August 20, 2014

Closet Histories #1: The Italian Renaissance

One of my favorite innovations of the Renaissance has to be the advance in painting. How else would we have such a magnificent record of the textiles and clothing from over five hundred years ago? Fabric just doesn't last the way oil on canvas can, and extant pieces of clothing from the Renaissance are exceptionally rare. The rich textures captured by artists of the time allow us to to study the beautiful fashions that have long ago turned to dust.

In the early 16th century, Italy was not yet Italy. Made up of individual city states, each region was ruled independently and there was often conflict between the major players. Dress could vary in style from region to region, some city's having their own rather distinctive trends. The fabrics used were sumptuous; various types of velvet's, brocades, satins, and even cloth of gold (fabric woven with real gold metallic threads).

I want to address several different styles of Italian gowns found in portraiture from throughout the 1500's. The basics of women's dress throughout the century remained relatively constant and consisted of layers of dresses. The first, what would be later known as a chemise, then in Italy called a camica, was a loose usually floor length under-dress, made of linen and worn essentially as underwear. Over the camica went the gown (called the gammura and later the sottana) and then potentially over that went another over-dress (giornea). Other layers were added depending on the style, such as a petticoat (underskirt), partlet, or a zimarra (a wide overdress).

As the century progressed the main garment of women's dress, the sottana, changed in style. The styles in Italy were eventually influenced by those of the northern royal courts of Spain and France. The skirts got wider, eventually being held out by a farthingale hoop (a style originating in Spain), and the bodices grew more structured and rigid eventually leading to the wearing of bodies (later stays) to form the torso into a cylindrical or conical shape.

Fig. 1                                                                         Fig. 2                                                     Fig. 3
In fig.s 1-3 we can observe the styles of the early 1500's in Italy. Fig.1, a portrait of an unidentified bride by the famous Raphael, shows the higher waistline and removable, tied on, sleeves of the earlier 1500's. The painted is dated 1505, and also features a unicorn, so that's pretty awesome! The lady's camica is clearly visible at the shoulder, neckline, and puffing out through the ties of her voluminous sleeves. Her gown is decorated simply with graphic geometric lines and little else. The portraits showcasing this particular style are usually Florentine, suggesting the style may have been specific to that region. The higher waist and larger sleeves are both traits of the earlier part of the century, later giving way to more Northern European influenced styles. 

The second lady pictured is Bianca Maria Sforza (fig.2). Painted in 1493, Bianca (great name btw) is pictured wearing a high waisted brocade or voided velvet gown. Again her camica is seen puffing through her tied on sleeve. She also wears a heavily jeweled belt and a headdress seemingly constructed mainly of pearls. The fabric used for her sottana is clearly extremely luxurious, befitting a woman who would become the empress of the holy roman empire (via her second marriage).

The last image (fig.3) is a detail from a fresco in the Basilica di Stanta Maria Novella in Florence.The lovely lady in front is wearing the three layers of a traditional 1490's Florentine ensemble; the camica, the gammura, and the giornea. The outermost garment, the giornea, was another layer added for formal occasions to showcase the beautiful and intricate brocades only the most wealthy could afford. The rights of wearing certain garments and fabrics were also guarded by sumptuary laws which regulated who could wear what in Renaissance Italy.

Fig.4                                                                      Fig. 5                                                           Fig.6
The lovely ladies in our second section range in date from 1523 (fig. 6) to 1557 (fig.4) but are all wearing a similar style consisting of a rigid bodice and fuller skirt. The sottana was the main gown, the one that would be seen. The higher waist fell lower and grew more pointed as the century progressed. How the stiff conical bodice was supported is a matter of some dispute, over whether bodies--an early form of stays, which in turn were an early style of corset-like garment--were used or not. One of the earliest extant pairs of bodies was taken from the dressed funeral effigy of queen Elizabeth I, who died in 1603. Even that extant pair could date from as late as the 18th century and are therefore again disputed. It is clear from portraits that either some form of stiffing was sewn into the bodices of the gowns or was part of a separate garment worn underneath.

For a very informative and well researched article about the topic of stays in the 16th century, I direct you to this link, where the topic is discussed at length.

Fig. 7                                                                   Fig. 8                                                      Fig. 9
I have had the pleasure of viewing the center portrait above (fig. 8) in person recently, and can attest to the stunning realistic portrayal of the fabrics and textures. These portraits were all painted in the early 1530's. The first two are from Venice, the last (fig.9) from Mantua. The waist is high underneath the bust as is typical for this early in the era, though I am not sure if this particular style with the very large sleeves and high waist was particularly Venetian in style.

All three sitters are also wearing the balzo headdress/hairstyle, a style exclusive to Italy. A ring made of stiff material wrapped with styled human hair and decorated with ribbons, jewelry and other trimmings worn over the woman's own hair on her head almost like a hat.

Fig. 10                                                           Fig. 11                                                              Fig. 12
These ladies date from the 1550's-1560's are all wearing what costumers today refer to as a Venetian style gown. This regional style has center front lacing over a white or ivory center panel. I am not sure if the white fabric showing through is the camica or part of the bodice, or even a separate stomacher.  In any case, the look is accented by the ubiquitous partlet, a garment I have yet to mention but which features in most of the portraits in this post. Worn over the shoulders and covering part of the very open neckline featured in the 16th century's various gowns, the partlet could be modestly opaque or daringly sheer. I particularly like the sheer partlet from fig.10 with the gold stars! Too lovely!

Fig. 13                                                            Fig. 14                                                                   Fig. 15
The last individual style I will cover today is the veste, another style of over dress featuring a center front closure and a high collar (and sometimes ruff). These portraits date from the 1560's and show the progression to the lower and pointed waist.

I hope today's overview of Italian Renaissance styles (or rather--later Italian Renaissance styles) was an informative introduction to the clothing of 16th century Italian woman. There is a lot more to know on the subject, I have merely outlined the basics! In my research for this post I came across several amazing resources that I would like to pass on for you all to continue reading about this fascinating time in costume history.

This websiteis insane! The webmistress has compiled an arranged so much good info and it is all a fascinating read (and well researched and sourced as well), I particularly referenced her articles Dressing the Italian Way and Renaissance Attire in Words and Pictures (a glossary of terms)

-Most costumers know of the crazy awesome work of Daze of Laur, here is an amazing Italian Renaissance gown she made

-Another page of great information and also tutorials on making reproduction garments

-A great resource for period portraits

I will be covering extant examples, Tudor era fashion in Britain and more in upcoming posts. Til then, back to our regularly scheduled programming :)

All of the information for this post has been gathered from the textbook Survey of Historic Costume (5th edition) by Phyllis G. Tortora and Keith Eurbank, from the links above or my own knowledge. I want to share the resources I come across with all of you as much as possible. The portraits used to illustrate today's post are credited to either the museum where they reside (whenever possible) or the source where I found them, and are linked via their fig. # underneath. Again I repeat my disclaimer that I am not a historian, and if you have corrections or additions for this post, please begin the discussion in comments as I would love to learn more!

That was a long post, thank you so much for reading through to the very end :)


  1. Thanks for this informative post. I don't often feel so educated by the blog posts I read :)

    What I find so fascinating about the portraits of this era is how well textiles are depicted. I love that you can see the rich thickness of velvets and the shine of silks (I think?). Just incredible.

    1. I just love the quantum leap in the depictions of fabric, from no texture to tons! I'm glad you found the post informative, it certainly took a bit of researching to write!

  2. This was such an informative, well presented and highly enjoyable read. I love the depth you went into and large number of beautiful visuals involved. I felt like I was reading a really stellar book on the subject and can scarcely wait for the next "chapter" in this marvelous historical fashion series.

    ♥ Jessica


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