Since I was a small child and saw a pre-Raphaelite painting of a lady in a blue dress kissing a cloak-dressed man, I've wanted a blue Renaissance outfit. And some years ago I got this amazing high-quality sateen of a lovely sky blue hue, and I've tried to find a suitable project for it. I wanted a blue Renaissance dress. But how period is it? I mean, a pre-Raphaelite painting shows how the 19th century artists imagined the Renaissance.

There didn't seem to be too many bright blue dresses in Renaissance portraits. Red, black and green dresses were all over the place. And golden ones. And white. But bright blue? At first I thought the rarity of clear blue dresses might be due to the difficulty of creating such a hue for fabrics - it was expensive. And not only for fabrics. "Real" blue (i.e. ultramarine) was only used for the finest and most important works of art. But on the other hand, that would often make a colour more sought-after, especially by nobility. And when I started looking, I found a lot of blue dresses. Maybe not as frequent as red and green dresses, but they were definitely there. I just hadn't noticed them before. I also noticed something interesting - it often occurs in the clothes of young girls.

Two different books in my possession tells bright blue being used in Renaissance Florence. One is a book about the Medici Women (Langdon 2006), the other is the Moda a Firenze (Landini 2005). Langdon tells about the tragic destiny of Eleonora (Dianora) di Toledo de' Medici (1553-1576). She was the niece of Eleonora di Toledo, and grew up in the Medici court with the Duke's children. She was strangled by her husband Pietro de' Medici in 1576, 23 years old, because of suspected infidelity (Langdon 2006: 176). Her memory was almost erased from history. Langdon argues convincingly that Allori's portrait of a young lady in blue, today called "Maria de' Medici", is instead that of Dianora (see Langdon 173 pp) - though it's still not unanimously accepted.

The book claims that pavonazzo was a hue prized by her aunt, Eleonora di Toledo (Langdon 2006: 174), and that the colour was a part of Eleonora's impresa (her personal symbols) (Langdon 2006: 175). The reason for this might be that the pavonazzo - which can translate to "peafowl coloured" - was the colour of Juno and her peafowls. Juno represented fertility and was a popular bride symbol, and had been linked to Eleonora di Toledo all since her marriage to Cosimo I de' Medici in 1539. She was to be presented as Eleonora genetrix (Cox-Rearick 1993: 30), something she also managed to live up to in real life: she gave birth to 11 children. And interesting enough, it is Juno with nymphs of the air, who is painted on the backside of the Dianora miniature.

But the book identifies pavonazzo as a blue hue similar to that Dianora is wearing in her portrait(s). Although the definite hue of this term is disputed, most sources lists it as being made by a reddish dye, which gave dark purple and brownish shades. The meaning of the word pavonazzo (peafowl, but with negative ending) might be to blame for this. A peacock (male) would be blue as in the portrait, whereas a peahen (female) would have a deeper brownish red shade. The term is probably referring to the latter. The book Moda a Firenze tells of another period name of sky blue shades: turchino, which can be translated as "turquoise" or bright blue. Whether this also includes sky blue can only be assumed.

Whatever the case, sky blue colours did exist. But unlike today, sky blue colours were considered feminine, and was thought to give energy and have an innocent look about it (see Michel Pastoreau's book "Blue" for a longer description on this). It was the preferred colour of young girls in particular. At the wedding of Isabella, the nest-eldest daughter of Cosimo I de' Medici and Eleonora di Toledo, sky-blue dresses were chosen for the celebration (Landini 2005: 63). The book also talks about the Allori portrait of a young lady in blue dress (there identified as Isabella de' Medici), mentioning her "...veste du taffetas turchino.... The symbolism is still understood to a certain degree today, through the iconic blue dresses of Alice in Wonderland, Dorothy in Wizard of Oz and Christine in Phantom of the Opera.

So blue was used, but mostly for young girls in the 16th century. It was often chosen for Eleonora's daughters. However, this doesn't mean Eleonora di Toledo didn't have blue clothes herself. Assuming turchino describe a clear blue colour which would be referred to as "sky blue" or "clear blue" in English, there are proofs of dresses (sottana) and overgowns (zimarra) of this colour being a part of Eleonora di Toledo's wardrobe. It was, however, an infrequent colour compared to other shades.

1545: a sky blue silk sottana
1552: a sky blue silk zimarra with gold and sky blue trims, and ditto sottana with gold and sky blue trims
1554: sky blue silk stockings in blue and gold
1555: a fur lined zimarra in red and sky blue
1557; an aqua blue silk robba with sky blue tafetta lining, plus an aqua blue silk zimarra
1561: a sky blue sottana with ditto lining and trims

(Landini 2005: 201 pp).


1. Details of a painting from the 1530s, by Cristofano Gherardi called "Il Doceno", (location unknown)
2. Portrait of the Volta family, ca. 1547, Lorenzo Lotto (National Gallery, London)
3. Portrait of Dianora di Toledo de' Medici (?), ca. 1571, Alessandro Allori (Kunsthistorischen museum, Vienna)
4. Miniature of Dianora di Toledo de' Medici (?), ca. 1571, Alessandro Allori (Thyssen-Bornemisza Collections)
5. The Anguissola Family, ca. 1557, Sofonisba Anguissola (Location?)


1. and 2. "The Birth of the Virgin", detail, 1467, Fra Carnevale (The Met, New York)
3. "Life of St Benedict", detail, 1502, Luca Signorelli (Monteoliveto Maggiore, Abbazia)
4. "The Return of Odysseus", detail, ca. 1509, Pinturicchio (National Gallery, London)
5. Detail of a larger painting, 1530-1540, Zuccari? (?)
6. Chapel fresco, late 1500's, Federico Zuccari (Basilica of Loreto, Italy)
7. Chapel fresco, 1540's, Lombardian school (In situ in Lombardia)
8. Portait of the lady of the house, ca. 1561, Veronese (in situ at Villa Barbaro, Maser)
9. "Pope Alexander III and Emperor Frederick I", 1560's, Vasari or Veronese?, (Sala Regia, Venice)
10. "Judith", ca. 1596, Fede Galizia (Ringling Museum of Art)


1. Portrait of a lady, 1560-70, Florentine school (?)
2. Portrait of a lady, ca. 1570, Florentine school (?)
3. Portrait of a woman, 1560-65, Jacopo Zucchi (The Met, New York)
4. Arrival of Leo X in Florence, detail, 1559-60, Giorgio Vasari (Palazzo Vecchio, Florence)
5. Arrival of Leo X in Florence, detail, 1559-60, Giorgio Vasari (Palazzo Vecchio, Florence)
6. Fresco, ca. 1579, Federico Zuccari (In situ in casa Zuccari, Florencey)
7. Birth of the Virgin, ca. 1595, Alessandro Allori (Santa Maria Nuova, Cortona)
8. Portrait of a lady, 1560s, Alessandro Allori and/or workshop (Possibly in the Uffizi storage)


Pictures Eleonora's funeral dress is from Moda a Firenze and Patterns of Fashion. The ones of the red Pisa dress are my own, courtesy of Palazzo Reale in Pisa.

And this is where my project started. I wanted to make a sky blue dress of a similar shade to those above. The basis was Eleonora di Toledo's funeral dress and the crimson Pisa dress, both from the early 1560's. They are well described in the Moda a Fienze, and the Eleonora dress is also dealt with by Janet Arnold in her 1985 "Patterns of Fashion". Furthermore, there are some paintings depicting this style very well, as shown in the galleries. The Moda a Firenze argues that Eleonora's burial dress and the Pisa dress are almost identical in cut, and likely made by the same tailor (Landini 2005: 74). Eleonora's chief tailor Mastro Agostino made most, if not all, of her clothes, and the funeral dress was the last registered in the inventory list before she died of malaria in Pisa. It's also listed that Mastro Agostino made dresses for her ladies-in-waiting for the triumphal entry in Siena the year before, and that these dresses were crimson. It was common to donate rich clothes and fabrics to churches; often they were transformed into church vestments, sometimes they dress saint statues. The latter is the case with the crimson Pisa dress, but its original use was probably within the Medici court. Based on the lack of documentation of it in the guardaroba, the though of the crimson dress originally belonging to Eleonora di Toledo herself has mostly been abandoned. Still, they are contemporary and very similar in cut and details, and therefore a wonderful basis for a dress of similar style.

My plan was to make a sottana, a tight-fitting dress with a sturdy bodice that is longer in front than in the back, and with a skirt that is fuller in the back than in front. I also planned a train, though not as long as the crimson Pisa dress, as well as ornamental trims in front and in the back, in the classical Florentine manner.

The bodice would of course be side/back laced, but not as far back as Eleonora's funeral dress. The Pisa dress seems to place it more to the side. I've never understood the logic of placing the lacing so far back, piercing only half of the trim with lacing holes. I think it gives an uneven result. Someone suggested this is because the Eleonora dress gives a slimmer appearance from the back, especially compared to the Pisa dress. It is a good point; but I think the trim adds the slim look and not the lacing. Both the bodices in the gallery underneath have such trims, and to my eyes they look equally slim. The placement of the lacing, however, is different. The Vasari fresco shows side lacing, while the Eleonora funeral bodice drawing shows back lacing. I will definitely add trims in the manner underneath, both in front and in the back. But the lacing will be at the side, as this assures that the lacing is hidden from most angles because of the sleeves.




May 2009:
So far I've cut and boned the bodice: two layers of unbleached cotton with canals stuffed with rigilene, plus one layer of blue sateen. The blue top layers has been sewn together with the boned layers, and all that remains as of now are hand binding ALL the lace holes with a thread matching the sateen (halfway done). For my Unicorn dress I inserted metal grommets in the cotton lining, added the green silk fabric on top, pierced it gently and sew buttonhole stitches around in a matching colour. This provided me with extremely sturdy lacing holes that looks period. For the peacock dress I put the grommets directly into all the layers, and then added blue button hole stitches around them. I think it is a period approach. The Patterns of Fashion writes that Traces of corrosion show that originally the eyelet holes on the bodice were worked over metal rings. Although It doesn't specify that these metal rings were grommets, it does show that metal was used to strengthen lacing holes.

I followed the Janet Arnold pattern from Patterns of Fashion for the Eleonora di Toledo dress (page 104) for the most. It made a lot of sense when I studied the book and cut the skirt. Four straight panels, plus various bias strips of fabric inserted to give the bottom skirt width. Good use of the fabric for maximum result, it makes sense. However, I must have done something wrong, for the finished result doesn't look good. The front is odd. The skirt is too narrow and straight over the belly, and it drapes in an unperiod looking way. I have to fix that before I can continue. I added cartridge pleats to the back instead of box pleats, as many period sources (including the Pisa dress) shows, and it improved the look greatly in the back. It's just the front I dislike. Have I done something wrong? I guess I have, since I haven't heard anyone else complain about this.

August 2009:
Although I adore the silver trim I originally picked out for the project, it somehow looks to modern together with the clear blue fabric. So I unpicked it and added an ornamental, velvet-like black one instead. That trim was originally too narrow, but by adding two rows I got the broad look I wanted. And it looks really cool! I've used app. 15 meters of that trim, which was a lucky find at the Nordic hobby making supplier Panduro, and I'm so happy with the current look. I've also cut the bodice down a bit in the back. It's comfier and looks better.

Latest progress has been the making of the sleeves. They're loosely based on the grey dress in gallery 3, with 4 vertical bands and with slashes in between. They're lined with the same fabric as the skirt, and trimmed with the same ornamental velvet ribbons as the bodice and skirt. However, the finished result looks very... Elizabethian? I do like them, but they don't look as Florentine as I expected. So I think I'll attach small shoulder rolls to the bodice straps, and make another pair of sleeves (paned...) so I can change the sleeves at will. I have enough of the blue fabric, and I can easily get more trim as well.

March 2010:
Trying to finish various projects, I picked up the peacock dress again. Not too much remains, but since I never was happy with the front I put the whole thing aside. But I decided that I could finish everything else and then deal with the front area later on. First task was to work on the hem. Bell shaped skirts often had a reinforced hem, which main purpose was to stiffen it to make it neater and easier to walk in. Combining the descriptions of Eleonora di Toledo's funeral dress and the technique used in the early 19th century folk costume "beltestakk", this is what I did:

1. I used scraps of a high-quality stiff linen, and cut them into 15 nine-centimeter high pieces. These were pieces together to one long strip, being shaped after the curves of the skirt hem. The pieces were zig-zagged together, making it even stiffer (the "beltestakk" would use one piece of wool with deep cuts on top, and these would be folded over eachother and sewn together).

2. A long strip of the blue fabric was folded and ironed in one end. This fold got small, even snippets all the way around. This strip of fabric was then attached to the skirt hem, with the raw edge in, and with the snippets poking out. The strip of fabric was hand-sewn to the hem.

3. The linen strip was inserted between the outer layer and the added blue fabric, and the blue fabric was then stitched in place.

Strip of stiff linen + snipped edge added to skirt hem. Similar snipped edge also added to cuffs.

The point of this hem addition seems to have been partly practical and partly decorative. First thing I discovered after I had added the stiffening + clipped edge, is that the skirt behaves differently. The skirt flares out by itself, and the train stays much better in place. Had I added thicker or even sturdier fabrics, it would be even stiffer (I tried that out for my folk costume petticoat some days later). Biggest benefit is that it makes walking around in the skirt easier. The skirt more or less stands out like a ring around the feet instead of being tangles in between them. This can explain why the farthingale was little used in Florence in the 16th century. With stiffened hems (possibly also in the underskirts), there would be little need for it. But when that is said, I should add that the clipped hem is very decorative too, in an understated way. In period portraits it's used both in neck openings, on cuffs and on skirt hems. I added a similar clipped band to the sleeves, and it helped stiffen up the opening there too. I love this method!

August 2010:
The sleeves were remodeled. They were shortened, and a horizontal band with 7 vertical bands were added to the upper sleeve. These forms a mini-baragoni, and gave the sleeves a much more Florentine look. They sleeves have velvet ribbons and are attached to the shoulder straps through small metal loops. This is based on what's seen in period portraits.

May 2011:
After months of pattern problems, procrastinating and whatnot, I could finally call the dress finished. When I finally tackled the skirt and made the sleeves more Florentine than Elizabethan in look, things fall into place. But before taking new pictures, I wanted to finish additional details as well. I picked up the pavonazzo underskirt with golden hem, and tried the period way of stiffening a hem. It worked wonderfully. I also made an apron and a partlet of a mock drawn lace fabric. The apron is gathered to a waistband and has a lace trim in the bottom. The partlet is tied under the arms and in front, and has a short, box pleated collar.

Trying the whole ensemble on for the first time was cool. And I understood the practicality of much of the details of Florentine dressing. Wearing a linen chemise is good in terms of letting the skin breathe. Wearing an underskirt with stiffened hem makes walking so much easier. Especially when the hem of the dress skirt is stiffened the same way. Wearing a pocked under the dress is practical of obvious reasons. And wearing soft garters looped twice around the leg, under the knee, sure made the stockings stay put, but without being too tight. One thing I want to try out next time, though, is a waistband. Various theories exist on their use - if they served as a light "corset" or were worn for warmth. Both might be right, but I also think they might have been worn to gather much of the width of the wide Italian chemises. Mine bulged a bit over the underskirt and had to be pulled into place under the dress. That's an experiment for next photoshoot...


The various underlayers of the Florentine dress: chemise, underskirt, saccoccia, stockings, garters, partlet.

So a difficult project finally came to an end. I had lots of issues with the skirt. Not the basic construction of straight strips and inserted triangles, I liked that a lot. But fitting the skirt for the bodice was harder, and several times I was about to scrap the whole project. I'm glad I didn't, as I like the result. Trying out various period details, like a stiffened hem and a loose pocket, was also cool. I used a fine mercerized sateen for the main dress and underskirt, and I loved working with that. The trims are black, ornate velvet ribbons from the brand Panduro. They come in many colours, and I'm tempted to try out a golden version for a future project. Next time around I'll use a better fabric for skirt lining, as I only went with what I had in my stash this time around. I also hope to try period stiffening of the bodice, with cardboard, wool felt and padding, for a future project. This time around I used rigilene. So I know changes I will make next time, but as of now I'm loving my Peacock dress and I hope to find an occasion to use it for the months to come. It is very comfortable to wear, and at least it looks very Florentine.



Arnold, Janet (1985) Patterns of Fashion 4: The cut and construction of clothes for men and women, ca. 1560-1620, MacMillan, London
Arnold, Janet + (2008) Patterns of Fashion 4: The cut and construction of linen shirts, smocks, neckwear, headwear and accessories for men and women, MacMillan, London
Cox-Rearick, Janet (1993), Bronzino's Chapel of Eleonora in the Palazzo Vecchio, University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles and Oxford
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
Langdon, Gabrielle (2006) Medici Women. Portraits of power, love, and betrayal, University of Toronto Press Inc. Toronto
Pastoureau, Michel (2001) Blue, the history of a color, Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford

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