Jessamyn's Regency Costume Companion: Florentine gown

The Accessories.

Assessing the Accessories

First off, jewelry. Pearls were clearly the jewels of choice in Italy in the 1550s and '60s, worn in chokers, long necklaces, and drop earrings (the first two ladies are Venetian, but there are plenty of Florentine examples around):

I am fortunate to own my grandmother's modest pearl choker, which desperately needs restringing but is otherwise perfect for this role (click on photo below to see up-close). I also own a very nice pair of faux-pearl drop earrings, which are much more realistic than the usual faux-pearl drops you can buy as beads, but they are not right because the drops are hanging from small round pearls on posts; 16th-century earrings hung from gold rings or ribbons, never posts.

But never fear. I bought a pair of small gold hoops (real gold but so small, they were less than $15), of the "endless" variety wherein the part that goes through the ear tucks into the hoop itself. I thought I was going to have to perform major surgery on the faux-pearl earrings to get the drops off, but was very pleased to discover, on closer examination, that I just had to unbend a little metal loop. I threaded the "pearl" onto the gold hoop, and ecco! Mid-16th-century pearl earrings!

The longer pearl necklaces are attractive, but I'm going to be dancing in this outfit and don't want anything bouncing around my chest. So, there's some time and money saved...

Hair, the Crowning Glory

The dressing of my hair, on the other hand, is going to require much further thought and effort. Below is a survey of typical Florentine hairstyles (the first, a detail of Moretto's 1540s Portrait of a Young Woman from the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, is actually Venetian but shows the style more clearly than the Florentine examples I've found). Click on the small images for larger views.

The most common style seems to be the famous Italian hair taping, seen most clearly in the second image (by an unknown artist, from the Metropolitan Museum). Alas, I got a new haircut and no longer have enough to pull off this style or the first one, with its thick, pinned-up braid; both require hair that falls to at least mid-back, and mine is now just past my shoulders (and layered). So I need to cover it at least to some degree.

The images of Eleanora of Toledo on the right offer two possibilities. In the first she is wearing a netted caul (by modern terms, a snood) of gold cord studded with pearls. In the second she is wearing a closely-woven caul of very thick gold braid, also studded with pearls. Either of these styles would cover plenty of hair, and I like the fact that they drop more generously around the lower face than the other styles - a more flattering shape for me than those nailed more tightly to the head. However, her smoothly parted hair is very severe in front, and I think I will experiment with the curls and twists shown in the other three images. I also have straight-across-the-forehead bangs now, and I think that besides the question of flattery it would be very difficult to get them to lie flat to the sides of my head and stay there while dancing!

So now time will dictate whether I get really period-accurate and net my own caul, or sew one out of fabric and decorate it in a way that resembles the woven-braid version, or just fudge it for the March performance with a thick black crocheted snood (I know, crochet is so un-period) that will mostly disappear into my hair.

February 22, 2004: Girdling Up

No Florentine gown is complete without a girdle, which in the 1555-60 period was always golden, whether in simple chain links or elaborate beads. These elements could be large or small. The girdle could merely encompass the waist or have one or two long ends that hung down at center front (or slightly off-center) and ended with a pomander, tassel, fur piece, or what-have-you.

That's a lot of gold and jewels! And pretty difficult and/or expensive to reproduce. Thank heavens I spotted this Christmas garland on sale in January and snapped it up for, oh, something like $7. I'm not really sure what it's made of - probably some kind of plastic - but the metallic coating is pretty convincing, especially from a couple of feet away. I love the swirl in the gold beads, which is very reminiscent of some I've seen in period portraits, and even the pearls aren't bad. It's all tightly packed onto a fairly stiff thread/cord/whatever that really keeps it sitting where you put it (at the waistline of the gown, or hanging straight down). It's actually much too long (I've tucked in under the hem of the dress for this pic), so I'll need to cut it, and I hope I'll be able to retie it such that the tension is maintained. I'll also need to figure out some sort of very subtle clip to attach the end at the waist - something better than the safety pin currently in use! Maybe some tiny little gold necklace finding.

Now, as for what to hang on the end, that brings me to...

Fans Fan Tutti

A fan. Hmm. I really think a fan would be a good idea, since I'll be dancing in a great deal of tightly-fitting fabric. The problem is, I can't find any images from this period of Florentines with fans. The Venetians were often pictured with their famous flag fans; the queens of France and England were pictured with feather fans; various types of folding fan were in use in various parts of Europe; but mid-16th-century Florentines preferred to be painted with their books. Now, I'm sure they used fans - they're too darned useful not to, especially in a country with hot summers - but I just don't know what kind.

So, I'll have to guess. I think the most obvious choices are to borrow one from a nearby region, which would mean either the Venetian flag fans or the one in this portrait painted by Moroni, probably of a Brescian noblewoman. I'll have to see what I have time for.

February 23, 2004: Fanning Further

At the excellent site Thrednedle Street Clothiers, I found the following quotation from Coryat's Crudities, written in 1611:

"These fannes both men and women of the country [Italy] doe carry to coole themselves withall in the time of heate, by the often fanning of their faces. Most of them are very elegant and pretty things. For whereas the fanne consisteth of a painted peece of paper and a wooden handle; the paper which is fastened into the top is on both sides most curiously adorned with excellent pictures, either of amorous things tending to dalliance, having some witty Italian verses or fine emblemes written under them; or of some notable Italian City with a briefe description thereof added there unto."

Although this is several decades later than my period, it does imply a universality in the use of the Venetian flag fans - even that they might have been used as, essentially, souveniers. It's something else to chew on, anyway. There are nifty instructions on making a rotating flag fan here, and there are attractive, small, premade ones here - but at that price, I have to wonder whether they're the rotating kind (which are much more efficient at pushing air around). I've e-mailed the proprietor to ask, but haven't heard back yet...and I've just realized the website is alarmingly out of date.

February 25, 2004: Odds & Ends

I bought a set of assorted gold clasps at Michael's yesterday, and I'll use the tiny lobster-claw catch for the girdle. It visually disappears next to those big gold beads. After looking at the girdle more closely, I think I need to restring it with a knot between each bead - they're rubbing the metallic coating off each other at the ends. This is apparently the other reason for knotting pearl strands, the pearls rub (the first reason is the obvious: if the strand breaks, the pearls don't explode over the floor). I've been thinking about trying to restring my pearls myself, so maybe this will be good practice.

I also bought some 12x10mm gold cabochon settings, to use to catch the panes of the sleeves together. They're not perfect - most period settings seem to have more gold around the gem - but at least they're solid, not filagree. And the only two types of settings I seem to see regularly in portraits are square stones in large round settings, and oval stones in oval settings. So this is the latter.

The only way Michael's was selling the acrylic cabochon stones, though, was in assorted-color packs - useless. I went scrounging around the Internet and wound up buying these vintage glass cabochons on eBay. But I also found these buttons, which look moderately like the sleeve-fastenings here and here. (Since the cabochons were so cheap, I won't feel bad if I wind up reserving them for another project.) I like the buttons' molded pattern, the central roundel, and the old-gold color - and the price. Unfortunately, they're plastic, and I'm afraid they'd just look ticky-tacky. More thought is required.

March 8, 2004: Cosmetics

Okay, I admit that cosmetics aren't exactly accessories. But while I didn't want to make a whole new page on this subject, I did think it was worth addressing. It doesn't get talked about much, but it can make or break a look. And I had a dress rehearsal on Saturday for which I had to make some decisions.

Obviously the simplest way to avoid looking modern is not to use any makeup at all. But cosmetics were de rigeur for 16th-century courtiers. Drea Leed offers some very good information on the cosmetics worn by the Englishwomen of Elizabeth's court, and there is more here.

The Italians of this period used makeup as well, at least the Venetians: "For this attire the women of Venice are proverbially said to be Grande di legni, Grosse di straci, rosse di bettito, bianche di calcina: that is tall with wood [chopines], fat with ragges, red with painting, and white with chalke." - Moryson's Itinerary, thanks to Thrednedle Street Clothiers.

My concern was to strike a balance between looking impossibly theatrical by modern standards, and impossibly modern by period standards! (I am performing in a very informal setting, not on a stage.) Although I am quite fair-skinned considering my dark hair and eyes, I found that even being very sparing with white stage makeup produced too ghostly an effect. I wound up using a normal foundation in the palest shade, which is enough paler than my skin's natural color to give a heightened "china doll" effect, but not so much that I looked bizarrely stagey.

Blush was obviously a necessity, especially after wiping out my normal pink tone with the pale foundation. Similarly, lipstick. Drea mentions vermillion as the most common shade, but that is a very harsh color and frankly, looks awful on me. I searched the web for color examples of some of the other ingredients she lists, red sandalwood and cochineal. The cochineal is an attractive blood-red, and I have lipsticks that are similar. I used a liquidy cream blush (it comes in a tube) as it seemed most like the waxy creams described in the recipes, on the apples of my cheeks.

Although Drea mentions kohl being used around the eyes, I don't really see this in the Italian portraits, and don't know how it was used so just skipped it.

I hope to have some pictures of the result for you soon.

Restringing Pearls

As I mentioned earlier, I own a real pearl necklace but it had to be restrung before it could be worn. Since restringing runs about $1 per inch, and heck, I can make knots in thread, I thought I'd give it a try myself.

I bought a reel of white beading thread for $2 at the craft store, and I already owned a pack of very fine beading needles from a previous project. Although most of the on-line instructions I found were not very encouraging, suggesting special pliers and all sorts of things, I discovered that thread, needles, and a little practice are all you really need.

I thought I'd post instructions for the method I came up with here; although I don't know how many of you have pearls that need restringing, this method will also make your fake pearls look more authentic when strung. And if the necklace breaks, you won't have beads everywhere. As usual, click on the little pics for the full-size versions.

Step One.

Slip the pearl onto the string and let it rest against the previous knot. I used two strands, doubled (e.g. four strands) of size D Gick Beads thread. NOTE: the knots take a huge amount of thread. Remember to cut the threads plenty long!

Step Two.

Wind the thread firmly once around your left index finger. (These instructions are for a right-handed person. Swap 'em if you're a lefty.)

Step Three.

Feed the needle through the loop around your finger. It's very important to get the needle under all the threads - if you put it through even a tiny part of the thread, the knot won't work right. I found it easiest to slip the needle in the little valley at the edge of my fingernail.

Step Four.

Pull the thread through. You now have now tied up your finger.

Step Five.

Take a regular sewing needle and, loosening the loop around your finger slightly, slip the needle into the loop parallel to your finger.

Step Six.

This is the tricky part. Carefully extract your finger so that the loop is only around the sewing needle. Keeping the tension loose with your left hand, gently draw the loop down with the needle toward the pearl. It moves most easily with the loop still open, but if it closes around the needle you should still be able to coax it down.

Step Seven.

Snug the knot down as close to the pearl as you can get it. If it snags and won't go all the way down, you have caught part of the thread when you put the beading needle through to form the loop. Carefully open the loop back up, feed the beading needle back through the offending area, and try again.

Step Eight.

Pull the sewing needle out of the knot, having your left thumbnail ready to push the knot up against the pearl and snug it as tightly as possible.

Step Nine.

Repeat until you run out of pearls. Here you can see the old, grubby knots (on top) and my new knots. Looks good to me!

March 14, 2004: Further Details

Taken from a slightly fuzzy snapshot, here I am after our first dance performance on the 13th. Not an ideal shot, but it gives you an idea of the overall effect of my makeup, jewelry, and hair.

When I dug out my old narrow-barreled curling iron, it turned out to have died. So I tried the alternative, putting a lot of gel on my bangs, twisting them up and back from my forehead, and sticking a bobby pin in on either side - and it worked amazingly well. I thought they'd pop loose with the first dance step, but they held up to an astonishing degree. So, too, did the old crocheted black snood. I still really want a gold one, but this works fine in the meantime, although I realize it hangs a little too low on the back of the neck.

There is normally much more skin showing under the coverciere, by the way. To keep the gown lining from bleeding into the camicia again, since I hadn't had time to replace it in the underarms, I was wearing an extra undergarment underneath everything!

August 30, 2004: Tassellated

I've been wanting a tassel for the end of my girdle, akin to the one Eleanora of Toledo wears in the Bronzino portrait detail at left. Her costume is a bit more hifalutin' than I was aiming for, so I didn't literally want one made of pearls, but I thought it would be a nice finish detail and something easier to duplicate than some of the incredible jeweled whatnots on the ends of other portrait girdles.

I was thinking that I might wind up having to make one, since cheap ones are usually ugly and fancy ones prohibitively expensive. But, yay!, I happened across the one below in a local high-end fabric store and by heavens, it was under $5. I'm a very happy camper. The colors are perfect for my gown (which, by the way, looks truer to color here than in most pics on this site).

Sorry about the flash - I may try again for a less shiny-looking shot in daylight. None of the surfaces are as shiny as they appear here. Also, it's just pinned onto my girdle at the moment, which explains the strangeness of the hang and the loose threads sticking out the back! As usual, these pics lead to bigger ones.

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Copyright 2004 by David and Jessamyn Reeves-Brown. All rights reserved.