Intro: After fighting with the organization and format of this post for most of a day, I’ve decided that it needs to be split into two. This week will be the stays; next week will be the shift. Further posts will follow after that about the kirtle and the gown.
Level of Authenticity: I won a Baronial championship a few years ago with this pair of stays and I’d feel comfortable entering them at a Kingdom level. Much of the discussion in this post is adapted from the documentation I submitted previously and my bibliography is at the end of the post. If you’d like a more in-depth read, please feel free to contact me and I’ll send you my complete documentation.
What/When/Where: These are the underpinnings I wear with my first quarter of the sixteenth century Florentine clothing. I usually use (sixteenth century) English language terms to describe my garments and I’ll do so here as well. I’m also wearing drawers, knit stockings, and shoes, all store-bought here. Not much needs to be said about the stockings or shoes, their form and purpose hasn’t really changed that much in 500 years, but it’s worth mentioning that my best guess is that honorable women of patrician families did not yet regularly wear drawers, which were at this time associated variously with Muslim women, courtesans and prostitutes, and other “undesirable” types. Nonetheless I wear drawers, mostly because I like to stay warm in the winter and chafing-and-bug-bite-free in the summer.
Why: The compliment I heard most frequently at Samhain was that my house sisters and I looked like we had stepped directly out of paintings. For me the key to achieving this is to start right at the bottom with foundation layers that are the same time period and culture as the outer layer that everybody will see. If you try wearing a modern bra or a Victorian corset with your Renaissance gown, it’s just not going to look as “right” as if you wear Renaissance underpinnings. In addition if you wear underpinnings that match the outer layer, you will be able to care for your outer layer the way contemporaries did, which is useful because a correctly made outer layer is almost definitely going to be difficult to launder by modern means.
The stays are kind of conjectural on my part. They are based primarily on an unstiffened velvet bodice included among the burial clothes of Eleanora of Toledo, wife of Cosimo de Medici of Florence during the middle of the sixteenth century. Simple lined but unstiffened stays occur multiple times in Eleanora’s wardrobe accounts and appear to have been used as an extra layer for warmth. The famous (or notorious) hard steel bodices in Eleanora’s possession were not produced before 1550 and appear to follow and be linked to episodes of poor health on Eleanora’s part. There does not appear to be anything listed in the trousseau accounts of the two Minerbetti sisters (included as an appendix to Carole Collier Frick’s “Dressing Renaissance Florence”) that could be interpreted as a standalone pair of stays or petticoat bodice. Some fourteenth and fifteenth century garments described in “Dressing Renaissance Florence” are sometimes described as having quilted bodices, though others are described as unlined.
Based on a visual inspection of the extant velvet stays, as well as portraits of Eleanora, either she was not an especially curvy woman or her garments were tailored to flatten rather than enhance her bust. Many of the portraits I have accumulated from the first half of the sixteenth century in Italy show women who do have curves. None of the portraits show an undergarment, and most of them show a gown that does not have a centre front seam. My previous costuming adventures have made it evident that a garment with no centre front seam does not adequately support my curves. I therefore decided to make a pair of stays inspired by those found with Eleanora of Toledo’s burial garments, but with a curved front seam tailored to my own measurements rather than a straight front seam. With this support in an undergarment, I have now been able to cut a gown bodice that does not have a centre front seam to go over top. I wear this garment instead of, not as well as, a modern bra.
Producers: Some garments were cut by and constructed under the supervision of (almost always male) tailors, while others would have been cut by female seamstresses and perhaps sewn by the women of the household. “Moda A Firenze”, from which most of my information about the stays came, indicates that stays could have been made without resorting to a tailor, though my experience is that for a pair of stays that provides bust support as well as warmth, the skills of a tailor are required for at least the initial fitting.
Consumers: I am not aware of any sources that definitively indicate that a pair of stays was worn in Florence by any woman before Eleanora of Toledo. Even if the style did not originate with her, its nature as a layer for extra warmth or possibly as a foundation garment for a fashionable silhouette indicates that at this early date, it was a garment of the elite few.
Materials: The stays preserved with Eleanora of Toledo’s burial garments are dark red velvet. Dressing Renaissance Florence lists a hierarchy of red dyestuffs used in renaissance Florence, with chermisi (crimson) being markedly the most expensive and prestigious. Although I was not attempting to exactly copy Eleanora of Toledo’s stays, I chose red fabric not only because of its prestige status in renaissance Florence but also because I believed I had read in one of my sources that red garments next to the body were thought at this time to promote good health. The fabrics used in this project were dyed before I acquired them, most likely with a modern chemical dye. When selecting fabrics for this project, I was not able in all cases to acquire the exact types of fabrics that would have been available in sixteenth-century Florence. Then as now, fabrics were available to be purchased from retailers or wholesalers. In place of silk velvet, I have used a cotton upholstery velvet. I have had the chance to visually inspect (but not touch) a variety of samples of extant velvet remnants dating from approximately the fourteenth to seventeenth centuries throughout Northern Italy. Based on pile length, pile spacing, and sheen, I believe that the fabric I selected is a closer (though not exact) analog for period velvets than other modern pile fabrics, such as cotton velveteen, rayon velvet, or even some modern silk velvets that I have seen.
Minimal information has survived concerning the lining for Eleanora’s stays. Scraps of linen are preserved at the waist and Janet Arnold conjectures this could represent either a lining or a binding strip. Eleanora of Toledo’s wardrobe accounts indicate that stays were lined and interlined with linen. For my lining I decided to look for fabric that would have been reasonably sturdy but inexpensive, such as undyed fustian or linen. My best available choice in the fabric store at the time of making the project was a plain colored plain weave cotton. Cotton was also available and inexpensive during this time period in Florence. On commencing to work with the lining fabric, I discovered it was slightly stretchy, likely due to coarse weave rather than fiber content, so I used two layers, one cut lengthwise and one cut widthwise on the fabric to minimize the amount of stretching.
By this time in England, linen and silk sewing thread were the most common, with wool still being in use. There is less evidence for the use of cotton sewing thread. I used silk thread where available in suitable colours and cotton thread in most other cases.
Tools: In addition to shears, a tailor’s tools could include a cutting table for large pieces of cloth, wooden mannequins and coarse linen cloth for fittings. Metal needles and pins were available and often formed part of a bride’s trousseau,though in Venice in the early sixteenth century, needles for domestic use were sometimes manufactured in the home from chicken bones.
I didn’t use a sewing machine for this project, but I want to make it clear that I think it’s okay to do so in some situations. My craft is tailoring, not seamstressing, so for me sewing my long seams on a machine is equivalent to a period tailor sending out piecework to be sewn by seamstresses in their own homes. That said, some period construction techniques can’t be done by machine and some fabrics (like velvet) are more cooperative by hand than by machine, so some hand stitching is always going to be part of my practice.
Techniques: Janet Arnold’s diagram of the conjectured cutting pattern for Eleanora’s stays follows the line of her outer gown quite closely. Instead of scaling up this exact diagram or following the seam lines, I looked at a number of portraits from my time period of interest to determine that a side, instead of side back seam was more appropriate, and to determine an appropriate neckline. I then adapted a fitted bodice pattern that Mistress Issabbella helped me make for a 1490s era Florentine gamurra for the neck and shoulder silhouette demonstrated in the 1525-1540s era gowns. A few additional pieces of fabric needed to be inserted over the shoulder in order to achieve the correct line. The new toile did not provide the same amount of support through the bust that the previous toile did, so I corrected for this by angling the shoulder strap further away from the centre front on the front toile. This is similar to the process of pattern creation described in Dressing Renaissance Florence, in which the tailor would create a fitted pattern by draping cotton or linen tailor’s cloth on the person who would wear the resulting garment.
Dressing Renaissance Florence indicates that gamurre (an underlayer corresponding with the kirtle or petticoat) were unlined. However, additional materials needed for a mid-fifteenth-century cotta (also a type of undergown) included cotton wool for quilting the bodice. Eleanor of Toledo’s gown shows evidence of a linen lining in the bodice, as well as a linen lining in the separate velvet stays. The records of Eleanora of Toledo’s wardrobe, from the second quarter of the sixteenth century, describe the upper parts of petticoats and gowns as being stiffened with felt and sometimes cardboard, and stays without any kind of substructure. A friend who constructed a gamurra with my assistance chose to line but not interline her bodice, and experienced significant puckering of the open seams where they were laced together. Based on this information, I chose to line my pair of stays in order to provide support and structure.
I used a variety of hand stitches and hand seam finishing techniques described in my sources. For the majority of the seams I used varieties of flat-felled seams, with the seams going opposite ways on the outer shell and lining to reduce bulk at the edges. I am not aware of any examples of edges finished using stab stitching in the same way that I finished my edges, but a second-quarter of the fourteenth century fragment shows a facing held in place with two lines of running or stab stitch and a line of hemming stitch at the inner edge. Eleanora of Toledo’s stays are fastened with hooks and eyes. Because I was trying to create a garment for support rather than just for warmth, I chose to have my stays close with ribbon laced through eyelets, the method used on Eleanora’s burial gown.
Not every book in the following list may have provided information that can be specifically referenced to information given above. However, this is a list of books that I have found extremely helpful and informative during my adventures in renaissance costuming.
Ajmart-Wollheim, Marta and Flora Dennis, eds., At Home in Renaissance Italy, London, V&A Publications, 2006
de Alcega, Juan, Geometria, pratica, y traça, Madrid, 1589, facsimile trans. by Jean Pain and Cecilia Bainton as Tailor’s Pattern Book, 1589, Carlton, Bedford, 1979
Anderson, Ruth Matilda, Hispanic Costume 1480-1530, New York, Hispanic Society of America, 1979
Arnold, Janet, Patterns of Fashion: The cut and construction of clothes for men and women c1560-1620, London, Macmillan Publishers Ltd., 1985
Arnold, Janet, with Jenny Tiramani and Santina M. Levey, Patterns of Fashion 4: The cut and construction of linen shirts, smocks, neckwear, headwear and accessories for men and women c.1540-1660, London, Pan Macmillan Ltd., 2008
Birbari, Elizabeth, Dress in Italian Painting 1460-1500, Chatham, UK, W & J Mackay Limited, 1975
Crowfoot, Elisabeth, Frances Pritchard and Kay Staniland, Textiles and Clothing c.1150-c.1450, Medieval Finds from Excavations in London: 4, London, Boydell Press, 1992, 2001
Frick, Carole Collier, Dressing Renaissance Florence: Families, Fortunes and Fine Clothing, Baltimore and London, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002
Hayward, Maria, Dress at the Court of King Henry VIII, Leeds, UK, Maney Publishing, 2007
Landini, Roberta Orsi and Bruna Niccoli, Moda a Firenze: lo Stile di Eleonora di Toledo e la sua influenza, Florence, Edizioni Polistampa, 2005
Newton, Stella Mary, The Dress of the Venetians, 1495-1525, Aldershot, UK and Brookfield, VT, USA, Scolar Press, 1988
Welch, Evelyn, Shopping in the Renaissance, New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 2005