Biancheria included all the undergarments worn by women and men from 1400-1700. The camicia (sleeved and sleeveless) was one undergarment worn by both genders.
The camicia, a specific type of biancheria, was a shirt for men and a slip of sorts for women. This garment was called a chemise, smock, or shift in English. It was usually made of bianco lino (white linen) but also lana/saia (wool), cotone (cotton), canapa (hemp), or seta (silk) and could have a decorated neckline and/or wrist cuffs (Landini 2005, Herald 1981, Frick 2002). The basic function of this item was to protect the finer outer layers from body oils and dirt, providing a less expensive barrier that could be washed more frequently.
Women tended to have dresses made by tailors, but the camicia was often “fatta in casa” (made in the home), according to (Arnold 2008 p5, Brown 2004). A noble household would have a a seamstress to do this work, with the addition of an embroiderer as well (Arnold 2008). Embroidery was a common activity for upper-class women so embellishment of the camicia may have been added by the lady of the house once the garment was assembled (Brown 2004).
The sleeved camicia is depicted as worn under the gonella/ guarnella, gamurra, and sottana in many paintings from the quattrocento (15th Century) to the seicento (17th Century). There is little English documentation on the sleeveless camicia, but an extant garment is shown in Kohler’s A History of Costume. It could have been an extra layer under the sleeved camicia, or used under the stays once that item became popular. Personally, from what I’ve experienced a sleeveless camicia is also easier to use under a tightly sleeved underdress (especially in the summer), like the gonnella (early kirtle/cote) of the trecento and quattrocento.
So many questions revolve around biancheria (undergarments) and which class of women did actively wear them. Noble? Working class? All year or just when cold? Were they always white? There are some extant pieces from the late cinquecento that are pictured here and you can see draped depictions in other Venetian painting from the cinquecento.
In the quattrocento many documented fabric exchanges are of large purchases of linen for undergarments, especially for ladies. In the cinquecento (16th Century ) the numbers of undergarments in the guardaroba of noblewomen grew even greater: Elisabetta Gonzaga had 24; Paola Gonzaga 20; Drusiana Sforza 40; Bianca Maria Sforza had 8 with silk and gold ornaments, 25 with black silk threadwork and 65 simply decorated; Lucrezia Borgia had 200 camicia; but these women were the most educated and famous noblewomen of the Renaissance.
So, how do you make a basic camicia appropriate for 1470-1510?
Books to Use:
The Medieval Tailor’s Assistant
Renaissance Dress in Italy
Dressing Renaissance Florence
Use These Materials:
• 3 1/2 to 4 yards of white or off-white linen, silk, or cotton fabric (linen is preferred).
• Silk or linen thread, scissors, tape measure, needles, etc.
• Optional bias fabric or trim for the neckline.
This basic pattern cutout:
To achieve this silhouette, and without extant camicie from this early period (though there are some from the 16th Century and beyond), I look to the paintings. This first one has a low, wide neckline and is gathered in a bend of some kind. The sleeves are huge. She wears it under her gamurra, which is undone, and sleeves which have fallen off.
These two Venetian ladies also have camicie with low, wide necklines and voluminous sleeves held in check by their maniche (sleeve) fabric and ties (aghetti, lacci).
From the back of these ladies camicie you see the tiny gathering and one has a larger band at the top than the other. Also, one (on right) has a band that is not white as well as a vertical design on her camicia.
Using these paintings as a guide, plus what I have learned from Mistress Martha, Mistress Maymunah, Mistress Brenwen, as well as the blogs of Studiolo Perryn and Festive Attyre I came up with this design.
After washing my silk/linen fabric the width was 52″. I cut out the pieces and laid them like so for sewing.
Steps for construction:
1. Attach gusset to front of arm sleeve
2. Attach sleeve to body front 2 inches above gusset seam
3. Attach sleeve to body back 6 inches above gusset seam
4. Attach gusset to back of arm sleeve
5. Sew up the sleeves and sides (***This is as far as I’ve gotten! Part 2 will cover the rest)
6. Gather neck into bias strip or trim
7. Hem sleeves
8. Hem bottom
Arnold, Janet. (2008). “Patterns of Fashion 4: The cut and construction of linen shirts, smocks, neckwear, headwear and accessories for men and women”. London: MacMillan.
Brown, Patricia Fortini. (2004). “Private Lives in Renaissance Venice”. London: Yale University Press.
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”. London: Bell & Hyman.
Landini, Roberta Orsi and Bruna Niccoli. (2005). “Moda a Firenze 1540-1580. Lo stile di Eleonora di Toledo a la sua influenza”. Florence: Edizioni Polistampa.
Thursfield, Sarah. (2001). The Medieval Tailor’s Assistant: Making Common Garments 1200-1500. Hollywood: Costume and Fashion Press.