16th Century Portrait

Inspired by the 2013 Walters Museum exhibition, “Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe”, and years of jumping in and out of the historical costuming community due to wavering inspiration, I’ve finally sat down to start my own version of this lovely lady.

“Portrait of an African Slave Woman”, ca. 1580s; attributed to Annibale Carracci (Italian, 1560 – 1609)

Noted in the exhibition book as a “fragment of a larger portrait”, I was struck by the clarity of this piece since most background characters are lost to…display dust and grime from age. Separated from the primary sitter (who was nice enough to leave an arm behind), I am delighted to bring our seamstress to the forefront and give her the focus that she deserves.

According to my Instagram posts, I started this adventure on April 21, 2020. There was no event planned for this one, and if isolation hadn’t happened, I likely wouldn’t have started until later this year. Without the distraction of time-sensitive, con-reliant costumes, I found an unexpected peace in taking the time to do this in a way that I thought was “right”. I leaned heavily on the Patterns of Fashion books, the Realm of Venus site and FB group, larsdatter.com, and an assortment of museum sites for reference. I’d always planned to make the gown out of silk tafetta, but The Universe kept getting in the way with sellouts and shortages of what I thought were perfect options, and some IG acquaintances were super helpful in choosing. Eventually, I allowed myself to see the pieces fall together, primarily from my own stash, turning a many hundred dollar ensemble into a true dream project at a fraction of the expected cost.

ElementsTotalNotes
Smock$39.00Fabrics-store.com; MA Elizabethan Lady’s Underpinnings
Drawers$0.00Stash cotton print; MA Italian Lady’s Underpinnings
Red socks$16.00Sock Dreams; Extraordinarily Longer Thigh High Socks
Garters$0.00Stash woven ribbon
Shoes$0.00Stratfords, previously purchased from American Duchess
Roped Petticoat$0.00Wardrobe item, updated for this project
Hair piece$0.00Stash hair, metallic yarn, and silver lame; hair and spin pins
Partlet$16.00Silk organza from Burnley & Trowbridge; altered MA Italian Lady’s Underpinnings
Full petticoat$0.00Stash damask; MA Italian Lady’s Underpinnings
Saccoccia$0.00Stash foiled print; MA Italian Lady’s Underpinnings
Sottana$39.00Velvet trim from Renassiance Fabrics; stash poly tafetta from FabricDirect; MA Italian Lady’s Wardrobe
Ear hoops$25.88Dames a la Mode
Coral Necklace$31.448mm barrel beads from Ebay with vintage seed beads from the stash
Brass Clothing Pins$0.00Previously purchased from Burnley & Trowbridge
Girdle$0.00Stash beads and findings
Turret clock$0.00Sotheby’s auction (for additional reference); https://www.templatemaker.nl/en/
$167.32
I’d budgeted for $600.00, but I’m very glad that it didn’t come to that.

From the skin out, the camicia became a cropped smock, using leftover linen from my original 5 yard cut. This was 100% due to me not wanting to pre-wash another length of fabric after realizing that the camicia sleeves were too voluminous for the sottana sleeves. Since I had the drawers, I wasn’t concerned about lower body skin coverage. The socks and shoes were purchases, and the garters were made from ribbon scraps.

The corded petticoat was originally made in 2011 for my first attempt at 16th century Italian, before Margo did her 2013 crowdfunding for a full set of Italian patterns. I referenced items from Patterns of Fashion and The Tudor Tailor to come up with an acceptable shape, not realizing that it needed starch to really do the work. Pulling it out of the renaissance faire bin this year, I added two rows of clothesline cording, then dyed the skirt red, since red underthings are all the rage. At this point, I still haven’t gone through with a full dip-starching but it’s on the list.

The full petticoat’s bodice is boned across the front, with a couple of bones up the center back. The fabric was from a reworked 2013 ren faire gown that had been reworked into a 2018 ren faire gown for my daughter, which she quickly outgrew. Due to previous cutting layouts, I had to carefully plan the pattern pieces and then piece the skirt a few times for length. Unfortunately, I missed having a center front design by a couple of inches. Sigh. I have future plans to add trim, which should disract a bit from the wonky design placement. Other than that, the petticoat is extremely supportive and provides a good base for the sottana.

The saccoccia is a beautiful pop of color! The fabric was in a pile of African prints that I received from a family member. It’s lined with a printed linen, piped on the edges, and has lacing rings at the top. I didn’t make any sottana access due to some issues with the skirting, but moving the pocket to the side back opening isn’t a hardship. Without the outer gown, I’d still wear the saccoccia over the petticoat. It’s pretty.

The partlet was re-drafted from the pattern to be a one piece garment. In the portrait, the neck covering reminds me of an 18th century tucked fichu–bunched at the top and no seams. I simply extended and curved the top line, and planned for a half inch seam allowance for the narrow hem. I love the look and feel of silk organza, but a rolled hem didn’t seem like the best use of my life. The partlet ties front to back under the arms, and is secured to the petticoat center front with a straight pin.

We can only see the bodice of the gown in the portrait, so I had wiggle room on the design. I knew that I wanted a train for full length photos and that the sleeves should be sewn in rather than laced. I chose to pleat the skirt, which is always a math equation, but I prefer that to gathering any day of the week. Looking back, I feel like I should have added another panel to the front–the center seam is incredibly distracting, and the pleats need something more. However, the flat front is the shape I expected, with the exception of the wonky pleating. The bodice has a core of heavy duty fusible interfacing, as similarly used by Shushanna in her gown. After a test fit, I added a boned, diamond-shaped belly piece to prevent breaking/wrinkling/curling when I sit. The flatlining is a canvas-like woven print. The interlining is a thin white velour. The fashion fabric is black poly taffeta. The bodice lining is a yellow cotton print, but the sleeves are lined with what I think is rayon, also in yellow. The trim is strips of 16mm black velvet ribbon stitched directly to the sleeve fabric, but attached to strips of taffeta for the bodice before being tacked on by hand.

My earrings came from the lovely Dames a la Mode. I strung the necklace from a mixture I ordered from Ebay and had in my stash. Instead of poking my beautiful bodice at the center front with dress pins, I made a little pin holder from felt and taffeta scraps, then pinned it into the trim. For my head, I braided a pack of loose hair and tied off both ends. I’d let my mohawk grow out for a few weeks, but it’s still sparse, so I pinned my bangs and top hair down to cover the sides of the scalp. I used a combination of spin pins and hair pins to wrap the piece at the crown, covering spaces where my bangs wouldn’t. I pulled the rest of my hair through the center of the braid and pinned it into a twisty flat bun. Next, I laced silver ribbon around the braid, catching pieces of my own hair to keep it secure. I covered the small mountain with a hairnet made from more silver ribbon and metallic yarn.

As of 6/15/2020, the project is marked “Complete”! I had a fight with the 3D printer, so the turret clock is still in progress while I deal with some setting issues. There was also a “My cabbages” moment when the beaded girdle that I threw together to cover the center front skirt seam fell apart…seconds before I took the first photo. Oh well. This ensemble is magical, and I am insanely proud of my work!

Thank you DSA Threads for the half & half shot!