The joys of a stiffened hem. It will change your life...


The stiffened hem is refered to as the "doppia" in Italian period sources, and means "double". To be exact, "doppia" refers to any area of the garment where multiple layers of fabric, stiffened and padded, has been used to stiffen a particular area. In general it was used in the bodice and for the hem. When the term "doppia" is used in this article I am referring to the hem, unless stated otherwise.

Due to the survivial of two Florentine court dresses from the 1560s, the crimson Pisa dress and Eleonora di Toledo's funeral dress, the construction of noble garbs in mid 16th century Florence is well documented. One detail caught my eye. Or rather, it deeply fascinated me when I tried it out for a 1560s dress myself: namely the clipped hem with wool felt reinforcement, along with the "tuck". I had seen it as a purely ornamental detail, but soon enough I dicovered the practical side.

1. Eleonora di Toledo's funeral dress, ca. 1562 (Palazzo Pitti, Florence)
2. The crimson Pisa dress, ca. 1560 (Palazzo Reale, Pisa)

The two 1560s dresses have many similar features. The construction seems to be more or less the same, with a trained skirt made of straight panels and with triangles inserted at the side, and with a bodice made of two panels, joined by lacing at the sides. The trims are almost identically placed - exception being that Eleonora's dress have vertical bands in the back as well, something the crimson Pisa dress doesn't have. They also both have the "doppia", with wool felt inserted between the outer layer and an inner covering layer. The latter peaks out just a bit from the hem, and is clipped - hence making a decorative trim at the skirt (today we call such a trim, albeit without the snippets, "rouleau" or "piping").

"In both exemplars, the covering of the doppia emerges folded a few millimetres back on itself on the hem of the skirt, revealing small and regular decorative slashes" (Landini 2004: 74). In Eleonora's funeral dress, Janet Arnold describes that the decorative slashes "was snipped at 13 millimetres (1/2 inch) interval". There were traces of wool felt attached between satin and facing. The width of the wool felt varies a bit, Arnold suggests this is because the wool was stretched and eased at places to fit the curvings of the hem.


This leads me to jump in time and place. Because when I read this, I remembered a similar method used in a Norwegian 19th century folk costume called "Beltestakk" (belted dress/skirt). Basically it's a skirt with lots of width, sewn to a short bodice, and the width of the skirt in the waist is held in by a broad belt. Such large amounts of fabric in the skirt would have been impractical in daily wear, had it not been for for the "skoning", the stiffened hem.

A wide strip of bias cut hodden (a thick wool) was pressed and stretched to get a curved shape. One way to do it was to dip it in hot water, and spin it around an even wooden stick. The way of applying it on the wood would ensure that one end got stretched a lot more than the other. Another strip of hodden got deep triangular cuts, clipping away a part of the fabric, and allowing the strip to be shaped my means of pleating. This was sewn into place, and the strip was further padded with vertical seams. The layers were sewn together, forming a stiff, curved strip of fabric. An additional decorative fabric could be attached on the outside, often velvet or brocades, when the curved strip was attached to the hem.

1. The various states in the making of a skoning.
2. Women in "Beltestakk" photographed outside Heddal stave church in 1884. Notice the skirt hems.

Old skirts had an upper width of between 4,5 - 5,5 meters, but with a lower width of 5-6 meters. There could be as much as 1 meter width between the skirt hem and the area some 15 centimeters up. In a book about the Beltestakk (Pedersen 1998: 60pp) the reasons for stiffening the hem were these:

1. It made it easier to move around in the skirt, especially if it had a large width. The "skoning" gave some of the same effect as a hoop skirt (but in a much gentler way), and
2. It was also considered more beautiful when the skirt was bell shaped and the hem curved out, "floating" around the wearer when walking.


What is interesting is that the way of making a Florentine "doppia" in large correspond with the making of the Norwegian "skoning". Essential is the addition of a stiff, shaped fabric which was fully covered by another fabric, and the use of piping. The addition of a decorative band or strip of fabric on the outer side is another similarity. This probably added to the stiffness of the hem while being decorative. Two differences in the Norwegian and Florentine hems are that the Florentine counterpart was snipped, and the Norwegian counterpart was even more shaped. But the basic idea is the same.

It seems stiffening the hem was popular in times where skirt with lots of width were popular, before or parallelle with the use of lifting undergarbs like the farthingale/crinoline. And what applies for the Norwegian "Beltestakk" seems to be valid for the Florentine counterparts as well. I have tried out the Florentine way of stiffening and decorating the hem in three different skirts; one was when making an underskirt for my folk costume, one was when making a blue Florentine 1560's dress, and one was for the maroon underskirt. The folk costume had an all-straigh hem, so I used a straight strip of hodden and covered it with a green cotton/polyester twill. The clipped hem was piped with a stiff purple rope, and stitched into place. Everything was machine sewn, with two rows at the top and two rows at the bottom. The piping and the thick wool made the skirt stand out in a most wonderful way, like a light-light-light hoop skirt, which in turn made the skirt of the folk costume behave much better.

The petticoat for my folk costume. Hodden (thick wool) was used between the outer and inner layer, and I added purple piping inside too.

The Florentine dress was trickier. The hem is a lot more shaped, especially at the transition from side to train, and at the curve of the train in the back. For this I choose a different approach.I could have tried stretching wool, like the Florentine examples and the beltestakk. But I used stiff, thick linen for this one, as it was in my stash. I put the skirt on the floor, with the inside hem facing upwards, and 15 pieces of the stiff linen were put on top, overlapping in a certain angle where the skirt curved. In the end it gave me a custom-made strip of linen, with the seams zig-zagged to bind them together and to add further stiffness. The clipped hem fabric was sewn on to the very lower edge by hand, and then the strip of linen was inserted before it was covered up by the clipped hem fabric (facing) and stiched down.

1. The linen is put into place, covered by the blue fabric and stitched down
2. The hem getting more defined curves with the added stiffening
3. The train stays in place instead of crumbling when I walk

The last "doppia adventure" was to stiffen the hem of the maroon underskirt with golden embroidery. As this is a generic underskirt I use for several of my Italian dresses, stiffening it seemed like a good idea. It would also hide the backside of the golden embroidery. I added two layers of wool felt, stitched it down, and put a strip of the maroon cotton over. It was folded in on top and at the bottom, and the lower part peaks out just a little. This was clipped, as in the other skirts. As this underskirt was a bit long, I added a "tuck" to shorten it. It looks very period now.

The skirt during the adding of the felt, and when finished (but before clipping).

In all skirts I noticed a big change: walking was much improved. Instead of the skirt occationally being tangled between my ankles, they stand out on their own, floating around me when I walk. The degree of this will of course vary with how thick/stiff the "doppia" is and how many layers you add. But you're bound to use at least three layers of fabric - outer fabric, padding, and a fabric to cover the padding - and that will stiffen the hem.

Two stiffened hems worn on top of eachother. It greatly improves walking.

In Florentine portraits of the 16th century the clipped piping is a common sight. It's also used in the neck opening and on the cuffs, and sometimes even on the shoulders and doublet fronts. If we are to believe that such trims were a decorative solution to a practical problem in the skirt hems, the same might apply for their use elsewhere. At least early on. From what I can tell, such clipped trims first started appearing in the late1530s sometime. I suggest they might be a respons to the desire for stiffer bodices. Whereas bodices in the 1520s were short, they started becoming longer in the 1530s and 1540s, in which they would need firmer stiffening to keep the shape. This was achieved by the doppia; the double layer, so to speak:

"The padding of the garment was obtained by an internal layering of the fabrics, the doppia, made up of a felt and two types of cloth, one stiffened and one finer, San Gallo cloth or bottana, and for girls even cotton bambagino or bombast. Cardboard was also used, a typically Spanish system, which appears to have become habitual at the Florentine court from the end of the 1650's (I wonder if they mean 1550s). Usually this thick padding was covered with silk or even with taffeta of the same colour as the petticoat, and care was taken to choose the same or similar colours even for the fabrics of the inner padding." (Landini 2004: 84pp).


The actual bodices was stiffened in a similar way to the skirt hems, with felt wool and paddings inserted into layers of fabric. Many portraits also shows clipped piping in the neck opening. There seems to be a connection between the desire for stiffening the outer lines of a garb and the appearance of the clipped piping. That is not to say clipped pipings were used purely for stiffening purpose, but more often than not it appears in area that would need some sort of extra stiffness, like in skirt hems, bodices and collars.

1. "Portrait of a lady and a fair haired little boy", ca. 1540, Bronzino (NGA, Washington)
2. "Portrait of Eleonora di Toledo", 1543, Bronzino (National Gallery, Prague)
3. "Portrait of a Lady", 1580s, Alessandro Allori (Uffizi, Florence)
4. "Portrait of Johanna of Austria and her son", ca. 1586, Bizzelli (Uffizi, Florence)
5. The hem for the crimson Pisa dress, ca. 1560 (Palazzo Reale, Pisa)

The fashion seem to correspond with when master Agostino da Gubbio worked at the Florentine court. He was already present when Eleonora di Toledo arrived in 1539, being employed there since around 1534, and he was still present in the late 1560s (Landini 2004: 171). He was a most vauled craftsman, specializing in female garments, and with a salary matching that of Agnolo Bronzino, the court painter (Landini 2004: 173). Moreso than just a talented seamster, master Agostino was a skilled constructer, being able to make everything from court dresses to slave garments, from the zimarra to travel cloaks, in the most fashionable manner. He sensed the shift in fashion in Europe, which where skirts became more cone shaped, with inserted triangles, and with the more stiffened bodices. But he combined it with Florentine tradition, hence making a distinctive dressing style. Whereas I don't think he invented the stiffened-hem-and-clipped-piping concept, it seems to have been dominant when he was the fashion guru in Florence in the mid 1500s, so maybe it was a technique and/or feature he preferred.

I have found evidence of the clipped piping in 1532 at its earlierst, and 1590 in its latest. It seems to have stayed in fashion for longer than master Agostino's carreer. But its introduction to and popularity in Florence could might very well be due to him. I should add to this that similar clipped pipings are not, as far as I can tell, seen in other Italian regions at the time. This is at least the conclution I got after studying portraits and survivial garments from Venice, Rome and Urbino. I'm not as familiar with other regions in Europe, so if you have further proof of this kind of trimming/stiffening, feel free to email me! However, at least dresses in the Veneto seems to have defined, curved hems, which points toward stiffening of some sort. So even though clipped piping was not common, I'm sure the Venetian tailors knew the concept of the doppia. That also goes for other regions of Italy.


1, "Two Venetian Ladies", detail, 1490s, Vittore Carpaccio (Museo Correr, Venice)
2. "Susannah and the Elders", detail, 1517, Lorenzo Lotto (Uffizi, Florence)
3. "Isabella Colonna", detail from a family portrait of the Colonnas, 1581, Scipione Pulzone (Palazzo Colonna, Rome)

As mentioned, the method is well described in Janet Arnold's pattern for Eleonora di Toledo's funeral dress. She examined it in the early 1980s, as a last contribution for her "Patterns of Fashion, 1560-1620" book. Together with the restoration team she unfolded the dress as it was put together by those who examined the grave in the 1850s. Much of the satin for the skirt and bodice had disintegrated in the grave, which is why the dress could not be restored to a 3D shape. But the outlines of the skirt was largely possible to restore due to the solidness of the applied trim. Check out the description in the first half of the book, and the actual pattern in the second half. See also other dresses where the method is tried out, done by talented makers of historical attires:

Eva Andersson's period-constructed pink Lyon dress
Katerina's period-constructed purple Florentine dress
Laurie Tavan's period constructed red/golden Florentine dress


Along with the doppia one often see the tuck. The tuck is an even pleat in the lower half of the skirt, often right over the stiffened hem, and it goes all around the skirt. The actual concept behind the tuck is debated. It's also a bit uncertain where it originated, though some mention Spain. The tuck is known both in Florence and Venice. It isn't a constant feature, but it's seen in both the red Pisa dress and Eleonora di Toledo's funeral dress, as well as various paintings. It's also a popular feature in Spanish court fashion from the second half of the 16th century. From paintings it seems to appear earlier in Veneto than in Tuscany, and it also seems to disappear earlier from that region.

It is suggested the tuck is there so that the length of the skirt could be adjusted to the eventual wear of platform shoes. But when looking at Eleonora di Toledo's funeral dress, I'm not sure that makes quite sense. With the skirt untucked, the dress would be for a lady of about 1,70 m. height, which would be rather tall for a Mediterranean renaissance woman. But even tucked up the lady would have been app. 1,68 m. Analysis of the bones from the grave gives a height of between 1,56 and 1,58 m, which indicates she wore platform shoes even with the skirt tucked and that the tuck was purely ornamental (Bulgarella in Eisenbichler 2004: 219). Another issue is that the tucks were often under the vertical skirt trims. That meant - should the tuck be let down to make the skirt longer - the trims would have to be cut in two, and would make a gap. The crimson Pisa dress, for example, have the trims over the tuck. There are portraits showing the trim tucked in as well. But it doesn't seem to be a consistent feature, and it's not what was done in the surviving Florentine dresses.

In the 19th century dresses for small girls often had one or two tucks, similar to the Renaissance ones. The tucks made it easier to adjust the length when the girl grew, and/or when someone inherited the dress. I won't rule out that the same principle was know in the 16th century, but the tuck is found in noble dresses of women who didn't have to worry about inheriting garbs. I would therefore assume adjustment of length wasn't the biggest concern.

Another suggestion is that the tuck was there to help stiffen the hem. Seen in the context of the doppia it does make sense.

"Moda a Firenze" refers to the tuck as being of Spanish origin, where they called it "alforza" (forza = strength, so a way of strengthening or stiffening the fabric?). They write that it appeared "from the 60s on". Do they mean the 1460s or 1560s? If the latter, the tuck had already been used and gone out of fashion in Venice, and could hardly have been a Spanish invention. But since the tuck appears in Spanish portrait from before 1560s, I assume they mean the 1460s. The same book also mention that the tuck could served as "...a hiding-place for small objects", though I don't see how the tuck would be more suited for that than say a loose pocket under or over the skirt. There is a reference to Mary Westerman Bulgarella and the article she wrote about Eleonora di Toledo's funeral dress in 2004. She has proposed the tuck was either to make an area where the skirt could be attached to the farthingale, and that this tuck "...crystallised into an even tuck all the way round, which helped to hold them hem out" (Arnold in Aschengreen 1993: 57). But as mentioned, the tuck was in use in Venice long before the Italians had heard of the farthingale, and long before it came into use. Did they both invent it, independently of eachother, for different purpose?

And still no reference to why the tuck is said to originate in Spain. The tuck is still a mystery. But in 16th century Italian context, my suggestion is that it helped stiffen the lower part of the skirt. As a bonus, it could sometime be used to adjust the length of the skirt.

1. "Susannah and the Elders", ca. 1517, Lorenzo Lotto (Uffizi, Florence)
2. "The Miracle of the Newborn Child", ca. 1511, Tiziano (Scuola del Santa, Padua)
3. "Portrait of Duchess Catalina Michaela", ca. 1544, Antonis Mor (Museo Lzaro Galdiano, Spain)
4. "Portrait of Isabella de' Medici" (possibly), 1540s, School of Bronzino (private collection, England)
5. The crimson Pisa dress, ca. 1560 (Palasso Reale, Pisa)


Arnold, Janet (2009), "Patterns of Fashion: The Cut and Construction of Clothes for Men and Women c.1560-1620", MacMillan
Aschengreen, Kirsten Piacenti (1993), "Moda alla corte dei Medici, gli abiti restaurati di Cosimi, Eleonora e don Garzia", Centro Di, Florence
Eisenbichler, Konrad (red) (2004), "The Cultural World of Eleonora di Toledo, Ducess of Florence and Siena", Ashgate
Landini, Roberta Orsi and Bruna Niccoli (2004), "Moda a Firenze, Lo stile di Eleonora di Toledo e sua influenza", Pagliai Polistampa, Florence
Pedersen, Kari-Anne (1998) "Bunad og folkedrakt. Beltestakk fr og n", Teknologisk forlag, Oslo

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