves. Both her orange dress and blue coat are in a rich brocade or jacquard and are trimmed with gold and lace on the sleeves. The collar is rounded and a lightly ruffled partlet or chemise shows beneath. The skirt appears to have wide pleats with fullness in the rear. A double gold chain and beaded hair adornments finish the ensemble.

It’s gorgeous and very, very different and striking attire, whether simple like Sofonisba’s work clothes or richand gleaming like Lucia’s. Even better, my mother-in-law loved it. She wanted something a little more somber in tone, however, like shades of grey or black, with a contrasting color in her favorite shade – a very sumptuous red. She doesn’t need much trim, but the outfit should befit the lady scientist she is.

Medieval Venetian Gown

For myself, I’ve been running a Venetian theme, starting with a burnt red-orange velvet and gold gown I copied from a Durer painting c. 1505. Durer spent time learning techniques in the Venetian school and has several paintings of Venetians before going home to Germany. But, my gown needs some reworking and has some flaws, and I want to make a new one from the mid 1500’s with a more distinctly Venetian style, but upcoming events in the summertime dictate going back in time rather than forward. So, to the Middle Ages it is!

This was tricky and harder to pin down. I figured that Venice should have their own style elements back then just as much as regional differences arose in the Renaissance. Venice kicked into it’s prime as the Serene Republic long before the other Italian cities got their acts together, maintained a relationship with Byzantium for a long while, traded hugely with the East and Muslim states, manipulated crusaders to help further her own goals, and competed against the Genevese in having vast shipbuilding/shipping/naval domination. Surely with this history, Venetian clothing might look a little more Eastern, display a little more wealth in fabrics and be styled differently from the generic “Italian” looks found in historical costume books and websites. Well, it does!

Let’s start with what’s actually in some costuming books with pretty templates. The first one I know was made sometime in the late 1880’s:

In these images, the first “ancient times” one labels the two women with the striped dresses as Venetians.

The second image of costumes “Italian – 1200”

includes a couple of Venetians, including a Doge (head of state, dux) in red on the bottom. The couple up top with the green cloaks are “Venetians of rank” and the ladies in the lower half by the Doge are as well.

This last black and white image claims the woman in stripes as being Venetian as well.
So… what do we notice? There is definitely an Eastern theme. The vertical stripes are straight from Byzantine fashion (see right) and the horizontal ones at least remind me of Persian or Turkish costume. Dresses are neatly hemmed with decorative boarders and feature an overdress – although one looks very Roman in nature. Colorful veils with linings are worn rather than mantels, over rounded hats or crowns. A striking feature is the heavy adornment on neckline and sleeves of the ladies in the second image.
But, these are from books, drawn hundreds of years after the fact. How do they line up with the art?

First I found images by the painter Giotto. Giotto was a Florentine by birth but ranged all over Italy, including the famous Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, which is part of the Veneto. Giotto finished painting a cycle of the Annunciation there in 1305. In these two paintings, Giotto shows a similar style to the ladies above with the women in red. Both have half sleeves on the outer layered dress, small rounded hats, braided hair, heavy neckline and sleeve decoration, and the one on the right has a contrasting color on her mantel.

Next, the painter Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Siena 1290 – 1348, shows a similar neck and sleeve decoration in this painting, though her dress is unbelted:

Then I found  Paolo Veneziano, official painter to Doge Andrea Dandalo, who has been described as “the most important Venetian painter in the 14th century.” According to Wikipedia, who is usually good for dates, he was born before 1333 and died sometime after 1358. In these two paintings, you can see the similar style again, with wide decorated necklines and bands around the arms just above the elbow, belted high for our ladies and low for our androgynous angels (who are in heavily decorated fabric!):

The woman in pink also has a slit in her dress and she hold the front corner up showing either an underdress or underskirt or her chemise. The woman in blue is more ambiguous as to if her dress is split or parted at all since it’s up on her knees. This is evident in other Italian paintings however, and I’ve seen the skirt underneath both shown of as fashion in other contrasting colors or in plain old white.

Next we have a painting that cinched the deal for me in terms of style, also by Veneziano:

In this painting, there are three ladies, though only two are visible. One, in green, has a moderate round neck with tight sleeves that feature the armband decoration. The other, in blue, has a wider neck and the armband decoration, but has short sleeves with a lighter lining. Half sleeves are fairly common in medieval fashion, so it is possible that the lower blue sleeves are half sleeves that are detached, or, both tight and short sleeves are sewn in. Both gowns feature long skirts that drape on the ground and delicate circlet crowns.

I’ve taken a fondness to this blue dress and it’s more unique Venetian stylings but overall simple design. I’ve decided to use it as my model for a Venetian gown in the early 1300’s and have kept my eyes out for a beautiful shade of blue to use.

To be continued…


~ by glasslajora on May 12, 2011.

One Response to “Costuming Research”

  1. What an amazing blog post. I also share a love of all things Medieval….cool.

    The post is helped out immensely by your illustrations and vivid details. I am going to have to step my blog game up to match you.


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