How I stopped struggling and learned to love Italian dresses

I love France and French styles, but I never really wear them. I started in the SCA largely because I wanted to learn authentic historical costuming so I could make sumptuous French gowns and have a reason to wear them. If you see me, there’s an excellent chance that I’m wearing an Italian dress, probably from the upper-middle class. Why make the move to a different country and a few rungs down the social roster?

I am terrible at pattern drafting. I blame never having taken geometry for this, but the real culprit is that 1) patterning is a skill, and 2) it requires everyone being brutally honest about measuring their bodies, which is hard. We’re not used to dressing in fabrics that don’t stretch and styles that fit close to the body. Patterning that means that you and a helper need to get really familiar with your body and all of its oddities. Bodies are weird, we usually hide our flaws well, and really getting in there to make proper medieval clothes demands a lot of vulnerability. Like maybe there should be a mediator and a therapist on hand. While there’s nothing like a perfectly-fitted self-supporting gown, they’re complicated, unforgiving, and use an obscene amount of fabric. They’re basically the worst thing ever for a novice to work on.

Enter Italian dresses and their blessed simplicity. God love my friend Behiye, Our Lady of Italian Costuming, and her intervention right before my first Gulf War. Here was a dress I could make with 3-4 yds. of fabric and 2-3 hours. It works well in hot Texas weather, and it’s easy to warm up with layers or a heavier fabric choice. Here I am not sweltering on a hot, humid day.

gr ital

In its most basic form, late-period Italian costuming for women is a sleeveless dress with a skirt gathered into the bottom of the bodice, worn over a camica. It laces at the front or the side(s). Sleeves can be tied on with ribbons, left off, or attached. Sometimes you see a partlet, sometimes you don’t. We’re talking about practical clothes for busy women with a lot to do. Like… work in the kitchen (Vincenzo Campi, Cucina) or run all over site being helpful!
Vincenco Campi-Cucina
There are paintings of women selling fruit from the 16th c. that perfectly show this look off (Vincenzo Campi, 1580, The Fruit Seller detail). There are also pictures of women working together in kitchens that show similarly dressed-down versions of this basic mode of dress.
Vincenzo Campi - The Fruit Seller detail

Simple updo. A pretty green apron with fancy trim. Narrow dark velvet trim around the seams on the bodice. A softly pleated partlet in plain linen, without beading or embroidery. These are simple details that you can get right and really nail the look. Now see how similar it is to this much more formal and luxurious dresses (Boltraffio and Kempener):

Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio 003

1532 Kempener Bildnis einer Dame anagoria

While Italian can be really ornate, it’s often a simple garment with luxurious trims or fancy fabric treatments, like the gold cord couched onto the gown in the Kempener portrait. Once you have the basics down, making luxurious versions is really only a matter of how much time you have for embroidery and how big your fabric budget is. Make the skirts fuller with cartridge pleating rather than box or knife pleating, make the sleeves massive and fancy, use tissue thin silk organza and work it with gold to make your partlet, then embroider the cuffs and neckline of your camica.

Here’s one that’s fancier that I put together out of rogue scrap polysilk, cheap velveteen ribbon to trim the bodice, remnant brown corduroy for the bottom guard, and scrap Chinese brocade for the sleeves. It started plain, had a failed set of bodice trim that stained the fabric and came off first washing (Heat and Bond can eat rocks and die in a fire), and I saved it with the velvet ribbon and an evening of hand sewing in front of the TV. The camica is plain muslin with fake blackwork (2 rows of a honeycomb stitch my machine has) at the cuffs and neckline. I tied some linen veils together to make a turban and went on down to the Known World Scribal and Heraldic Symposium this year. For coronation, I added a deep red polysilk long jacket over it that has big poofy sleeves and ruffles. This whole thing would look a heck of a lot better if I put on the hemp corset thing Behiye handed down to me, but I am lazy. And it was hot. And I am lazy.

peeps italian

Want to make an Italian dress? Here’s my pattern piece. That’s right – piece. As in one. The bodice can end anywhere from an inch or two below the bust to at your natural waist. The skirt length is from the bottom of the bodice to the floor (roughly 45″ for me at 5’7″) box or knife pleated into the bottom. As long as you have enough to go around you more than once, you’re good to go. I get a really nice full skirt at 2x enough to go around me. The skirt is just a rectangle, so if you hem it and add an guards you want before you pleat it in, it takes a fraction of the time.

italian patterns

You put the center of the neckline on a fold and make four of these (front, back, and lining for each) or you cut them out like they are and sew them together to make four equal pieces. I don’t add seam allowances so that when I lace it up one side, I can tighten it and make for a more fitted hourglass shape. If I were pregnant or nursing, I would make it a little higher waisted and put eyelets on both sides for lacing and the ability to expand the dress without it skewing weirdly to one side.

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