The lack of evidence of drawstring in Italian Renaissance chemises - and a general view of Italian chemises


The Italian word "camicia" means a shirt, but it's used in a wider context than today's front-buttoned garbs with collars. Basically, a camicia is the white, washable garb used under an outer garb. It is in English referred to as "chemise", "shift" or "smock", in Scandinavia as "kjortel" or "serk".

The camicia started as a shirt-like item, rather similar for men and women. It was worn to protect the finer outer garb, and was more frequently washed. A camicia was always made of a vegetable fibre (Landini 2005: 125), and linen seems to have been the preferred material. Not only would it endure hard wear, as it has 2 to 3 times the strength of cotton, but it can also take up to 20% moisture without feeling damp. This makes it the ideal fabric to wear next to the skin. But other fibres was also used: hemp, wool, and sometimes even cotton or silk (Herald 1981: 212, Frick 2002: 304).

In Medieval times and early Renaissance the camicia was not meant to be seen under the outer garbs. But soon enough the trend turned towards slashing and cutting the upper clothes so that the camicia was visible underneath. Not only did it gain fullness to "fill the gaps" of the slashes, but it also became more decorated as more of it was visible than before. One popular way to decorate a camicia was to add embroidery. Blackwork seems to have been especially popular, but red, pink, gold and blue is also seen. Sometimes only the neck opening and the cuffs would be embroidered, other times blackwork could be seen on the sleeves and at the seams as well.

Another important difference was that Italian men adapted the use of trousers from the North. Italian noblemen sticked to kirtles longer than in other countries, and the cut for camicias for men and women therefore wasn't too unlike eachother. But with the introduction of trousers and the narrow silhouette, the male camicia adapted to this ideal, being shorter and more fitted. The female camicia, on the other hand, became longer and wider as the fashion became grander.

Whereas petticoas, overcoats, mantels, corsets, hats, trousers and doublets were the work of the tailor, linen items was often the work of the household (Arnold 2008: 5). Many inventory lists shows linen garbs listed as "fatta in casa" - made in the house (Brown 2004: 112), and this was probably a suitable activity for the ladies of the house (which wasn't expected to participate in the activites of the outdoor world). There are of course exceptions; Eleonora di Toledo and the Medici court had their linen items made by nuns specialised on such work (Landini 2005: 126). And for the stuff made at home, a regular upper or middle class household probably had a seamstress to do this work, maybe with the addition of an embroiderer.

But embroidery was also a noble activity for an upperclass woman. In earlier eras, it was a craft learned from mother to daugher, but in the mid century, when book printing made books easier accessable than before, books with embroidery and lace patterns were published. The Venetian Giovanni Antonio Tagliente published a collection of patterns he had collected from already published works, and called it "Exemplar of embroidery" (Brown 2004: 113), and after him lots of such collections and instructions on how to make the material were published. These books aimed for the literate upper class women just as much as craftsmen, as some of the instructions might reveal. One even states that it was useful for "...all women both high and low, but where the poor find only utility in these arts, the rich, the noble, and beautiful lady wins honour also" (Brown 2004: 116).

Today, one of the most common way to make a Renaissance chemise is to make a wide, white garb with full sleeves, and adjust the neck opening with a drawstring. This allows the opening to be adjusted to various dresses and wearers, and therefore it sounds like a good period way of doing it as well. However, there are few indications suggesting this was how it ws done in the Renaissance, at least not in Italian camicias.


First, let's take a look at surviving Italian camicias. Unlike northern European chemises (smocks), they were usually wide, often without gores, with a neckline following the shape of the dress. Both body and sleeves tended to be wide in Mediterranean camicias (Arnold 2008: 110), but especially the sleeves would vary to fit the sleeves of the petticoat. The same goes for the neckline. Most of the Italian century dresses (referred to as "petticoat" in English, "sottana" in Italian) shows square, wide necklines. This is largely reflected in the surviving Italian chemises.

There seems to have been two main methods of making camicias. Two belonging to the "Museo del tessuto" in Prato dates to the mid century shows a rather similar construction: The main parts of the camicia is made of two straight panels of fabric, and with inserted triangular panels in the bottom of the skirt. The straight panels makes up the shoulder area, with the sleeves attached to these shoulders, and a square "hole" is cut to the head. One of these camicias is included in the book "Moda a Firenze".

The rust-and-gold embroidery of this camicia shows stylized vases with flowers along the neck opening. Empty vases was a classical symbol of death, whereas vases with flowers symbolized life and fertility (Landini 2005: 124).

1. Camicia, century, Tuscany (?) (Museo del tessuto, Prato)
2. Camicia, close-up, century, Tuscany (?) (Museo del tessuto, Prato)

The other method also relies of straight fabric panels. Here, several narrow panels are used, joined together by decorative embroidery forming vertical stripes. The panels are gathered to a decorative band in the neck opening, just as the sleeves are. In these camicias it's the actual sleeves that forms the shoulder area, and gussets under the sleeves secures freedom of movement. A surviving example can be seen at The Met in New York (included in PoF 4). The neckline of that exact camicia is very high; higher than what the general Tuscan and Venetan dress called for. Bella at Realm of Venus has suggested this might have been a night camicia or a general "at home" garb, as seen in the woman bleaching her hair in Vecellio's voodcut, and that is quite plausible.

The purple-and-gold embroidery shows branches of stylized acorns and pomegranates, and also stems with roses and fleur-de-lis. (Arnold 2008: 112). The acorn was a traditional symbol of patience, while the pomegranate symbolized fertility. The rose can allude to love and beauty, being the flower of Venus, while the fleur-de-lis sometimes has been the symbol of the Virgin Mary and the Annunciation. In total, all the qualities one could wish for in a wife...

1. Camicia, ca. 1575-1600, Veneto (?) (The Met, New York)
2. Camicia closeup, ca. 1575-1600, Veneto (?) (The Met, New York)

There is also a combination of these methods, where both the straigh panels and the sleeves are attached to a gathered small panel at the shoulder - this can be seen in the embroidered camicia at Boston Museum of Fine Arts (also included in PoF 4). The main features reminds of the one from the Met, with embroidered sleeves, underarm gussets and decorated seams, but the shoulder area is a bit different.

The fine pink/pale embroidery shows twisted stems with various flowers, possibly daffodil, daisy, pimpernel and columbine (Arnold 2008: 111). The same flowers are repeated in the embroidery covering the seams. The flowers are classical spring/summer flowers, and can possibly refer to the renewal of life, but it can also be that each flower represented a specific quality.

1. Camicia, ca. 1575-1600, Veneto (?) (Boston Museum of Fine Arts)
2. "Lady bleaching her hair", ca. 1590, woodcut by Cesare Vecellio (British Library Board)

That first method does not allow a drawstring closing, if it's to be worn with century Italian fashion. If a square neckline is desired, it need to be fixed in that position. The drawstring will make the neck opening rounded, and though it is possible to "tug" it into place under the dress, it is likely to make an unfortuneate lump in the front after some hours of wearing it. And such a wide neckline would allow the garb to slip over the head easily, without any closing patent.

The second version calls for a band of some sort with can gather the camicia opening all the way around. This opens for the use of a drawstring. My first camicia was made that way, and it offered a flexible and adjustable solution. The downside is that since the sleeves makes up the shoulder area, they tend to slide forward if they're not fixed, limiting the movement of the arms and hence straining over the back. However, this might just mean my camicia wasn't constructed optimally for a drawstring.

A drawstring solution creates a rounded neck opening. The are various fashions where one could wear that. Another thing is that, if cut right, the camicia will still create "angles" in the front/side neck opening (as is the case with my new camicia). However, I haven't been able to find proof of the drawstring solution in any sources, neither in surviving examples or in paintings. There are lots of variants, especially in paintings (surviving items all seems to have fixed neck openings), but none that shows a drawstring - as far as I can tell, that is.


It is especially in opulent Venice we find portraits and paintings of women in camicias, and this is the focus of my painting analysis. Allegoric paintings said to symbolise various virtues, saints or Venuses often show beautiful women in camicias, with their hair loose and sometimes even with a breast bare. These are believed to have been courtesans, though it's hard to tell for sure. Patrons wanted paintings of beautiful women for their private studiolos, but because of decorum their lovely ladies was often painted in an "allegorical excuse". Today the moral issue isn't what is interesting - it's the underclothes.


The first painting is by Vicenza Catena from the 1520's. The interesting part about it is that it highly echoes the construction / silhouette of the outer garbs of the time. The sleeve is full, but the lower sleeve is pleated down to allow a narrow lower sleeve of the petticoat. The fullness is kept at the upper sleeve, as the petticoat would have had. The neckline is semi-high, rounded and pleated in what looks like fine knife pleats all the way around. It seems to have been made in "method 2", with the sleeves (not the front panel) forming the shoulder area, as there are no visible seams at the sleeve or shoulder.

The second painting is by Palma Vecchio, from the 1520's, and shows how the dress corresponds to the camicia in Catena's painting.


The first painting is also by Palma Vecchio, from the 1520's. It shows a full camicia with fine pleats gathered to a decorated band, allowing the fine pleat ends to show on top. The camicia has a split on the left shoulder (probably the right shoulder as well), where it can be tied together.

This sort of camicia was worn with extremely low-cut dresses, as seen in the Tiziano painting from ca. 1514. It would cover the bust area, and appear rather rounded compared to the square, low-cut bodice. The cuffs could both be gathered, as seen in the Vecchio painting or rounded, as seen in the Tiziano painting. Key word is still fullness, both in sleeves and bodice. One interesting side note is that the Tiziano painting shows the petticoat sleeveless when seen fron the front, yet in the mirror (backshot) it appears to be worn with sleeves. I don't know if my eyes are deceiving me or if it's a deeper meaning to it...


This painting by Paris Bordone, from the mid 1520's, shows a front-split camicia echoing the front-closed bodice. My copy of the painting is too small to be able to see any details well, but it still shows an interesting feature. There appears to be a white string with small tassel hanging down from the camicia opening in front. This CAN point toward a drawstring in the neck opening, but it can also mean the camicia is closed by strings similar to the bodice. Such bodices was usually closed with three strings/bows, as seen in the portrait of a woman in green from ca. 1515, by an unknown Venetian master.


The painting by Parrasio Micheli from the mid century shows a richly embroidered camicia. It is covered with blackwork, especially on the sleeves, but also on the neck opening and cuffs, and at the seams. This reminds a lot of the authentic camicias belonging to The Met in New York and Museum of Fine Ars in Boston. Very similar camicias appears in Giovanni Antonio Fasolo's 1570 frecoes from Villa Caldogno. The gathered necklines have fine blackwork, ditto for the sleeves and cuffs. The seams of the camicia body can not be seen, but a similar appearance occurs in Bassano's painting from the 1540's: a lady's petticoat is gathered up towards the waist, revealing the camicia skirt. The panels seems to be gathered at every 5 cm, and with decorations all the way down at both sides. The neckline doesn't seem to have blackwork in the Bassano painting, but then again it's a tad earlier than the other two.



1. Camicia, century, Tuscany (?) (Museo del tessuto, Prato)
2. "Portrait of a woman", 1560's, Workshop of Bronzino (Palazzo Pitti, Florence)

Although the portrait camicia has blackwork and the extant camicia rust embroidery, they share many similar features. But first: the portrait shows a lady wearing a sottana (petticoat dress) with square neck opening and with trim or embroidery at the bodice. Overneath she wears a zimarra (a semi-fitted overgown) or a fitted doublet with similar trims/embroidery to that of her petticoat. She wears an elaborate partlet of a sheer fabric, with golden trims and a high collar.

The blackworked camicia probably also has a square neck opening, to match the petticoat. There seems to be a broad band in the bottom of the embroidery motif, with entwirling stems or branches. Overneath there is a stripe with rythmical flowers or stems "shooting" upwards. Overneath there is a small trim, probably some sort of bobbin lace, in black and white. This match well with the camicia belonging to the "Museo del Tessuto" in Prado, except it has bigger bobbin lace on top, and the stems are "shooting" in the opposite direction.


1. Camicia, ca. 1575-1600, Veneto (?) (Boston Museum of Fine Arts)
2. "Lady bleaching her hair", ca. 1590, woodcut by Cesare Vecellio (British Library Board)

Although there are differences to the surviving camicia from Boston and the Vecellio woodcut one, they still are surprisingly similar. The neckline might be a tad lower in the woodcut one, and the sleeves seems not to have fixed cuffs and embroidery. Still, the camicia and the woodcut are from the same time period (late century), and shares similar features: the panels are joined in several vertical stripes, and the seams are covered by embroidery. The hem is also decorated, and the neck opening has fine lace trims. There is a generous width in the cut, and the sleeves has drawstrings to adjust the width of the cuffs.


1. Camicia closeup, ca. 1575-1600, Veneto (?) (The Met, New York)
2. Woman with a dove, ca. 1610, Cecco da Carravaggio (Museo del Prado, Madrid)

OK, there are some major differences between the blackworked camicia with a round neckline, and the pure white portrait one with a square neckline. What I wanted to show is that although the chemise mostly followed the neckline of the bodice, it is also seen that high-cut chemises has been worn under low-cut bodices, almost functioning as a partlet. The portrait underneath is from ca. 1610, and shows a style that was popular in Lazio/Rome at this time. But the same phenomenon can be seen in 1520-30 fashion in Veneto and Tuscany as well.


1. Composite camicia, 1595-1600 (The Met, New York)
2. "Isabella de' Medici with a dog" (?), 1560's, A. Allori (Private collection, England)

Although this camicia only survives in "bits and pieces" (as only the top is original, while the bottom is a later addition), it shows an interesting feature: the V-shape. The square-necked petticoat or sottana stayed in vogue for most of the century (especially in Venice), both as a garb to be worn alone, and to be worn underneath other dresses. But the V neckline soon became fashionable as well, first via the overgown (zimarra), which formed a V neckline when worn over the petticoat, and later because the doublet was adapted into female wear.

The portrait dress might show a more sober style than the colourful camicia, but it gives an idea of how an outfit was sometimes worn just with a petticoat skirt (without a bodice), an overgown and a neck opening adorned with a lush pleated partlet. A V-shaped neck opening in the petticoat would probably have been the preferred choice for this style (though I'm only guessing here).

It's hard to tell the origin of this camicia, but I would be very surprised if it was Venetian. The V neckline is hardly seen there, and although overdresses and doublets appear, they're always worn over a square-necked petticoat or high-necked doublet/underdress.


There also seems to have existed a more elusive sleeveless camicia. The exact need and use for this is not known. Oonagh has argued that Venetian women wore the sleeveless camicia under a corset, and a regular camicia on top of that. I'm still in doubt of whether corsets were in use in Italy in the mid century. Late in the century, possibly. But not early and mid 1500 (read more about that discussion here ). Hence I think sleeveless camicias was worn independently of corsets. Maybe they were used alone at hot days, and under the camicia with sleeves at cold days? Maybe they were used to protect the camicia with sleeves, which became more and more elaborate in the century? Maybe they were used under slightly transparent camicias?

1. Chemise of the fourteenth century, page 177, "A History of Costume", C. Köhler
2. Saint Cecilia, between 1490-1505 (San Giacomo Maggiore, Bologna)
3. The Alms of St. Anthony, 1542, Lorenzo Lotto (Basilica de Zanipolo, Venice)
4. The Triumph of Death, 1490, Lorenzo Costa (San Giacomo Maggiore, Bologna)

I know the latter one of Costa shows an actual dress and not a sleeveless camicia. There are tie-ons hanging from her shoulders, where a pair of sleeves would probably be attached. But what is interesting is that no camicia is viewable. This might mean she wears a sleeveless camicia under her green dress, just as the Saint Cecilia is doing in a fresco from the same time period, from the same city.

The Lotto painting shows a dress in the 1540 style, with a semi-long bodice (see Venetian gallery for more images). It appears she also wears two camicias - one sleeveless and one with sleeves. The first picture shows an extant garb, presumedly from the century. it appears in the book A History of Costume from 1963, and tells no more of it than which century it's from. But at least it provied a picture, as seen above.

More to come...


Arnold, Janet and Jenny Tiramani + Santina M. Levey (2008) "Patterns of Fashion 4:
The cut and consruction of linen shirts, smocks, neckwear, headwear and accessories for men and women"
, MacMillan, London
Brown, Patricia Fortini (2004) "Private Lives in Renaissance Venice", Yale Univerity Press, New Haven and London
Frick, Carole Collier (2002) "Dressing Renaissance Florence: Families, Fortunes and Fine Clothing", John Hopkins University Press
Herald, Jacqueline (1981) "Renaissance Dress in Italy 1400-1500", Bell & Hyman, London
Landini, Roberta Orsi and Bruna Niccoli (2005) "Moda a Firenze 1540-1580. Lo stile di Eleonora di Toledo a la sua influenza", Edizioni Polistampa, Florence

Jennifer Thompson: Festive Attyre on constructing chemises
Bella Lucia da Verona: Realm of Venus on surviving Italian camicias
Kass McGann: Reconstructing History on Irish chemises
Deborah "Oonagh" Lane: Oonagh's Own on sleevelss chemises

Gallery for Veneto - Gallery for Tuscany - Gallery for Lombardy - Gallery for Rome and Lazio - Renaissance dress glossary

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