I have been in a bit of a rut creatively. I had a huge project that was completed in 2009 (recreating the portraits of Henry VIII and his Six Wives), spent most of 2010 attending cons and making costumes for other people, and now I have found myself quite suddenly retired with a great deal of extra time on my hands.
Consequently, I decided I needed a challenge. Nothing along the level of Henry – this would involve just me. So in order to challenge myself creatively and historically in costuming, I have taken on what I consider to be one of the Holy Grails in costuming: the portrait of Eleonora di Toledo as painted by Bronzino.
I have discovered that the average costumer has never made a duplicate of this gown. Many have talked of it, but as far as I know it has never been done by an amateur.
It was recreated by King Studio in Italy as part of a series of lovely garments done from Italian portraiture. Their version is exquisite:
However, I do not have a team of weavers available to me, nor am I particularly artistically talented. Another costumer had discussed the idea of painting the design on fabric, and I would make a mess of that. I also am not likely to make the outfit out of paper, like Isabelle de Borchgrave did:
While beautiful, it isn’t very practical for wearing at conventions, festivals or anywhere you want to sit down.
I had done a rather extensive search for similar fabric and came to the conclusion that while there were fabrics with some of the elements, there were NO fabrics with ALL of the elements of the design. The only way to have the fabric look the way it should is to make it.
As said above, I am not a weaver, but I can do embroidery. Lis Kester of Dragonfly Designs had posted on Facebook a video showing tambour beadwork and embroidery. After an hour You Tubing around the Internet I found several videos on punch needle (or needle punch, depending on your preference) work. It seemed I had found my solution.
In Moda a Firenze it is stated that Eleonora’s gown is “made of velvet with gold and silver boucle effects on a silver ground.” I didn’t see the silver till I blew up the photo (it runs along the inside of the piping on the sleeves and neckline). But the idea of the embroidery being similar to boucle seemed to fit the idea of using punch needlework on the fabric as being more accurate and probably more appropriate looking.
I looked for fabric for the background and came across some silver velvet made of cotton and rayon manufactured by Schumacher that was listed on eBay. I knew that to be able to properly pull the fabric tight enough to get consistent results with the punch needlework that I would need something more like an upholstery weight velveteen, and this fabric looks like it has the body and the right color. Although I was a bit thrown by the first picture:
It seemed a little bit shinier than the portraits painted by Bronzino. The seller had a second photo that seemed to indicate that the color was indeed very close in texture and hue to the Bronzino portraits:
It is the color to the far right.
I am ordering gold and silver thread from Kreinik, and am probably going to use a wool based black thread for the black portions of the design. I am probably going to be spending a lot of time blowing up the design and getting it to the proper size and ratio on my body so as to be similar to Eleonora’s. Luckily I am rather long waisted, so the bodice should be accurate. I am on the shorter side, so I am not sure how that will affect the layout.
For the design I decided to use the pattern in Janet Arnold’s Patterns of Fashion 1560-1620 of the burial gown of Eleonora. The design of the burial gown looks very similar to that of the portrait. Thus the skirt will have one front panel, two gored side panels (or pleats) and two long back panels that extend into a train. I am going to use my quilting frame to roll the fabric on front and back to get it tight enough without crushing the velvet pile too much. I may have to resort to using a large hoop to get it tight enough, but I am hoping the quilting frame will be tight enough. I am starting with the skirt as I would rather get the largest pieces done and out of the way first.
I am also trying to figure out how I am going to do the jewelry – whether I will have to carve it, or can find settings that are similar. But my first plan of attack is the fabric.
In order to try to keep the outfit as historically accurate as possible I am going to make all of the undergarments that Eleonora would have worn. Because I am bustier than is average, I am going to have to wear some sort of corset or binding garment to keep things in place. At this point I am considering making a hemp corset using the excellent advice of Artemesia.
I hope people will find this dress diary informative. If anyone has any suggestions or advice on the project, I welcome it. I am really winging it here, people.
My end date is tentatively scheduled for December of 2012. Let’s hope it doesn’t drive me mad before then.
Thanks for coming along for the ride.