Phase Two — The “Lit Search”
Even when I am inspired by an outfit I see someone wearing at an event, I cannot produce a pattern without checking its historicity. Reconstructing History doesn’t make costume patterns, so everything we produce has to stand up on its own historically.
The first step in researching a new pattern is doing what is known in academic circles as a “lit search”. This means searching for all the available published information on the item in question. In addition to articles and book references, we also search for pictorial and textual references to the garment in question. We read every website we can find that mentioned the garment, even the bad ones. In some cases, like that of the Irish léine, there are few credible references and illustrations, and our lit search is quite short. In other cases, we are digging up articles and pictures and text references for years. And in the case of extant garments like the Shinrone Gown, our “lit search” requires three trips to Ireland.
Regardless of how long it takes, once we feel we have all the available information in front of us, we begin to sift through it and decide what it credible and what is not. Clearly extant garments are the best sources of all. Articles that describe extant garments are next (because authors can make mistakes). Pictures drawn after life are next. Other pictures and textual references come after those.
In the example of the Fruitseller, shown above, we begin with the work of Vincenzo Campi and see if he has painted more subjects wearing the same style of dress. In this case, he has. They were one of his favourite subjects.
Next, we search for other painters from the same decade and geographical area who’ve painted similar subjects. As it happens, Pietro Ronzelli painted women wearing similar dresses in his work. So did Alessandro Allori, and a handful of other artists from the end of the 16th century.
Additionally, painters, illustrators and woodcut artists show similar garments on German and Netherlandish common women from the same time period. It’s important to look at these pictures along side the Italian examples to see if there are any Italy-specific traits or if the garments of common women from all these areas can be generalised.
Finally, we look at any extant clothing that might be available. In this case, there are no common women’s dresses extant in Italy from the late 16th century. However, the funeral dress of Eleanor of Toledo shows striking similarities to the dresses the Fruitsellers wear. Accepting elements of dress that would be too fine for a working woman to afford, we should look at this garment for possible construction details. For example, the use of side-back closures is evident in some of the Fruitseller paintings as well as on Eleanor of Toledo’s funeral dress. There is nothing expensive or “ritzy” about a side-back closure that would preclude a woman of limited means from closing her dress that way. So we can look to Eleanor’s gown for construction possibilies in some aspects at least.
When dealing with common women’s clothing, we should also take into consideration lessons learned from studying the common women’s clothing from other times and places. Maximizing fabric use and following rectangular construction techniques whenever possible is an informed choice. Those who claim that common people just wore upper class styles made in lesser fabrics could not be more mistaken. The extant record simply does not bear this out.
Tomorrow… Phase Three — Formulating the Hypothesis
© 2009 Kass McGann. All Rights Reserved. The Author of this work retains full copyright for this material. Permission is granted to make and distribute verbatim copies of this document for non-commercial private research or educational purposes provided the copyright notice, the author’s name and website, and this permission notice are preserved on all copies.