The Ultimate One Pattern Piece Project: Elizabethan Coif

6 Steps to Fabulous!

Once again, I am breaking my vow to keep HSF posts off of my blog. However, this project has actually been on my plate for quite some time and by some miracle, it’s completion happened to coincide with HSF Challenge #11.

Since my costume fascination began, my favorite era has been the 17th Century. In particular, I fell in love with blackwork. However, I am incredibly inept at embroidery, almost to the point of being that cliché historical fiction character that scandalizes her family by acting like a impetuous tomboy…

Extras inside indeed: an extra dose of terrible embroidery skills and stubbornness, that is.

…okay, so that really would be me…

Though I have no embroidery skills, I do have enough hand-sewing skills to make me a decent small-scale seamstress. Combined with my love of the 17th Century, blackwork, hats and thrift, I have the perfect set of skills to be a decent coif maker, or at least an excellent blackwork coif faker.

Inspiration

I started this project without a pattern, just pictures and measurements from various online museums. I basically followed my wobbly seamstress instincts. The subsequent tutorial follows the method I developed to create my coif.

portrait

Detail of “Portrait of a Bride” by Johannes Cornelisz Verspronck
Besides her pretty coif, notice how tightly the wire of her headdress is pressing into her cheeks.

English Woman’s Blackwork Coif, circa 1600

Top Stitching and Gathering Detail on an English Woman’s Coif, circa 1590-1610
(see Step 5)

Women’s Coifs showing repetitive patterns and a variety of shapes, circa 1600
Another pair of similar coifs are also in the V&A, notable for one’s bottom edge: “Along the bottom edge, instead of a turned casing there are a series of loops braided in linen bread and stitched to the coif.” Another option for Step 4!

How to Make an Elizabethan/17th Century Coif

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Illustrated in Microsoft Office Word  for your convenience and pleasure!

Large_Coif 1I used newsprint to create my pattern. Coifs from this period come in a variety of shapes, but most are based on a simple rectangle of fabric cut into a gentle urn shape. The top of the urn forms a widow’s peak at the top of the head and the curved bulge covers the ears. You can make your shape as simple or extreme as you like. Here’s my pattern:

Paper Pattern

You can test the paper pattern by pinning the top edges together. Bear in mind that the fabric coif will be smaller because of your seams.

Paper Pattern Test

Opportunity for excellent party hats? I think so!

Large_Coif 2Since I cannot embroider well enough, I prefer to use pre-embroidered fabric. Finding a pre-embroidered fabric with a proper motif  and decent colors on a suitable fabric can be a real challenge, but I was lucky enough to find an embroidered cotton shirt for $3 at the local thrift shop. While it’s not perfect, it’s close enough!

Embroidered Shirt

After two weeks of searching for the perfect blackwork fabric, this is probably the most gorgeous thing I’d ever seen in my life. If finding an embroidered fabric is too difficult, you can use plain linen or silk.

I plucked the seams out, leaving me with enough fabric to make about 4 coifs.

Unpicking Stitches

Chinese machine embroidery is fairly easy to unpick, but it did leave prick marks down the edges and where there were darts. A little steam ironing helped make them less noticeable.

Capture

I can make two coifs from the back panel and one from each of the front panels.

For my lining, I used some cheap cotton sheeting from my stash. Elizabethan coifs could be lined or unlined. Many had removable linings so when the inside got dirty, the lining could be removed and washed, saving the delicately embroidered outside from wear and tear. Since my fashion fabric is completely washable, I sewed the lining into my coif as a permanent feature.

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I really wish I’d taken more construction pictures, but I was too excited to pause for photos. I sewed my coif using backstitches set about 3/8 inch away from the fabric edge for clean seams. If your lining has a right side, make sure it faces teh right side of your fashion fabric so when you turn it inside out, it faces the proper way.

Large_Coif 4The drawstring casing can be done multiple ways, but just turning up the bottom edge worked best for my coif. I used backstitching again to close the casing because it’s strong and you can manipulate the stitches so that they hardly show up on the outside of the fabric. Since the seam can be seen from the outside of the coif, I made sure the outside stitches were as small as possible.

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This is the front edge of my coif, showing the smooth seam you get when you use the “pillow” sewing method to connect your lining. To make the front edges crisp, iron them from the lining side before and after sewing the drawstring casing. You can see the stitches on the inside of the drawstring casing on the right.

Large_Coif 5

This is the most complicated-looking step, but it’s actually rather simple. You’ve already finished 2/3 of the top edges by sewing them in step 3, so all you need to do is whipstitch the very top edge shut with small stitches. When you reach the end of you finished edge, sew around the unfinished edges. You can adjust how your coif fits by gathering more or less fabric. Gathering less fabric will make the coif pointy at the back while gathering more will give it a rounder look.

Coif Top Seam

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I used bias tape fror my drawstrings because it was what I had immediately on hand, but you can make ties out of yarn, linen tape, twill tape, shoelace, or braided cord. Threading your ties can be tricky. Some people like to use safety pins while others use wire to help guide it through the casing. I used a cheap, thin pair of tweezers to hold one end of my drawstring while I used the other end of the tweezers like a giant needle, pushing it through the casing.

Done!

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I would like to trim my next coif with a little bit of lace along the front by sewing it inside the seams in step 3. I would also like some twill tape for ties instead of my last-minute bias-tape drawstring, and to take pictures with the strings wrapped around the top like they are supposed to be worn. But for a blind first attempt, I’m rather proud of it!

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HSF Breakdown

17th Century “Blackwork” Coif

The Challenge: #11 Squares, Rectangles and Triangles
Fabric: A thrifted cotton shirt with cotton machine embroidery lined with even more cotton!
Pattern: I basically just measured a rectangle using coifs documented at the V&A and cut a light “urn” curve into the sides
Year: 1600-1630
Notions: Cotton thread and bias tape
How historically accurate is it? 50% It’s not linen or silk, but it is all natural fibers. The embroidery pattern is entirely modern, but from a distance, if you squint, it looks fairly legitimate. The construction method is pretty accurate as is the size and how it sits; however, I have much more hair than this coif can contain. It will sit on my head by itself, but I feel more comfortable tying it on so I don’t feel like it’s constantly going to fall off. Next time I will make the coif a bit deeper or try using hair pins to hold it on.
Hours to complete: 3 hours
First worn: By me…at 3am…in my apartment
Total cost: $3 for the embroidered shirt, stash sheeting, and stash thread

A matching forehead cloth would also be nice, and I have plenty of fabric left over for at least one!

Coif and Forehead Cloth, circa 1610

More Coif Tutorials and Information

Full-length Coif Tutorial” – All of the steps from this page in one looooong image

The Coif Question” by Kate at Dressing Terpsichore – Explains why most extant coifs are one-piece, but most paintings appear to have two-piece coifs

Elizabethan Coifs!” by Morgan Donner – Examples of how a coif should be worn with  a forehead cloth to get the proper look

Coif Patterns” at No Strings Attached – Multiple patterns for different styles of coifs

UPDATE!

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Truly Hats now offers coif-sized blackworked (by machine) fabric for only $10! The pattern is a replica of an extant 16th century piece.

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A Treasure Trove: Enameled Jewels from 1550-1700

Some Other Color than “Gold”

This post was inspired by my project for HSF Challenge #7.

The Renaissance and Baroque periods were immensely ornate. Deep colors were indulged in and everyone rich enough to afford them was donning clothes made of a ransom’s worth of fine silks, velvets, pearls, and gemstones. Why should gold be left naked? Though we sometimes feel that enameling is tacky looking (thanks in part to terrible mass-produced Christmas pins), the enamel artisans of the late-16th and 17th century achieved a look that is anything but cheap!

Enameled Gold Pendant with Rock Crystals and Pearls, circa 1610-20

Enameled Gold Cross Pendant with Rubies, Diamonds, and Pearl, circa 1610-20

Enameled Gold Ornament with Pearls, circa 1600

Small enameled gold ornaments like this would be sewn directly onto clothing. Many were later converted to have brooch-backs made, especially in the 19th century when Renaissance Revival style swept through European fashion.

Enameled Gold Brooch (later conversion) with Diamond and Pearls, circa 1610

Enamel work was often mixed in with precious stones. Even if the front of a piece was paved with large table cut gems, the smallest tongue of gold that showed between the stones would be covered with enamel. Early jewels are covered in bold, primary colors like deep red, bright blue, emerald green, fiery yellow-orange. Most pieces before 1660 feature enamel work applied to sculpted, 3-dimentional pieces. Though the actual thickness of the metal may not have been great, the combination of careful sculpting and enamel gave the pieces depth and presence. Many of the larger pendants were made and worn in Spain. Spaniards adored bold lines and colors. Their enamel work was often some of the most intricate and dense.

Enameled Gold Pendant (front and back) with Emeralds, circa 1650

The back of pieces were often more elaborately enameled than the front of the piece. Since almost all stones were placed in closed-back settings, there was plenty of space for the enamel artist to display his skills. Jewelry was made to be admired both on and off the body, so being beautiful from all sides was essential. Because enamel is made of fused glass particles, the colors do not fade as readily as other paints and pigments, so a piece enameled over 500 years ago will have colors as brilliant as the day they were fired. Bright colors were, of course, very popular, but the all-time favorite color combo was the dynamic duo black and white.

Enameled Gold Monogram Pendant (front and back) with Lapis Lazuli and Paste stones, circa 1600-30

Enameled Gold Ring with Garnet, circa 1550-1600

Rings, though small, almost always had at least a touch of enamel on the shank. Many of the gold rings from between 1500 and 1700 once had colorful enameled designs on the band and were not as plain as they appear today (it’s kind of like the famous Grecian marbles which we always admire for their clean, white simplicity, but many were brightly painted). The enamel wore off after years of wear, often helping save the metal underneath from damage or erosion, especially on silver pieces.

Enameled Gold Ring with portraits of Anne of Austria and her son (King Louis XIV), circa 1625

Enameled Gold Frame around an Enameled Gold Holy Shroud Scene under Crystal, circa 1650

During the 17th century, small scenes stamped or sculpted of thin, enameled metal set behind panes of rock crystal or glass soared in popularity. Religious scenes, mementos mori, and symbols of love were popular themes. After the execution of King Charles I in 1649, versions of these rock crystal jewels called Stuart Crystals made from woven locks of the king’s hair or his portrait became immensely popular among Royalists. Later monarchs were also honored in this manner, including Queen Mary and William III.

Rock Crystal Pendant commemorating the Death of William III, circa 1702

Enameled Gold Memento Mori Pendant, circa 1660

A popular motif since ancient times, the memento mori gained huge popularity as early Christian morality took hold of Europe. The focus on life after death was a big theme and the pivotal moment of death–the last moment to escape from the bonds of sin and hell–was an important event. The Latin “memento mori” roughly translates to “remember death.” Pendants, charms, and rings served as daily reminders of the fragility of life and the need to both live well and/or righteously. Due to their connections with death and the afterlife, memento mori motifs like the skull, skeleton, and crossbones also served as symbols of mourning.

Enameled Gold Mourning Ring surrounding a Lock of Hair, circa 1661

Enameled Silver Miniature Case, circa 1660

Enamel wasn’t just applied to gold. Silver gained popularity in the latter half of the 17th century as light blues and pinks came into fashion. A cheaper alternative to gold, silver was often used to make more utilitarian objects, such a chains and cases for sewing kits. The miniature case is an early incarnation of the locket. It is larger and deeper than a modern locket and would have held a portrait miniature, a popular aristocratic gift to send to friends, family, patrons, or lovers. Many of these cases reveal the trend towards more painterly decoration than enamel work of the earlier half of the century, which focused on accenting shapes rather than being the focal point of the design.

Enameled Gold Miniature Case, circa 1650-1660

Enameled Gold Bow Pendant with Ruby and Pearl drop, circa 1630-1660

Enameled Gold Badge, circa 1650-75

Enameled Gold Pendant with Rubies, Sapphires, Emeralds, and Diamonds, circa 1680-1700

By the 1680s, enameling styles had changed. The major difference between earlier pieces (those from before 1660) and later pieces (those after 1660) is that the way the enameling is applied slowly began to change as tastes in fashion changed. Stones and enamel were no longer melded together so freely, though the style remained relatively common in Spain and Germany. France was rapidly rising in power, bringing with it lighter, more romantic tastes in color and texture. By the mid 18th century, almost all decorative enamel work is smooth and is painted on relatively flat, 2-dimentional surfaces rather than the highly sculpted surfaces of the centuries before.

Enameled Watch and Case, circa 1686-1700

All of the pieces featured in this article are from the collections at the Victoria and Albert Museum. You can find many, many more beautiful examples of enamel from different eras by using the handy advanced search option to narrow your search by year, technique, material, or object type.

(Note to American researchers: Use “jewellery” instead of “jewelry” as a search keyword. The former is the British spelling of the word and the V&A, being British, does not recognize the American spelling as well)

For more examples of Renaissance enameled jewels, you can also check out the Jewel Book of the Duchess Anna of Bavaria.

Pinching your Nose, Helping Your Eyes: Pince Nez from the 15th-19th Century

I Can See You More Clearly Through the Glass
than Through the Air

So you costume in the Renaissance, but without your glasses, everything looks like you’re riding a runaway Tilt-a-Whirl. Congratulations! You and Henry VIII have something in common!

I do not know if that’s a compliment or not…

Besides being one of the most famous divorcees of all time, Henry VIII was exceptionally near-sighted. This is a problem for a king who likes to engage in numerous outdoor activities like archery or in Henry’s case, jousting. In fact, Henry VIII received this helmet as a gift from Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I in 1514:

The Horned Helmet of Henry VIII, circa 1514

It is not exactly the most flattering helmet (in fact, many believe it was worn by the court fool, Will Somers), but it’s fascinating for one fact: the golden hinged glasses perched on the prominent nose. Whether this was good ol’ Max poking some major fun at Henry’s well-known nearsightedness, or just a portrait of the king, we may never know. If you watch the video, you can see that in motion, the helmet is actually quite impressive looking. Though Henry’s opponents might have giggled behind their hands while Henry wasn’t looking, imaging seeing this glinting, silver face rocking towards you above a charging warhorse.

The helmet’s eyeglasses look decorative and not functional, but eyeglasses of this hinged type had been in use for over 200 years before this helmet was made and magnifiers made from crystal had been in use since ancient times. Fuzzy eyesight is nothing new, especially considering how much electric lights have improved out viewing environment. We no longer have to squint at embroidery or manuscripts by the meager light of a candle past dark, but we do wear our eyes out squinting at luminescent screens. Medieval glasses did not have temple-to-ear stems as ours do. They consisted of two round lenses held in bone, horn, leather, or metal frames that were hinged in the center like a fan.

“Wildunger Altar” Detail by Conrad von Soest, circa 1403

The BOA Museum’s replica of the Trig Lane Spectacles, circa 1430-40 (replica circa 1976)

Bone Eyeglass Frames, circa 1400-1500

They pinched onto the nose or were held to the face like a 19th century pair of opera glasses. Some enterprising eyeglass wearers tied strings around their ears to hold their spectacles in place:

Luis de Velasco II, Marqués de Salinas, circa 1607

Glasses became quite widespread during the 15th and 16th centuries. Bone frames were made from the leg bones of oxen, which were wide enough to allow a frame to be cut in one piece. Leather frames made for a lightweight pair of spectacles at a low price. If the leather frame wore out, the lenses could be put into a new frame inexpensively and without too much trouble at the local spectacle merchant’s shop.

“The Ill-Matched Lovers” from the studio of Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen, late 15th century
Northern Europeans always enjoyed a good comical paintings with a touch of scandal. This work is no exception. While the young lady and older gentleman look at a selection of eyeglasses (ironically, of course!), the young husband and elderly wife get a little too cuddly in the background and he’s even so bold as to reach right into the money pot! Obviously the elderly man needs those spectacles quite badly. This was a popular motif, but what’s really fascinating is the box of glasses at hand. We do not think of spectacles as medieval/renaissance nor commonplace, yet here is a painting showing a good lot of eyeglasses ready for purchasing.

Eyeglasses with stems to sit on the ear were invented in the 18th century, but the simple, round-lens style without earstems remained popular into the early part 19th century until they evolved into reading glasses that hung from a chain pinned to the lapel, becoming the Victorian pince nez glasses we know and love.

Glasses 17th century

Spectacles and Carved Wood Case, circa 17th century

Spectacles and Mother of Pearl Case, circa 1685-1725
Another English king, James II, was rumored to have owned this fine pair of folding spectacles.

Pince Nez Glasses, circa 1900

More historical glasses info:

The Pince Nez Guide” – Multiple styles by date

Eyeglasses and Spectacles from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance” on Larsdatter – Super fantastic database from everything medieval and renaissance!

Chart of Heymann Collection Discovered at the Musée National de la Renaissance (The Eyeglass Cases, Part 1)” – Also, check out part 2!

How to Make Medieval Eyeglasses” – If you know how to weld, this guide tells you how to use an old pair of your own glasses to make a more period-correct pair. Eliminate the ear wires for 14th-17th century glasses.

Rivet Spectacles: The Earliest Style” – Lots of information on Medieval eyeglasses including a wonderful chart of known examples.

Recreation of Medieval Hinged Eyeglasses, made 2008
Made with wood, rivet, and twine with round glass lenses

As with all my articles, all of the images in this article are either linked to larger versions, articles explaining them, or other fact-filled sites to help you explore, so please feel free to check them out!

Facebook circa 1595: Fashion Plates of the 16th Century

From the Album Amicorum of a German Soldier

Sadly, LACMA (the museum currently holding this wonderful book) has since changed their collections and removed all of the photos of the book’s contents from their website. The only places to find pictures now is elsewhere on the web where smarter researchers and bloggers downloaded the pictures rather than linking directly from the now-defunct museum archive pages. I am leaving this post here in the hopes that LACMA will one day re-post photos, but until then, you’ll only get to see my vague translations for pictures you can no longer see. :(

I explore hundreds of online museum items a week, digging up historical sources for my research, and sometimes I start feeling like I’ve seen it all. Then–it never fails–I find something amazing. For example, this:

Vedua di Bolloga, circa 1595
“Bolloga” may in fact be Bolonga. There was a  wealthy Vedua family living there in the 16th century

Renaissance Fashion plates! Or, more accurately, Renaissance portraits of real people. It’s thrilling to see such early sketches depicting what people were really wearing. They are not quite as detailed as a professionally painted portrait in oils, but these simple gouache pictures provide a fascinating look at late 16th century fashions.

Le Ceuallier de Angleterre an son habit de lordre, circa 1595
“lordre” is probably “l’ordre” which means of the order, so this Englishman is wearing the “dress of his order.”

These images all come from the Album Amicorum of a German Soldier. Amicorium is Latin for “of  friends,” so this Italian folio is titled Album of Friends of a German Soldier. Albums amicorum are early versions of autograph books which originated in Germany. Usually these albums have heraldic marks or notes only, but some are elaborate portrait collections like this album. Albums amicorum are the Facebook of the 16th century. A traveler would sketch a picture of a person and then “tag” the picture with their name or title, so when he returned home, he would have a record of people he’d met. And golly did this German soldier meet some interesting people in some beautiful fashions!

Here are some of my favorites:

Unknown noblewoman (possibly of Naples or Rome) looking in a mirror, circa 1595

Cortegiana Veneta, circa 1595
“Courtier in Mourning.” The modern spelling is “Cortigiana” which can mean either courtier or courtesan

Donzela Ferarese, circa 1595
“Donzela” is Portuguese and “Ferrarese” is Italian. Together they mean “Maiden of Ferrara

Sposa Venetiana…terra, circa 1595
A “Venitian Bride” and she’s wearing a white wedding gown!

Gentildona Venetiana come vano nele lor case, circa 1595
If this phrase is actually spelled “come vanno nel loro case,” then this is a sketch of a “Venetian Gentlewoman as she goes into their home”

Donzela di Napolli, circa 1595
“Maiden of Naples” with a beautiful pastel color palette.

Donzela Veronese, circa 1595
“Maiden of Verona.” Perhaps this is what Shakespeare’s Juliet would have looked like! It’s from the correct decade and everything. I love the veil on her collar/headdress.

La Consorte del Castelan di Roma, circa 1595
“The Consort of the Castellan of Rome.” A castellan is “the governor or captain of a castle.”

This album has a variety of origins: the titles are mostly in Italian mixed with French or Portuguese terms, the artist is supposedly a German soldier, and a few of the portraits are of English nobility. I have tried to roughly transcribe and translate the handwritten names for you. I think knowing who you’re looking at makes history much more real! If you find any mistaken identities (some of those letters can be darned tricky), let me know.

Did you notice how severely divided and high the front of their hair was styled? Though their dress styles vary vastly by region, their hairstyle is the one thing these ladies all have in common. Also, if you look at the rather swayed-back ladies, you will notice how long their skirts are in proportion to the rest of them and even in comparison to the other ladies. This is because many of these fashionable Italians would have been wearing tall chopines under their lengthy skirts.

A satirical etching card of a courtesan with a flap that lifts to reveal her underpinnings, circa 1588

Both “ladies of good character” and courtesans wore chopines which were both a status symbol and a fetish. These tall shoes made more room to display fancy, expensive fabrics.

This album amicorum reminds me of the sketch books I see lots of people carrying around at events. I have a little notebook of my own that I take everywhere in my purse so I can jot down quick doodles and notes, though I do not collect autographs of the people I sketch…yet. I’m going to start my own album amicorum next time I travel somewhere exciting. I think it will be a little more intimate and fun than just posting pictures on Facebook!

(Also, notice how most of the portraits in this album face left? That indicates that the artist  of this album was probably right handed!)

But Where Should I Put It? Part I

15th-17th Century Purses

I don’t go anywhere without my cellphone, wallet, keys, lip balm, or mini Swiss Army knife. But where can I put it all when I’m in costume? Lugging around my modern purse while in historical costume looks beyond ridiculous and I can’t have Chris carrying everything…(that poor man, I always take advantage of the ample pockets in his cargo pants.  Why do boys get more/deeper pockets than girls anyways? Girls have so much more stuff to carry!)

The solution? A historically accurate purse! When I was looking for a purse solution, I was surprised to learn what a wide variety history has to offer! There are so many designs to choose from and you’re sure to find one that perfectly suits your taste in any era! For example, if you need a Renaissance purse, look no further than the four-sided drawstring pouch. Don’t want to carry around an annoying clutch purse or deal with a satchel that keeps slipping off your shoulder? Four-sided pouches are the way to go! They have had long strings to tie around your waist directly or to string around a belt or girdle. The purse above is a very fine heraldic piece made around 1540. This purse wasn’t your run-of-the-mill coin purse, but a ceremonial piece that would have been carefully treasured, perhaps used as a dowry. With 1,250 silk stitches per square inch, it surely is a masterpiece! It took a very skilled seamstress many hours to finish it. Here’s another example of the four-sided pouch:

Since this purse was not a ceremonial piece, but a well-used coin purse, it shows a lot more wear, but the basic shape is what’s important. The four sides allow for plenty of interior space, but the purse can be folded flat when empty.

Drawstring purses were, by far, the most popular style of purse from about 1590 onwards. By the turn of the 17th century, flat, square purses came into style. Many of these purses were not for coins, but were “swete-bags,” filled with scented herbs to sweeten the air during a time when bathing and sewage disposal weren’t priorities. The 17th century was the era of the Baroque, a style which delighted in excess of decoration and trims. The purses of the late Renaissance and Jacobean eras reflect this taste for trims and are often coated in gilded thread, tassels, appliques, spangles (sequins), and ribbons.

Almost every drawstring purse during this era had hanging pomanders or covered wooden beads at the end of their strings to help tie it shut without the need of knots (so you wouldn’t look a fool when you untied your pouch. Just imagine the embarrassment of knotting your purse so tight you can’t open it!). They were rarely used for carrying money, but served as elaborate gift bags or as utility kits to carry glasses, pens, and sewing kits.

Another type of drawstring purse is the gambling purse. These purses are flat-bottomed and round like a bowl, specifically shaped so that they can sit open on a table filled with coins, counters, or other game pieces.

Gambling was a popular, socially acceptable form of entertainment in the late 17th century– provided you were wealthy enough not to work for a living. Gaming purses were often decorated with the family crest or lucky symbols to help the player keep track of his purse and maybe win a few extra turns as well! These gaming purses are often elaborately decorated, advertising the wealth of the owner, however some are rather plain. It all depended on the player’s strategy: brazenly display your wealth with an ornate purse or keep your true worth private with a plainer purse.

Drawstring pouches are pretty simple in principle and do not require frames like many modern purses and clutches do. You would think that framed purses are a later 19th or 20th century invention, but framed purses actually date back to Da Vinci’s time and beyond!  The most beautiful and unusual historical purses actually come from the mid-Renaissance. Leonardo himself designed a purse around the turn of the 15th century:

The sketch is of an ornate handbag with a metal top. Two designers– Agnese Sabato and Alessandro Vezzosi– brought the bag to life,  creating a surprisingly modern-looking handbag:

This bag, while modern in construction, is actually ancient in design and, in comparison to other purses from the 1500s, rather simple in design (as per Leonardo’s personal taste). Perhaps the most amazing purses of all time can be found way back in the 15th century. They are breathtaking! Many Renaissance purses were architectural wonders. For example, here’s a purse with an entire castle perched on the frame:

This is definitely a fairytale purse! The towers remind me of the Emerald City in the Wizard of Oz. Unlike modern purse frames which are mostly invisible, Renaissance purse frames were miniature masterpieces, often in the shape of castles, cities, or cathedrals:

Just like the real-life strongholds, these clasped frames alerted thieves that while the treasure inside the purse may be great, he’ll have a devil of a time getting at the contents. Some of these large purse frames had locking mechanisms inside and required a key to open (click here to check out the back side of the red velvet purse where you can see a keyhole)– pretty elaborate for something over 600 years old! Here’s my favorite Renaissance purse of all time, dating back to about 1470-1550:

If Snow White owned a purse, it had to be this one! Just look at how detailed and thick the frame is! On the back are two iron loops so it could be threaded onto a belt, keeping your treasures close at hand. It’s like a 15th century fanny pack, only infinitely more fashionable!

Sadly, as time wore on, purse frames scaled back in size and grandeur until they resembled  modern purse frames:

Framed purses began to fall out of favor by the end of the 17th century and did not boom in popularity again until after the Industrial Revolution made manufacturing the metal frames much cheaper; however, all is not lost in the ornamentation department! While they’re not as architecturally impressive as the castle purses of the Renaissance, by 1680, purses were becoming as frilly and over-dressed as the courtiers that carried them!

The purse above features an adorable pair of Cupid-shot hearts along with glittery paste gems and loads of fluffy green tassels! There is no mistaking that rococo is hot on this purse’s heels! Purses weren’t just for the ladies either. If you were a gent back in 1690, you wouldn’t store your widgets in khaki cargo pants, but this naughty little purse, complete with a sexy 17th Century pin-up of a pretty lass showing off some leg!

After checking out all these incredible 15th-17th century purses, I have decided to add making one to my list. I know, I know, I’ve got a lot of projects to do already, but these little purses are seriously cool! And like shoes, no woman can have too many purses!

Click here to visit: Where Should I Put It? Part II

For those of us who costume between 1700 and 1800!

As with all my articles, all of the images in this article are either linked to larger versions, articles explaining them, or other fact-filled sites to help you explore, so please feel free to check them out!

Update:

I found this 17th century fashion plate by Jean Dieu de Saint-Jean entitled Recueil des modes de la cour de France, ‘Dame se Promenant a la Campaigne’, circa 1675-1677:

Doesn’t she look stunningly Victorian (and her shoes magnifique)? On her hip, you can see a large black bag which, on closer inspection, appears to have the shape and gathering pattern of a large velvet gaming purse, though I cannot be sure. It may be similar style, but would probably contain ladylike objects such as combs, needles, scissors, or handkerchiefs.

Giant Chains in Lucas Cranach the Elder’s Paintings

Chained Beauty

One of the most fascinating Renaissance accessories I’ve come across is the giant Saxon German chains in Lucas Cranach the Elder’s paintings. He was born in 1472 and painted until he died in 1553 at the ripe old age of 81. Informal, stylized, and often scandalous and scathing, Lucas Cranach the Elder’s paintings captured the soul of his subjects, often revealing their character despite their best efforts to hide behind their wealth. The subjects of his paintings often wear sumptuously detailed gowns full of embroidery, pearls, pleats, slashed sleeves, and laces. Along with giant feathery hats, complex sleeves, and ring-revealing gloves, his constant use of chain necklaces became a fixture in almost all his works:

Be it small…

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…or large…

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…on princes…

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…or princesses…

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…with tons of jewels…

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…crazy sleeves…

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…fancy gowns…

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..or nothing else at all!

The two types of chain that are most prevalent are plain, perfectly round rings that Lucas Cranach the Elder paints lying completely flat:

And huge, twisty bangle chains that drape around the shoulders of his subjects like bangle-bracelet scarves:

Looking at a necklace that ornate and gargantuan brings to mind the question: “How heavy is that thing?!”After all, those wrist-sized links are definitely not made of lightweight plastic! Annika Madejska on her blog “Textile Time Travels” found this picture of a very similar chain at the city hall collections in Schmalkalden, Germany that may hold some clues:

Amazing! The chain links look very thin and are twisted just like the ones in Lucas Cranach the Elder’s paintings, but the caption gives no clue to the material. The metal itself appears to have extruded ridges, maybe from a wheel. The material could be gold, but it’d have to be very thin gold since solid gold chains of this size would be very, very heavy and very, very rare (remember gold mining was still a by-hand operation and was affordable only to the richest). A more likely scenario is that it is gilded metal, like gold-covered silver or tin. Another possibility is bronze. Popular since ancient times, bronze is made by mixing tin and copper and was a popular and moderately priced metal that could be made into detailed, complex forms. Bronze would also explain the deep golden-brown color of the chains in the portraits. Annika even puts forth the idea that the chains could have been leather, but this example looks pretty metallic to me.

 This chain has charms hanging all over it. The oldest and largest of the five pendants is a flared shield with three morbid figures on it for which the piece is named (Kette der Armbrustschützen roughly translates to The Chain of the Crossbow Marksmen). The first figure on the left wields a crossbow and is aiming his next shot at the middle figure who has already been shot (you can see the arrows in his neck, ribs, and legs). Standing with his fists jauntily on his hips, a 16th century knight stands to the right over heraldry-emblazoned shields, three of which dangle below. I believe the large central figure is Saint Sebastian who was martyred with arrows and is– somewhat ironically– the patron saint of soldiers. This chain could have been made for heavenly protection or as a medal for military service, since another pendant shows a soldier holding an early musket in his hands.

Cranach’s chains, however, do not have pendants on them, and the wooden “clasp” on the Kette der Armbrustschützen is a bit out of place. I think this chain once looked even more like the ones in Cranach’s portraits, but since such a huge piece of jewelry would be very valuable, the Kette der Armbrustschützen was probably handed down through the family and added to over the generations. The chain itself appears to be much older than the baubles. It looks like it was once longer or even open-ended instead of closing with the strange wood chip tied together with bell-tipped chains– the bells may be original, but I can’t tell from the photo. The other pendants were added willy-nilly over the years by punching holes in the chain.

The actual prevalence of the large, curled chains outside of Saxony or even the artist’s studio is unknown, but the round link chains were popular throughout Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries and continued in popularity through the Baroque period, though at a more manageable scale, like in the above Italian portrait of Ludovico Sforza from a 1495 altarpiece and this Northern European bracelet from 1640:

As for the other style of chain, I haven’t been able to find much more information about the giant-chain-scarf look as a fashion movement beyond Cranach’s paintings. As a motif, however, he certainly did a great job of making it his personal trademark. Just like Andy Warhol’s Technicolor pop-art portraits, Lucas Cranach’s chained beauties are almost instantly recognizable as unique and unabashedly real!

(One last little tidbit: You will also notice that most of his subjects face the the left, so he was probably right-handed!)

As with all my articles, all of the images in this article are either linked to larger versions, articles explaining them, or other fact-filled sites to help you explore, so please feel free to check them out!

The Red Beads of the Renaissance (and Later)

Coral Necklaces from 1400-1700

I love the coral necklaces I find in Renaissance portraits of women. There is something much more amiable and  sophisticated about a simple string of coral beads in contrast to the elaborate parures of gold, jewels, and pearls that the upper classes were bathed in. Jewelry was expensive during the Renaissance, since it was made of precious gems by craftsmen and not in a factory in China. When you received a piece of jewelry, you often kept it throughout your life. Some of the red beaded necklaces in these portraits could very well be coral beads that were given to the woman as a child and then re-strung as she got older. Bright red coral was also considered a symbol of youth, since it was so closely associated with vibrancy and health.

Coral has always been a popular gem, and is peculiar because unlike gemstones, coral is a “living gem.” Instead of being formed in the earth, it grows beneath the ocean, so it’s constantly renewing itself (so long as we don’t allow modern pollution and harvesting to destroy it). This special quality gave the stone a reputation as a preserver of life, a protector, and a healer. During the Renaissance and Baroque periods, coral was an especially popular gem to give to children as a protective charm, either as beads or carved amulets, a tradition that still lives on today.

Coral was also used for teething, since it is hard, but yielding. Comparatively speaking, coral is soft gemstone. It won’t chip like stone or splinter like wood, making it a popular material in antique baby rattles and teething pendants.

A small strand of coral beads is the perfect necklace for a middle class Renaissance woman and is an especially nice touch to a child’s costume as well! I had a strand of coral beads, but I’ve been kicking myself because I can’t find them anywhere now. Dyed coral is easy to find and relatively inexpensive, so I might have to make myself a new string!