Basics of Late Period Costume Detailing

by Gregor Burcardus

By far, one of the most common methods of distinguishing oneself in the later periods was by one's dress. The cut of the cloth reflected the cut of the person. Simple, common cloth was used by simple, common folk while rich and fine fabrics identified rich and fine ladies and gentlemen. Yet these components of dress served only as the canvas on which the truly distinctive elements of detailing painted their wearers' individualism. In fact, so important was costume detailing that it often served as an identifying element in portraits: "The Pelican Portrait" of Queen Elizabeth I was so named because of the pelican pendant she wore in it. Conversely, one of these same elements of detailing was named after the portrait it appeared in. The Holbein stitch was so named because it appeared on garb in many of the portraits painted by Holbein.

Detailing elements in garb take two forms: constructed and applied. Constructed detailing is part of the basic building of the garment such as epaulets, fabric treatments, or fasteners. Applied detailing elements are ones that are added after the garment is constructed. In either case, the more involved or intricate the element, the higher the status of the wearer would have been. While a good part of the reason for this distinction was the expense, there were also legal constraints on the types of detailing the various classes could indulge in. Sumptuary laws restricted the use of certain fabrics, fibers and jewels by classes other than the nobility and aristocracy. A metallic trim would have been reserved for the upper class, while the same trim in nonmetallic fibers might have been permitted for the merchant class.

Constructed elements are variations on the clothing standards of the day. The first opportunity for detailing a garment is the fabric it is to be made of. Popular fabric treatments include pinking (small slits in the fabric revealing lining material underneath), slashing (larger slits with the underlying lining visible), and split seams (seam sections left open with the underlying lining pulled through). Embroidery on fabrics before construction was also common, but we will cover it later in applied elements.

once the fabric is prepared, the cut or silhouette of the garment presents further opportunity for detailing. Epaulets and peplums are subject to similar treatments: split, tab and loop. Common practice in the later period was to match the epaulet treatment to the peplum treatment, so that if a garment had tab epaulets it also had a tab peplum. The collar of a garment also varied, ranging from a simple band collar to a high standing collar to the falling style. The style of the collar dictated what neck treatment the wearer could use, specifically neck ruffs, which will be covered later.

The most utilitarian component of the constructed elements is the fastener. Utilized in a number of doublets, jerkins and women's tops, buttons received just as much attention as any other detailing. They were most frequently made in one of four ways: covered, knotted, cast metal, or carved. Covered buttons were solid basses such as wood, surrounded by sound, woven or knotted fibres. Any fibre found in embroidery could also be found surrounding a covered button. Knotted buttons, popular in the Middle Eastern cultures, found popularity as well in Europe. Fibres or lengths of fabric from the garment were twisted around on themselves to create solid knots such as the Monkey's Paw or "Froggings", which them served as buttons. Cast metal buttons ranged from simple discs and beads to elaborate reproductions of covered or knotted buttons. Carved buttons of wood, some of bone, and some even of semi-precious stone such as jade or opal were done to resemble flowers, animals or other small items. Any of these buttons could be fastened either by inserting them through a slit in the fabric or a loop anchored to the fabric. Other fasteners of the period were hooks-and-eyes and lacings through eyelet holes, and these were often camouflaged by buttons.

After the garment has been constructed, or just before the final assembly, applied detailing can be considered, Bands at the cuffs or collars, piping along the shoulder seams, or a pastoral scene played across the front of a shirt are all possible. Popular forms of applied detailing include flat trims and braids, lace, embroidery, and appliques. Each could be applied in a variety of different ways, from completely covering the surface of the garment to outlining the silhouette to simply trimming the edges. While these elements are most often used strictly as decoration, they sometimes serve to camouflage seams or fasteners as well.

The simplest form of applied detailing is flat trims and braids. These are bands of various widths that are usually sewn to edges. They can also be used to create all-over linear designs on garments, including scroll-like patterns. They can be plain or patterned, woven, braided, knotted or embroidered. Some are even decorated with jewels, gems or spangles.

Lace was a favorite trim, especially for cuffs and collars. In fact, the collar treatment known as the ruff is made completely of lace. Bobbin lace was used to edge garb or layered over top of the fabric of the garment, while lace fabric and tulle was used to create a sheer outer layer to some tops or sleeves. And the use of lace was not limited to women's garb. Men's wardrobes often included lace-trimmed apparel, sometimes more elaborate than the women's.

Probably the most popular form of decoration was embroidery. It takes many different forms (blackwork, stumpwork, crewel) and the variety of designs seem endless (pastoral scenes, adapted Islamic designs, characters of legends, heraldry, and botanical elements). Both monochrome and polychrome embroidery in silk or wool are very popular. Embroidered detailing could be as simple as a band running down the length of the leg, or as involved as a design that covers the entire garment. larger, all-over patterns were often embroidered on the fabric before the garment was constructed. Embroidery also untilized other elements such as pearls, beads and spangles in its design.

Appliques were elements that were created separately and then sewn onto the garments. Preparation of an applique could include cutting, stitching, edging or many of the elements previously mentioned, on a separate piece of fabric and then sewn into place on the garment. Cut-work leather, beaded "patches", metal filigree could all be applied to a garment after its construction. Even needlework was made into appliques when it was to be applied to a delicate silk or velvet.

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