This past weekend I wore the completed version of my Eleonora outfit at Costume Con. After 3 years it is hard to believe it is DONE. The original plan was to wear the dress in Florence and have my photo taken in front of the Bronzino portrait. However, this proved to be impossible due to several issues. First, you are not allowed to take photos of portraits in the Uffizi Gallery unless you get permission first. This apparently is far more difficult than it sounds. What ultimately happens is you get photos like this one:
Secondly, the outfit was not complete. The ribbon trim from Morocco on the sleeves took many many hours to stitch down and I arrived in Florence with many hours of work left to complete. I stayed up till almost 2am when I realized that I could either get some sleep and enjoy my time in Florence, or stay up all night and maybe get the dress done in time to take some photos. The sleep and enjoyment won out, and I don’t regret the decision at all.
I spent my time visiting the Palazzo Vecchio and seeing Eleonora’s burial gown and many portraits of her. I went to the de Medici Palazzo and visited various other landmarks.
And finally I spent several hours with Dr. Sheila of the Medici Archive Project and the other great people she works with. I also got to see and touch a household account book from Eleonora’s home. I may not have been able to wear the gown in Florence, but I got to bring my dress to Florence and that was enough for me.
I did complete many items before I left, both by myself and with the help of others.
The beaded caul has been in a partially complete state for over a year. I added the silk organza lining and a drawstring casing and it was finally complete. I tried to make a partlett in the same style and it was a tragic failure, so I used pre-gridded silk fabric, backed it in silk organza and beaded it with freshwater pearls matching those on the caul.
The girdle was constructed using a necklace that I found at a thrift store and findings I found on eBay and Etsy. I constructed the jeweled pieces and the lovely Erica put the whole thing together for me. I bought a tassel cap from Turkey and Erica re-strung some plastic pearls onto it from an old Christmas tassel. I considered using freshwater pearls for this as well, but it would have been way too heavy to hang from the the belt using the stuff I had. It isn’t an exact duplicate, but it is close enough and I am very happy with it.
The pearl necklaces were made by Nagle Forge in California. I constructed the pendant to match the one in the portrait, and Erica attached it for me. I can construct jewelry, but my skills are not nearly as good as hers, and I didn’t want any of this to fall apart. I still need to construct proper pearl earrings for the outfit, but was able to use a pair of the Cheap Chick’s for the trip to Toronto.
Kim sent me great buttons made from the 3-D mold she had constructed and cast in pewter. I tried attaching shanks to the back with epoxy, but I had a 50% failure rate in them staying attached. I wound up popping them off and re-attaching them with E6000 and not a single one came off after that. I did discover that they were rather heavy on the sleeves, so I reinforced the top of the sleeves with some ribbon from the shoulders that attached to the top of the sleeves and helped distribute the weight.
While in Venice I purchased some red velvet slip-on wedge heeled shoes from a local specialty shoe store. The folks at the Medici Archive thought they were perfect for the outfit, which I took to be a seal of approval. They were very comfortable to wear and I love them. I got my socks from Sock Dreams. They were a cotton blend diamond patterned cable knit that reminded me very much of the original hose worn by Eleonora. They are currently out of stock, but you can find info about them here.
I made the underbodice according to Margo Anderson’s Italian underpinnings pattern. I put some boning in the front to give my chest some more support and added a linen petticoat to the bottom. The hem of the petticoat has wool felt padding sewn to it to give more volume. I think I need to actually make this thicker for the future. I did the bodice in red velvet, as Eleonora had several red velvet underbodices listed in her wardrobe. The outer fabric was an experience filled with frustrations. After arranging with a company overseas to weave it, the final version arrived in silk and was far more pale than I had anticipated. It didn’t fit with my vision of the dress and seemed too thin for what I wanted to use it for. I returned it and it got lost in transit. So not only do I not have the fabric, I don’t have the refunded money. The end result of the whole custom fabric experience is less than stellar.
Because there was no way I was not finishing this dress, I decided to buy some of the Spoonflower fabric. I talked to Bonnie there and she told me that I should order their Silky Faille fabric, which happened to be 100% POLYESTER. I had originally thought I would order the silk cotton or something similar, but Bonnie talked me into the poly and I am so glad she did. The weight is good, it drapes beautifully and the color is outstanding. The poly fabrics print a truer version of the actual color, and they can BE WASHED without losing color. The fabric is incredibly soft and was a breeze to sew with. Not a single soul guessed that the fabric was poly until I told them. Everyone touched it and couldn’t believe how great it was. Many people actually thought the fabric was flocked until they touched it. THAT is how good the fabric and Bonnie’s design is. You can order your own fabric here.
The Cheap Chick came over and helped me cut out the pieces and fit the final mock-up. We had to piece several spots such as the shoulder straps and the sleeves, but we fit everything on 6 yards of the fabric except the baragoni. I decided instead to tack up the top edges of the paned sleeves and this worked just fine.
The entire thing is lined with a polished cotton. There is no boning in the gown at all. I made eyelets to lace it using my sewing machine and it fits smoothly and evenly over my underbodice. I used some wool felt to pad the pleats at the waist and added a black velvet guard to the bottom to collect most of the dirt. I also added some small gold lobster claw clasps about every 3-4 inches around the waistline of the front panel of the bodice to hold the girdle in place. Because the waistline is a more unusual shape I was concerned the girdle might not drape correctly, especially since it had a rather heavy pearl swag at the end. This holds it there and the clasps blend into the girdle. It worked so well I might put them on all of my gowns.
What I didn’t finish: 1. The camicia. I have the “S” trim done and it just needs to be added to a camicia. I wore my old one that has very full sleeves, although the neckline wasn’t quite wide enough. 2. The hose. I am just not talented enough to knit those socks. I sent Kim the yarn and she is having them knit for her dress. I am very happy with my Sock Dreams socks. 3. Shoes. Again, I am very happy with my little velvet shoes from Italy. They are comfy, have arch support and are pretty accurate from what the Medici folks told me. 4. Earrings. Pure laziness and memory loss on my part. I simply forgot to make them.
What I would change or do differently: 1. Have my portrait taken in the outfit with the other portrait. This didn’t happen in Italy and that is ok. But there is another portrait in the Detroit Museum of Art and I will be trekking back to Toronto in 2017 and am going to try to stop there and have photos taken.
2. I would like to try to figure out a way to re-do the partlett to match the caul. Am working on it, but I figure it will be a lengthy hand-sewing process. I also need to get on to making Kim’s… The gold organza seems to show up as either a very pale gold or a very BRIGHT gold depending on photos as well, so I am going to replace that. 3. Too much hair in the caul. I stuffed my hair piece in there and it was just too much hair. I am going to experiment with how much hair can sit comfortably in there before I wear it again.
4. Fix the sleeve puffs. If I can get more fabric I will make the baragoni, although I really do think after seeing the portrait up close that the sleeves were merely pushed up. Because the buttons are heavier I am going to un-stitch the sleeves where they are tucked and rework the ribbon support. I am also going to attach the tops of the sleeves to the shoulders via buttons rather than sewn in as they currently are. 5. Fix the petticoat. I am afraid the linen in the petticoat might be too lightweight. I am going to add more padding to the hem and if that doesn’t make the gown stand out more I am going to add another linen petticoat with more volume.
6. Make some bloomers. I know these weren’t worn, but for the sake of modesty, comfort and against chafing, I am going to make a pair. Maybe out of the cotton version of the fabric! 7. I would love to replace the plastic pearls someday with lightweight real ones, but I think Erica would kill me after all that work.
This has been the most interesting experience I have ever had in costuming, even more than the Steampunk Clown. I have met so many wonderful people (the best of which is my partner-in-Eleonora-crime, Miss Kim), learned so many things about Italian Renaissance costuming, learned all about Eleonora and gained many new skills. I also learned what is ultimately most important to me in costuming and what I am willing to let go. My original plan was to make the fabric myself. The end result was using poly (I know! But it is SO NICE!) from Spoonflower. I did go with historical undergarments after all and found them to be well fitted to my curvy shape. And I discovered that sometimes it is okay to miss out on an opportunity (such as having my photo taken in Florence in the outfit) in order to enjoy the experience.
The Eleonora gown has taught me a lot and made me a better costumer. I am so glad I started the process and very glad that I did finish it. There were people at Costume Con who were so excited to see the gown. My friend Terry actually jumped into the photo shoot when she saw it, clutched me and squealed. I ran into another woman the next day in a beautiful version of the gown with the same silhouette but a completely different fabric. I told her how great she looked and she said, “I bet you can’t guess which portrait this is from – here’s a hint: the dress is white, gold and black.” I answered correctly, but what was actually running through my mind was “Oh honey, you have NO IDEA, lol.”
Eleonora is not just a gown to me, she is kind of a member of my family now. I have lived with her and she with me for these three years. I have tried new methods of construction, bought all kinds of fabric, argued with experts, met people all around the world and even took a trip to Italy to visit her portrait, her homes and her town.
Someone asked me the other day if I would do this all again. I told them I absolutely would.
I would like to thank the following people who have been a wonderful source of support during this: 1. My husband and children who spent many hours over dinner pretending to be interested in what sort of socks Eleonora might have worn and who encouraged me to go to Italy to do more research. I love you guys. 2. The lovely Kim Byrnes, my Eleonora twin who came into my life right about the time I was getting discouraged from ever completing this outfit. Her enthusiasm helped me to stay the course and I eagerly look forward to her gown which will blow mine out of the water. 3. Dr. Sheila Barker and the folks of the Medici Archive Project who proved that the dress actually EXISTED and that Eleonora lined those sleeves in ERMINE. Their work will do for Italian costumers what Janet Arnold’s work did for Elizabethan costumers. 4. Margo Anderson for making my clothes fit as well as they do and for all of her research on this era and her personal support. Her patterns are the reason this outfit is even here. 5. Realm of Venus and the lovely Bella who runs it. My dream of doing this outfit was originally inspired by this website and the wealth of information that is contained within it. 6. My wonderful friends who cut fabric, put together jewelry, and just generally gave me support when I truly needed it. Shout-outs to my stitch and bitch group, those cotterie members and all their fripperies and in particular Erin (the Wind Beneath my Wings and my fabric cutter extraordinaire) Artemisia (the original Italian costuming guru) and Erica (the One True Jewelry Badass). The rest of you know who you are. 😉 7. My travel buddy Elizabeth who trekked all over Florence with me, patiently let me talk my head off about Eleonora to various people and who A)convinced me to buy those shoes and B)took that photo of me with the portrait like a stealth ninja. 8. The rest of my family and friends who said encouraging things, listened to endless debates on sleeves and who supported my project even when they thought I was insane. Or more insane than normal, lol. Thank you to all of you. Links of Interest: Lynn McMaster’s Caul pattern: http://www.lynnmcmasters.com/patterns.html Nagle Forge jewelry and freshwater pearls: http://www.nagleforge.com/ Silver and Gold Braid: https://www.etsy.com/shop/sewsouk Turkish Tassel cap and additional jewelry supplies: https://www.etsy.com/shop/LylaSupplies Faceted Jewels: https://www.etsy.com/shop/yummytreasures Filigree Settings: https://www.etsy.com/shop/Karmelkisses Soutache braid: https://www.etsy.com/shop/LACEtrims Polished cotton fabric: http://www.joann.com/ Red velvet fabric and linen fabric: http://www.srharrisfabric.com/ Plastic cable ties for boning: http://www.homedepot.com/ Italian costume patterns, Margo Anderson: http://www.margospatterns.com/ Diamond pattern socks: http://www.sockdreams.com/products/diamond-rib-knee-highs:4172 Pattern to knit Eleonora’s socks: http://www.ravelry.com/patterns/library/eleonora-di-toledo-stockings Red velvet Italian shoes/furlane: Dittura Gionni Venezia. http://www.turismo.it/viaggi/venezia/shopping/gianni-dittura/ Eleonora Spoonflower fabric: http://www.spoonflower.com/fabric/1344134 Eleonora Silk Fabric: http://www.sartor.cz/historical-textiles/1410-silk-brocade-eleonora-de-toledo.html Kim Byrnes’ Eleonora buttons (this links to Kim’s blog – she will have info listed when the buttons are available for sale): http://bsewstylish.blogspot.com/ Realm of Venus: http://realmofvenus.renaissanceitaly.net/ Medici Archive Project: http://www.medici.org/ Dr. Sheila Barker’s video talk on the Bronzino portrait gown: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KN32FYkBX5o The Eleonora Club on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/333172926775709/ Uffizi Gallery: http://www.uffizi.org/ Palazzo Vecchio Museum which houses Eleonora’s burial gown: http://museicivicifiorentini.comune.fi.it/en/palazzovecchio/