My Twelfth Night Dress

The author at Atlantia Twelfth Night 2015 photo by Baron Bardulf.

Inspiration:  This project was inspired by the theme of our Twelfth Night.  The event was Italian themed and I wanted  a way to blend my interest in German costume with the event theme.  In celebration of Advent, Mistress Sophia Kress posted photographs from the cenotaph of Emperor Maximilian I of a statue of his second wife Bianca Maria Sforza.  Bianca was born in Lombard Italy and married Maximilian at the age of 20.  She lived the rest of her life in western Austria. The clothing of her statue together with the clothing of an earlier portrait looked to be an amazing blend of her heritage and new country.

Materials:  This gown and under dress are constructed from modern-day materials.  The side-lacing underdress is made of faux silk and lined with cotton then trimmed in brocade.  The skirt of the underdress is a synthetic brocade quilted onto a cotton backing with polar fleece batting.  The overdress is a beautiful polyester jacquard with cotton velveteen trim lined in taffeta.  The sleeves are the same materials trimmed with “gold” cording.  The lacings of the sleeves are cotton cord made by me.

In period, this gown would have been constructed of cut silk velvet or brocade with real gems and real gold cord. The fabric would have been heavily textured and very expensive.  I chose modern day synthetics to save both time and money.

Bianca Maria at the tomb of Maximilian I photo by Marion McNealy

Procedure:  This dress was created entirely by me.  I created the patterns, chose the fabrics, assembled the gowns by machine and finished it by hand.

This beautiful ensemble appeared to consist of many heavily embellished pieces:

  1. An undergarment fitted closely across the shoulders and chest but with voluminous sleeves.  This garment has a small decorative edge around the neckline.
  2. An underdress consisting of a side-lacing bodice with a beaded band across the chest and trim across the back attached to an underskirt of brocaded fabric with an embroidered band of decorative suns across the bottom.  The bodice is cut high across the back.
  3. A set of sleeves each of brocaded fabric in two pieces edged with twisted cord.  The decorative cuffs are beaded and jeweled.  The sleeves tie together with twisted cord.
  4. An overdress of brocaded fabric with a high waistline.  The overdress opens in the front forming a “u” which allows the underbodice to be seen.  The skirt is split in the front allowing the skirts of the underdress to show as well.  The trim of the overdress is heavily beaded and jeweled. It has a substantial train and hangs over the floor in front.
  5. A thin beaded belt tied in the front with twisted cord.
  6. An elaborate head piece and crown.

There are many similarities to the typical Italian Renaissance gown.  I theorized that the underdress would have looked very similar to the Italian gamurra pictured here in an earlier portrait of Empress Bianca.  Although most depictions of this popular Italian garment lace up the front, you can see that this one does not.  The sleeves also clearly lace to the gamurra.

It is easy then to look at the overdress as some kind of giornea knowing that Bianca was born in Italy; however, I see much more of a typical Saxony or Cranach style gown in the front “U” shaped opening (minus the lacing of course).  The typical Cranach gown does not meet above the waist as this one does. This theory is also supported in another portrait of Bianca (this time from Bernhard Strigel painted sometime between 1505 and 1510).  In this portrait you can now see the horizontal lacing typical of the the gowns of Saxony.

In 1501, Lucas Cranach the Elder created a wedding portrait of Dr. Johannes Cuspinian and Anna Cuspinian-Putsch.  In the portrait, Anna wore a gown of a very similar cut through the bodice, with the “U” shaped opening but not cut as deeply as Bianca in the Strigel portrait.


I do not intend to discuss the materials  to much  since the materials I chose are not period. I feel I succeeded in choosing materials that would provide an overall period look but were within my own resources and limited time.

The materials to create a gown like this in period were  costly to say the least. Most of the gown would probably be made of a cut silk velvet to get the kind of texture you see in the statute then lined in silk. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has in its collection a fragment of cut velvet from fifteenth century Milan in a pattern similar to the one seen in the statute.  The pattern is a variation on Sempervivum Tectorum .  This plant design was closely connected to the Sforza family just a few decades before Bianca was born.

It was very difficult to tell what kind of bead is used in the gown on the statue or what the trim fabric may be.  I chose to interpret the beads as pearls and, inspired by the Strigel portrait, the trim as velvet. I used fake pearls purchased from a craft store. I also substituted clusters of pearls for what appear to be gems on the statue’s garment.  The cost of that many real jewels would be staggering but not impossible for a woman of Bianca’s status. The dress she wore to marry Maximilian reportedly sported 80 pieces of jewelry consisting of a ruby and 4 pearls each.

This portrait by Strigel also provided the inspiration for the colors I used in my gown.  I love the over gowns pattern of gold on red.  The fabric appears to have a slight sheen which mine does as well.  This gown was also trimmed in velvet, most likely of silk, although the portrait trim is of a red velvet while I chose to use black.


The first step in the creation of the gown was to think realistically about what I could do.  This dress was heavily beaded and embroidered.  As a busy modern mom with limited resources, it just was not feasible.  The beaded and embroidered bands across the chest of the under-bodice and the bottom of the underskirt became bands of a lovely brocaded fabric I had saved  for something special.  The beaded trim of the overdress and cuffs was still beaded but not nearly as heavily. I tried to keep some small decoration just about every 3 inches but I had to do without the lines of smaller beading that covered the trim.

The next step was to draft a bodice pattern with a higher waist than my typical 16th century German garb.  This bodice needed a flatter chest rather than the rounded one I usually wear.  It also had to be side-lacing instead of the front closures I am used to.  After some experimentation, I was very happy with the design I came up with.  It includes an interlining of canvas for stability and 5 pieces of metal boning to help flatten out my chest.  The underbodice was assembled by machine and then finished by hand including 32 hand bound eyelets.  There is a border of brocade across the chest with a line of beading on the bottom.  I applied a gold trim to the neckline which I beaded with the same fake pearls and glass seed beads.

The underskirt was attached to this bodice.  It has one panel of brocade that shows while wearing the gown.  This panel is quilted to give it extra bulk.  I felt that this gown seemed very structured and lightweight fabrics would not provide the shape I was looking for.  Quilting the panel gave it enough weight to hang much more like the gown on the statue.  I applied another strip of the same brocade on the bodice to the bottom of the skirt and another row of beading.  The panel was then attached to a full skirt of cotton then the skirt was attached to the underbodice to make one garment.

My next project was to tackle the overdress.  I drafted a pattern and fitted it to myself while wearing the underdress to get the best fit possible.  I assembled the over gowns bodice first and then applied the velvet trim as I went. I left the bodice open at the arms so I could use my machine as much as possible without the stitches really showing.  I used the same fabric to bind the arm openings.  There was no boning or other support in this part of the gown.  It was simply outer fabric and lining.  Once it was assembled I add the beading and decorations about every three inches alternating between clusters of 4 pearls, a large pearl surrounded by a strand of smaller ones and decorative jewels purchased from a local craft store.

The skirt of the overgrown consisted of three panels of 60 inch wide fabric. There is a small train in the back.  It was lined in taffeta. I have very few garments with a lined skirt because I rarely take the time to do this but I am very happy with the results on this gown. Lining the skirt changed the way the fabric draped and moved substantially. I feel like it added a lot to the overall look of the gown.  The skirt was trimmed in the same black velveteen as the bodice but I stitched the trim by machine this time.  The trim was also beaded along the entire length of the skirt.

The skirt was attached to the outer gowns bodice using cartridge pleats.  I began costuming by  sewing Elizabethan, so cartridge pleats have been my default method since the beginning. I love the way the skirt fell into the large rolls as it moves away from my waist like in the original.  I suspect that the garment on the statue was actually meant to show rolled pleats.  In the future, I may take the skirt off and attach it again using rolled pleats; although I am concerned about the bulk it will add to the waist line.

The last part of this project was the sleeves.  I had created a sleeve pattern before for a middle class German woman’s  gown with belled sleeves.  I chose to use the pattern again and divide it into two pieces.  The pieces fit snugly but not uncomfortably and stayed nicely in place over the 10 hours that I wore the  gown.  The pieces lace to each other using the handmade cord I created from cotton string. The lacing holes on the sleeves were hand stitched too and the velveteen cuffs were beaded by hand.

In my original plan the sleeves would lace to the overdress.  Once I created the sleeves I did not believe it would work.  I pinned the sleeves to the overdress and they pulled the straps off of my shoulders.  I’m not sure if this was a problem in the pattern or the cut of the dress.  My solution was to lace the sleeves to the underdress.  This worked out wonderfully.  It pulled the straps of the underdress out towards my shoulders which kept the back of the underbodice pulled snugly against my back.  I was very pleased with this arrangement.

I am very happy with the dress and the overall look.    For accessories, I plan on creating a small beaded belt, a version of the fabulous hat from the Strigel portrait, and an underdress of fine linen in the future.


Baroness Briana Etain MacKorkhill. “Women’s 1490’s Italian Renaissance Ensemble Parts 2 and 3” (n.d.): n. pag. Web. 17 July 2015. <>.


Bernhard Strigel. Portrait of Bianca Maria Sforza. 1505-1510. Wood. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Austria.

“Bianca Maria Sforza” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 31 May 2015. Web. 18 July 2015. <;.

Bianca Maria Sforza, Innsbruck, Austria. Personal photographs by Marion McNealy. 2014.

Fragment with Sempervivum tectorum motif

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