Posted by: sevenstarwheel | December 23, 2015

Art as Evidence – using images for clothing research

If you’ve read some of my previous posts you’ll know that I place a certain amount of importance on getting the objects I make to look and behave reasonably like those pictured in art work of the period.

Too often, when someone makes a garment or other object, and it doesn’t really look “right” the accepted explanation is that it’s because what’s shown in art is stylized; that the real thing didn’t/couldn’t really look like that.

It is after all, a pretty convenient excuse.  But just because I can’t get something to look right, doesn’t necessarily mean that the issue is with the artist’s work and not my execution.  That’s why I try not to rely too much on this fall back.

For example, let’s say I make a Tudor gown and the bodice isn’t smooth like those in portraits but instead wrinkles across the body.  I could say “well the artists made them look smooth, but in reality fabric just doesn’t behave this way, it would actually have had some wrinkles”.  But the truth is I’d have failed to understand the amount of structure in a garment like this compared to a modern dress.  Had I interlined the fabric properly, I could have made it look every bit as smooth as they look in the portraits.

All that said, it’s also very important to understand that I don’t take everything I see in drawings or paintings as completely literal, far from it.

Artwork in the 15th and 16th centuries was certainly quite stylized, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the clothing didn’t look in essence as it is depicted.  There is often a sort of “core truth” to the images that emerges when you survey enough of them.

I am careful to consider the subject of art.  Is the figure I’m looking at a portrait of an actual person, or is it an allegorical figure?  Is it a person depicted supposed to be from a foreign culture?  When it comes to saints and foreign people, there is much greater risk that the artist may have dressed them fantastically, rather than the actual fashions of the time.  I am highly suspicious of single examples; if a dress is the only one like it I can find anywhere, I will generally not make it the focus of a project, even if I really love it.  My overall objective is always to make the most plausible examples.

At the beginning of a clothing project I start by amassing a sizeable file of images which, when available, includes: pictures of the garment I want to make; those from other nearby cultures in the same time period; those from the period(s) leading up to the one I’m working on and; those that followed.  Fashion particularly tends to become more understandable when viewed in the context of its evolution instead of just as a moment in time.

Once I’ve got a file of images, I’ll generally spend several weeks looking at them over and over again on a daily basis.  I’ll try to notice details, differences, similarities.  Before I ever get to the pattern and cutting phase, I will have reviewed my images literally hundreds of times, and sewn the gown in my head over and over.

Eventually I reach what I would describe as a sort of “magical moment” when I’ll suddenly feel that I REALLY understand the essence of the dress, how it evolved, and how it lead to the fashions that followed.

Then….. I get my scissors:)

Posted by: sevenstarwheel | December 15, 2015

Saxon (Cranach) Gown Project

Planning and Research Phase

The Politics of Fashion – Wherein I read something and end up with a biene in my goldhaube.

Recently and quite out of the blue I developed an interest in the gowns associated with the early renaissance in the Electorate of Saxony, most often referred to by costumers as “Cranach Gowns” after the Lucas Cranach and his followers who painted so many portraits showing this style.

So, needless to say, I now have to make one.

As part of the planning phase I’ve naturally been examining many of Cranach’s paintings as well looking at the diaries of others who’ve attempted this dress.

I’ve also reviewed Reconstructing History’s comments and pattern for the gown. You can read RH’s analysis here.

RH puts forth some decided opinions on who should and shouldn’t be wearing this dress, which of course got me thinking.

RH tells us:

“one of the aspects of historical costume that we [as re-enactors] most often ignore is age-appropriateness….”

“Another thing we often ignore is body shape. Some types of clothing aren’t shown on all types of bodies…. the fact that we never see long lanky women in some of the Venetian styles nor big-breasted women in Cranach Gowns is a fact that cannot be ignored.”

“…Cranach’s Saxon Gowns are one of those youth-specific gowns….[this] style of gown painted so often by Lucas Cranach was the fashion of young ladies and if more mature, more fully-developed and well-fed bodies will not fit into it, I do not find this to be a surprise.”

Let’s examine these ideas.

First, let’s say you accept that, based on Cranach’s art, only young slim women wore this fashion.  Following this logic, you might also have to draw the conclusion, based on most European art of the time, that plus sized people, unattractive people and old people were actually quite scarce.

Based on seeing similar gowns on similar body types painted by several artists, RH rejects the idea that “the subjects of portraiture are like fashion models” or that there’s “an ideal body type, and the painters make everyone look like that”.

The problem is, even when you look at paintings by different artists working at the same time in the same geographic area, you can be hard pressed to get away from a certain body type. Do some reading on art and you’ll soon see artists described as being from a particular “school” and/or as following a specific style.

Often those of the same school would have similar ideals, and would follow each other’s work.  It’s a false assumption to conclude that just because you see the same style of gown on the same body type by more than one artist that it must mean only that type of person wore it.  What it really means is that the artists shared the same idea about what was an ideal body.

When you really think about it, it seems an implausible notion that all women living in 1500’s Venice must have been uniformly robust, buxom and curvy, yet it’s true, you’ll not see a slim women in those fashions.

So why not? Did they cast all the skinny girls into the sea?  It’s probably safe to assume there were at least some skinny women living in Venice at the time.  Did they wear some other fashion, better suited to their body type?  That seems highly unlikely, the more obvious conclusion is that they (unhappily?) wore the fashions of the time anyway, because…..those were the fashions of the time…. regardless of not being able to live up to the ideal.

That’s also what still happens today.  Go down to the mall for an hour, you’ll see versions of the current fashions worn more or less successfully by various people of all shapes and sizes. Where you will not see such a wide array of body types, is in magazines or ads.  There, much as in historical art, the vast majority of images are of those with what’s considered to be ideal bodies. If, 500 years from now, you based your idea of what most people wore and looked like today on magazines you’d think we were all young and thin too.  This is the real fact that can’t be ignored.

The cult of beauty has very deep roots.  Ageism and body-idealization are hardly new ideas. Sad to think that hatred of our own bodies is something we might well share with our long-ago sisters.

plump lucrecia2


This is the look you get when someone says

“The gowns are only ever seen on young women of slight build with very small breasts”










Curvy Lucrectia

Not all that small breasted…..


Secondly, were Saxony gowns youth-specific?  As in every age, the very flashy new high fashion gowns were likely worn first by the young and very wealthy.  None the less, more moderate depictions of the Saxon gown, with many of the same elements (slashing, guards, stomach-lacing) do exist.

cran older 2

This lady appears to be more mature, and her figure is more average than most of Cranach’s racy young women, yet the gown has all the typical elements. I quite like her, she seems a very real person.



cran older 5

This lady too seems more mature. Like the other lady she wears a small cape (gollar) over her dress for warmth


In Cranach’s series of “Ill-matched Lovers” paintings, the portrayal of tooth-shaken old women dressed in Saxon gowns may indeed be intended to show that the women are dressing too young for their age.  But if that’s true, why aren’t they wearing the same flashy gowns the younger women wear?

The old women’s gowns are decidedly plainer.  The sleeves are simpler with no puffs or slashing, they wear plain headdresses, the gowns lack the amount of gold guarding worn by the younger women, and yet it’s still essentially the same dress.  Arguably, this may mean the dress was worn by older women, just in a sedater, more age or widow-appropriate form.


In general portraits of older people, especially women, are harder to come by.  It would be perilous for me to draw definite conclusions without an extensive survey.  None the less, in at least some of the portraits of older women I’m aware of, such as Memling’s Portrait of Old Woman, or Van Eyck’s portrait of his wife Margaret, we see they are dressed in versions of the current fashions.


Lastly RH suggests that as re-enactors we should only chose fashions that fit our age and body shape.

I agree with this…… provided your entire goal is to look like you stepped from a portrait.  If you are lucky enough to have the body type idealized in an era, the effect can be very satisfying.

If you can, wearing clothing that celebrates the shape you are is wonderful.  My small breasted protruding-lower-belly shaped body, which has been a misery to me most of my modern life, was adored in 15th century, it’s one of the reasons I was drawn to 15th century fashion in the first place.

However, it remains that the vast majority of people depicted in medieval illuminations and portraits are both young and fairly slim.  This could really limit your choices. Yet, we know for a fact not absolutely everyone died before 30, and it’s reasonable to guess that some skinny women lived in Venice and some plump curvy women in Saxony.

Perhaps as re-enactors we should consider, not just the ideals of the time, but how those ideals would translate to real, everyday people.  Instead of suggesting that people who do not possess the “right” body for a time period shouldn’t wear its fashions, it’s more interesting to consider how you could and should adapt those fashions to your body, just as someone with your body would have had to do if living at the time.

I think Mary Wotton would agree

I think Mary Wotton would agree

I really like this gown.


So I made one.  That’s it:)

This is the hat – I’m pretty happy with the way it turned out

My Early French Hood

I don’t have a good pic to the dress unfortunately – in most of them I have a mantle over it – maybe someone else will have one.

Here I’m trying to figure out how to get up from my knees while wearing 15lbs of velvet, silk, and fur.

get up

Alex me dress cropped

me looking down

my cloak

Here I’m doing Dr. Evil for some reasonone million dollars

I’ve been pondering this hood for the past couple of years and even made several different patterns for it. Frustratingly, none of them ever looked quite like those depicted in illustrations.

The explanation often given for this problem is, “it’s the artist’s conception, it didn’t/couldn’t really look like that”.

I’ve never been comfortable with that reasoning.

Artwork in the 15th century was certainly stylized, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the clothing didn’t look essentially as it is depicted.  I never like to assume that because I can’t get it to look right, that it just wasn’t so!  Extant examples of clothing are rare; art is often the only clue we have.  Dismissing it removes one of the few means we have to determine the success of a project.

It arguably gives more insight into “what was” if an object is made using period-plausible methods and patterns AND the result looks reasonably like those depicted by its contemporary artists.  It’s also pretty exciting when it happens!

This brings me back to the mystery of this particular hood.  Someone recently told me they thought it must be simple;  just a piece of cloth tied around the head.  That’s the same theory I’d been working with all this time.  Her comment also made me recall a lady at Pennsic telling me the she believed medieval people would have done “whatever was easiest” to achieve a result, and this got me thinking.

Many extant objects tell a much different story.  In our busy modern age we tend to be convenience-driven, much more so than our medieval counterparts.  Consider as just one set of examples, the extant clothing finds from Greenland.  Far from being “simple”, or made the “easiest way possible”, many show complicated cutting layouts, extensive seam finishing, and even unnecessary false seams added, presumably, for the sake of symmetry.  The makers appear to be more interested in esthetics than ease or simplicity.

With this in mind I chose to approach the hood from the opposite perspective. I gave up simple.

My two new objectives were:

-I wanted a pattern that could be made with little-to-no wasted fabric.
-I wanted the finished result to look like the artwork examples.

The characteristics of the hood as shown in artwork examples are:

The crown is rounded and fits smoothly over the back of the head

The front edge is chin length or just slightly longer; it can be wider with a turn-back or not.

The “ties” are only long enough to tie on top of the head or overlap slightly, they don’t wrap back around the head.

The ties are wider in the back and gather or taper down to being narrower by the time they meet.

Lastly, the look I want most to achieve, the ties follow a gathered “swoop” from the back to the front without sticking out or being too bulky.


After two years, three completely different designs,  four minor variations, many cups of tea,  and at least a dozen more grey hairs,  I finally hit on a design I think really works.

It fits well, is comfortable, doesn’t slip off my head, makes excellent use of fabric with zero waste, and ……….looks like the art!  Yay!😀

It IS more complicated than just a piece of fabric tied around your head, but in the end it’s still fairly simple and works up very quickly – I can make one in just a few hours:  Here is the pattern!

Final pictures and a photo diary to follow.

I have to take some better photos of this but here’s one – the crown has come untucked so it doesn’t look the best.

Update!  I’ve added a few more photos which are hopefully a little better:




Here is an alternate pattern/layout: Alternate Coif layout

Posted by: sevenstarwheel | November 27, 2011

Ashmolean Tudor Costrel – for those really long trips

The last costrel I made was an attempt at reproducing a tiny lovely little example held by the Museum of London, measuring only 4”x3”.  So now, why not head for the other extreme?  I became interested in this huge one from the Ashmolean Museum Oxford when I first came across it doing a Google image search.

Tudor Costrel belonging to the Ashmolean Museum Cambridge

Its measurements are given as 16” long and 13” tall by Oliver Baker in Black Jacks and Leather Bottells.

I have a another good photo of it which I believe came from one of John Waterer’s books, either “Leather in Life” or “Leather and Craftsmanship” although I can’t be certain as I neglected to label the photo copy.  The plate gives it as being 16” long as well, although the information may well be second-hand from Baker.

So far, I have been unable to determine a few things:
-How deep the costrel is
-How thick the leather is
-Whether or not it has an extra layer of leather in the handle, or around the ends

Baker also contains a few paragraphs about large costrels including part of a poem “Farewell to the Tower Bottles” by John Taylor, poet, waterman, and apparently disgruntled former wine-collector of 14 years.

John Taylor. Not happy, not happy at all.

The tower bottles were used to collect a “gift” of wine for the Constable of the Tower of London.  This tradition was purportedly very old, and certainly in place formally as early as the 1400’s.  “Regulations framed during the reign of Richard II for the Government of the Tower of London” (see Archaeologia, Vol 18) states that “…the said Coustable shall have, for every Galley that commeth, two roundletts of wyne, and of all manner of dainties a great quantitie” and “…. of every Shippe that cometh with wynes, two bottells, either of them contayning a gallon”

This agrees with John Taylor’s account of there having been two bottles, but the size may no longer have been a gallon each.  The size of the tower bottles was the source of a lawsuit at the time, between the Constable of the Tower and merchants who alleged the bottles had gotten bigger over the years.  Mr. Taylor mentions volume in margin notes accompanying his poem twice.  In the first instance he writes “I filled the two bottles being in quantity six gallons from every ship that brought wines up the river of Thames” but then later he notes “At 3 gallons from a ship, and some but 1 gallon and a half, I account 30 ships allowance is the quantity of a hogshead…”

This doesn’t quite tally.  At 63 wine gallons per hogshead this would mean that the average collected per ship was 2.1 gallons, fairly in line with the Richard II statutes.  Perhaps punctuation, or the lack thereof, is the culprit.  Read as “ I filled the two bottles, being in quantity six gallons, from every ship” changes the meaning significantly.  It may be that the bottles were in fact six gallons each, or three gallons each totaling six, and that it took more than one ship to make up the total collection.

Weight is another consideration.  A three gallon costrel, full, would weigh approximately 27-30 pounds. (25 for the liquid contents)  A six gallon, over 50 pounds.  It seems more reasonable to imagine someone carrying two three-gallon costrels weighing a total 50-60 lbs, rather than 100 lbs or more as it would be if each were 6 gallons.

Baker also notes another example of a very large costrel (pg 181) from the collection of a Mr. W. J. Fieldhouse which is given as having a capacity of three gallons.

So assuming three gallons is a good capacity to aim for, and that the costrel is 16” x13” I resorted to….*gasp* MATH to estimate the depth (and my friends all said I’d never use it again after high school): Ashmolean Costrel calcs

A depth of 167mm gives something close to the three gallons needed and looks right.  It would be difficult to make this costrel with the known dimensions hold much more than three gallons.  Making it more or less would result it either a very fat or strangely thin (and unstable) bottle.  Three gallons seems just about right.

Next post: This is going to take too much leather to make more than once so “Making a mock-up with paper and felt”

Posted by: sevenstarwheel | November 27, 2011

Mary Rose 81A2218 – an interpretation of a Tudor Leather Bottle

In the past few months I’ve been experimenting with flask-style leather bottles made with a mold.

The accepted method for making this style of bottle is to sew two flat pieces of leather together, wet them, and then pack with sand to create the “pumpkin-seed” shape.

For a number of reasons my belief is these were, instead, more likely made by molding over a wooden form.

For more information read my write-up on the project HERE.  Likewise have a look at The Leather Working Reverend who inspired the asymmetry of this design.

Here’s the finished bottle:

Finished Bottle


Hand carved stopper. The Leather washer is "glued" on using brewers (pine) pitch. This one was made from a maple branch.

Close up of the dolphin motif imprinted using a hand-carved maple stamp.

The stamp carving was inspired by this guy!

Posted by: sevenstarwheel | May 2, 2011

Burgundian: Finished Vneck Gown

I’ll be posting some more shots of the various layers when I get time, but here is the final gown with all it’s accessories.

Burgundian gown and accessories - finished!

Posted by: sevenstarwheel | May 2, 2011

Burgundian: Truncated Hennin

Here’s the truncated hennin I made to go with my gown.  I wish now I’d made it a bit taller/bigger and I’ll have to shorten the veil a bit so it fits under my chin tighter.

I’ll be posting the “how to” on this hennin shortly.

On the left, portrait of a young girl, Petrus Christus, after 1460. On the! 2011.

Posted by: sevenstarwheel | April 17, 2011

Burgundian V-necked Gown

A friend of mine asked me to help her with patterning and making a Burgundian gown.  Before starting on her expensive and gorgeous brocade I thought it might be a good idea to try the dress myself in a less expensive fabric.

I have had mixed feelings about this gown as I went along.  I normally do not like to use man-made fibers and I like my clothing to feel like clothing not a costume.  None-the-less court apparel is a bit like a costume anyway.


The main fabric is a deep-red micro-fiber velvet backed with a white cotton canvas which makes it look like it’s lined.  I liked the way the light caught the folds in the store making it look like something out of van der Weyden.

The fur collar and cuffs are “budge” the period name for lamb or sheepskin with the wool left on.  Budge was a cheaper fur in the 15th century, it’s not too likely that a lady who could afford a velvet gown would have it trimmed in a low-end fur but since I’m using a man-made velvet I wasn’t prepared to spring for a more expensive fur and I preferred the look of the real budge over a faux fur.

The hem, however, is made from a long pile faux astrakhan (lamb fur)  which matches the real fur fairly well (I needed a LOT for the hem, couldn’t afford the real stuff for that!).

Design and Pattern.

Some time ago I worked with a group to recreate Mary of Hapsburg’s Coronation gown seen here.

When I look at M of H’s gown it always seems out of place for the 1520’s.  I can’t help but wonder if it, or at least its design, was reused and is of an older style.   Many of its features, the deep V neck, the collar, the cuffs, the overall silhouette have some similarities to Burgundian fashions from 40 or 50 years prior.

In this project I wanted to explore the idea of using the same cut to create a Burgundian Gown.  Mary’s gown has a waist seam.  While it’s generally thought Burgundian Gown’s did not we usually see them worn with a wide belt which would tend to obscure a waist seam if there was one.

Waist seams on kirtles are depicted in art work from the period so it would seem that the idea of making the dress in two parts was not unknown.

Here you can see the layout of the Mary of Hapsburg gown.  A bodice with a full circle skirt attached.  The waist is off-set toward the front of the circle making the front floor length and the back longer.

For my gown I’m using about 2/3 of a circle instead.  Unlike the M of H gown, the front and sides are floor length and the skirts only extend into a train at the back as this is the silhouette most often seen for Burgundian.

Note the skirts for the lady on the left.  They appear fairly narrow from the front, are floor length at the sides and the train extends out the  back.

Here you can see my pattern pieces for the gown.

Below is a slide show of the gown in production.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Posted by: sevenstarwheel | April 16, 2011

Burgundian V-necked Gowns: Partlet

Here is my finished vest-partlet based on the theories I talked about in my last post.  I’m quite pleased with the way it’s turned out.  It fits well and gives the look I wanted.

It’s made from a fulled wool that doesn’t unravel.  Since I don’t need to hem the edges, there won’t be any bulky seams that might show.  I might eventually blanket-stitch or bind them.

The front panel is finished with a layer of velvet.

I’ll eventually post some pictures of the whole outfit one layer at a time so you can see how it fits over the kirtle.

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