Sunday, May 19, 2013

Game: "Reproducing" an Outfit with an Unlimited Budget

Every so often, I like to do random images searches on Google, just to see if something new is showing up for early 15th century garb. I'll try different or more specific years, switch from "kirtle" to "gown" to "dress", or specifically list a region or culture, such as "Flemish" or "Northern European", or "French". The other day, the search term was simply "1420's gown".

Interestingly, a huge amount of formal gowns, mostly prom-style, came up in the results, and not much else. But buried in among the sea of taffeta and tulle was this image:

Knight of Swords from The Cary-Yale Visconti tarot deck, 1420-1460, Milan.
Knight of Swords from The Cary-Yale Visconti tarot deck, 1420-1460, Milan.

I think what first caught my attention was the beautiful combination of spring-like colors. I'm not terribly familiar with Italian artworks or garb from the 15th century, since my focus is on the Northern Gothic, but it's obvious that this style is very similar to that worn in the north, with some notable Italian details. The first, and most obvious of which, is the silk-like nature of the gown materials.

I started to think about this outfit as first a learning opportunity, then as a chance to waste time see how easy it might be to reproduce it. What if budget and logistics were no object, and the point of the exercise is to come as close as reasonably possible to the period look of this ensemble? Could it be done?

I decided to start with her kirtle. Looking closely, it appears that the green is intentionally not painted flat. That indicates that the artist may have intended to suggest that the cloth is patterned in some way.

Kirtle Sleeve Detail
Kirtle Sleeve Detail

Only two colors are really evident- green and darker green. There are also some areas on both arms where a pale color has been applied. At first, I didn't know what to make of that, but after looking at some fabrics, I wondered if that was the artist's way of indicating sheen.

Anything using silk has the potential of having some reflective qualities to it, so I started looking in that direction. The most likely candidate is velvet. See, for example, the sheen of the velvet on this 15th century Italian chasuble:

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It's also possible that the material is a silk brocade, also used in the 15th century. The example below of a green brocade from the 15th century could display some sheen, but certainly has a more matted finish as compared to velvet. I wouldn't rule a silk brocade out.

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The two-toned effect of green and dark green could also be achieved with a cut velvet. The difficultly, however, is that the pattern must be cut and not voided, which would produce too severe of a difference between the two colors. This fragment from15th century Milan shows a tone-on-tone cut, but even this is too broad of a color change compared to the original painting (and is probably closer to being voided than cut). I include it here particularly because it is contemporary to both the relative period and geographic place of origin of the original tarot deck- 15th century Milan.

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The subtle coloration also led me to silk damasks. Damasks, again, aren't going to have the same sharp highlights that velvets are, but the tone-on-tone patterning is much more easily achieved in the woven damask form than the cut velvet. I was able to locate this 16th century piece of Italian silk damask. While this piece is later than I'm looking for, it's on the right track.

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I say that it's on the right track because it uses the "pomegranate" pattern popular in late medieval textiles. Looking at the sleeve detail again, a similar pattern can be noted (though certainly not proven). This type of pattern is seen in a huge variety of forms throughout the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries. It's popularity in period, therefore, makes the chances that the artist was attempting to imply its use on the Lady Knight's kirtle quite plausible.

And here is a fragment of a silk damask sporting a pomegranate pattern dating to the 15th century:

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Locating commercially available silk damasks with a medieval pomegranate pattern can prove difficult. The pattern was adapted in every era since the 15th century, adding either more complexity to the design, or in modern eras, giving it a more graphic quality. Compare the pieces above, for example, to this silk damask from the 19th century (left) and this modern interpretation of a "renaissance style" damask (right).

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I was able to locate this green silk damask with a similar pattern to the small fragment above.

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Since this fabric is a little too blue in tone, I continued looking and eventually found this silk damask:

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The color is good, the sheen is there (click here to see a doublet made with this material), and while it's not technically a pomegranate pattern, the floral shapes are very similar. The difference between the green and dark green is not too wide. I'm comfortable with this as the choice for a match to the original kirtle. It's a good think, though, that this is simply an exercise in plausibility, since this material would be difficult and expensive to obtain!

Next up, I'll examine the options for the pink lining of the houppelande.

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