Sunday, July 6, 2014

1590s Loose Gown Inspiration & Research

***, remember when I said I was finally going to get back to my fitted gown project?

Well, this time it only took me --what?-- 4 weeks to abandon it again? (Even less, because I actually bought the fabric for this new project 3 weeks ago).

But I just couldn't help myself, and here's why...

Esther Inglis, 1595

A little under a year ago I fell in love with this portrait of Esther Inglis, a French born calligrapher and miniaturist whose family fled to England after the St. Bartholomew Day massacre.
The hat, ruff and blackwork combo was just too good to ignore and for the first time I really wanted to reproduce a known portrait.

It quickly became evident that Esther's costume was typical of a short-lived fashion of the 1590s.

Two almost identical portraits exist of Joan Woodward (wife of the Edward Alleyn, the famous Shakespearean actor) and a Mrs. Jennyngs, both appearing to date from 1596...just a year after the Inglis portrait.

Joan Woodward, 1596
Mrs. Jennyngs, 1596

Now I knew I had to make this outfit! I'd never seen this style reproduced and really wanted to give it a try.
But exactly what are we looking at here? It can be very difficult to determine shape and form in English portraiture from this period (which is notably flatter in style than its European counterparts). Add to that poor scans and reproductions (resulting in the 'floating head and hands against a black background' scenario that is almost present in the Jennyings portrait) and it becomes even more daunting.

As the silhouette is clearest on the Woodward portrait let's focus on her for a moment.  We seem to have black gown (probably with with revers) over some sort of blackwork front piece.  The gown has a full skirt, large sleeves and a conical shape typical of the period.
But is it a fitted gown? A bodice with a stomacher? Or something else?
Do these gowns look flat and conical because they were, or is it an artifact of English style mentioned above.

Certainly there are examples of similar gowns (from the early to mid 1590s) which clearly show embroidered stomachers.

Francis Howard, 1590s
Lady Bennet, 1590
Unknown Lady, 1592

But they didn't quite have the same aesthetic and I became more convinced that what I was actually seeing in the 1595/6 portraits was a loose gown that was belted at the waist.

There is a belt/sash visible in the Woodward portrait and what I suspect are folds or gathers radiating up from the waist to the underarm in the Inglis portrait (as would result from a belted garment).

Woodward Portrait, belt detail
Inglis Portrait, gathers (?) detail

John Dunch and his Nurse

It was around this time that I received my copy of "The Tudor Child" and noticed this image.

In the catalog for "Elizabeth I & her People"  (National Portrait Gallery) the painting is listed as "A child, possibly John Dunch and his Nurse, by an unknown English artist, c.1580s-early 1590s."
I very much suspect the later date is correct.  The overall aesthetic and silhouette is extremely similar to the 1590s portraits, albeit in a much simpler style (as befitted a servant).
The front piece is lacking blackwork and the gown is largely undecorated, but apart from that she seems to fit right alongside Esther Inglis and the other ladies above.

This portrait is also slightly better executed than the others...with a greater sense of depth and form, which I believe indicate a loose gown (in the is case belted with an apron).

But I wasn't totally convinced until I discovered the treasure trove that are English Tomb Brasses!
Brasses are wonderful, because unlike portraits and paintings (where there is a higher emphasis on colour, texture and patterns) brasses are all about form and shape.
And what I found is that an overwhelming number of brasses from the mid-late 1950s seemed to show a loose gown in the style that is very similar to the Nurse portrait...complete with gathered front piece (more on that later...)

John Gage and wives, 1595
John Gage and wives, 1595 (detail)

But my favourite image is probably this detail of the wife of Arthur Pennyng, 1593.

It's almost contemporary to the Inglis/Woodward portraits and clearly shows a loose gown with folded back revers, belted with a sash at the waist. It also appears that there may have been at tall hat (worn over a coif) which has since broken off the monument.

As far as shape and construction go this will probably be my jumping off point.

However, there are some additional elements worth considering... most notably the highly decorated forepart present in this and many other brasses, which seems to be typical of this particular style.

With this information I took another look at the Woodward portrait (the only one which extends further than waist level).  And sure enough --with the levels adjusted to show greater contrast-- there does seem to be a hint of a brocade underskirt.

Woodward Portrait, forepart detail

Success! With so many converging elements things are looking good for reproducing this style!

That being said, all this is beating around the bush somewhat since it's leaving out the most distinctive feature of the Englis/Woodward/Jennyings portraits...

The blackwork.

What the heck is going on here???

Well... at face value there is a large blackwork front piece that extends from (we assume) the waist to the bottom the the ruff.  There are vertical lines radiating slightly from the waist upwards, which might suggest folds in the fabric but more likely indicate that the blackwork piece is covered by a sheer protective fabric.
A similar treatment is also seen the the Woodward portrait.

However, that doesn't necessarily indicate that the blackwork piece is rigid.

This portrait of Lady Harrington (1585-90) predates our period, but shows a similar front piece in which the pattern is clearly broken by crisp folds which start at the waist and became wider at the bust.
The pattern flattens out as it approaches the neckline... Almost as if a square or rectangular blackwork piece was gathered/folded into a more triangular shape.

Although it is difficult to tell where the blackwork ends, the piece seems to extend past the ruff to almost the base of the collar bone.

Then there is this image of Anne Carew, Lady Throckmorton painted after her death (sometime between 1589-93).

Again, instead of a rigid stomacher the blackwork piece seems to be arranged in soft gathers, more reminiscent of the Nurse portrait and the tomb brasses.
If a loosely gathered, almost pigeon breast style was popular then it could be argued that perhaps the blackwork pieces were fashioned in a similar way, and only appear flat in some portraits due to painter placing more emphasis on accurately portraying the pattern of the blackwork than the form of the clothing.

It's difficult to tell how far up it goes, but it seems to extend past the nape of the neck and towards the shoulder on right side.

Throckmorton portrait, detail

But then there's this portrait of Elizabeth Parker, 1593.

Here the blackwork piece appears much more like a classic stomacher and extends to only just above the bust.

It is very similar to the Inglis portrait...and it could be that the two styles are the same but the larger ruff obscures this view in the later painting.

However, this piece does not seem to feature a sheer overlay typical of the other portraits.

So long story short...I have NO idea what's going on with the blackwork piece!


  1. Hello Jennifer!

    I'm also a member of the Elizabethan Costume group on Facebook, so I hope this isn't too awkward! I came across your blog the other day and saw that you were working on this project. It's an era and style that I love as well, so I am very intrigued by what you have uncovered so far! I realized I had a few examples of this same style bookmarked on my computer that you don't have here (3 miniatures by Nicholas Hilliard), so I sent you a message on Facebook about them. Then I realized that my message might end up going to your "other" messages folder, so decided to let you know here about it. I would love to chat further about this project and look forward to seeing your progress!

    Scarlett Harris

  2. Hi Scarlett!

    Thanks so much, I will head there right now and check!
    I wish I could get my head around what I'm looking at in these photos, both in the blackwork pieces and the gathered "pigeon" look since I'd love to take a stab at both styles for versatility. (Finding a hat…now that's another matter!) I'm hoping to take another stab at the mockup this weekend if my muslin arrives.

    Being a relative beginner I'm always second guessing my approach, and there don't seem to be many other costumers doing this style to compare it to.
    Please let me know if you have any additional thoughts or ideas! I'd love to hear what you think about this style!

  3. Awesome, I look forward to hearing what you think of them! I think Alice Brandon's miniature might be the key to at least one way to solve the mystery of the pigeon breast!! There aren't very many who like to do the turn of the 17th century stuff like I do so it's great to find a kindred spirit. If I wasn't desperately sewing to get a few pieces done for Northern (I'm on cast for the first time this year!!!), I'd drop everything and join you in this experiment!

  4. I'm really loving all the blackwork stomachers!