Early Tudor Project — Katherine of Aragon’s Portrait dated 1502 — Part V

Today’s project has been engineering the black middle layer seen in this 1502 portrait of Katherine of Aragon.

If you’ve been following this project, you know that I have batted around some ideas about what purpose this middle layer serves in this ensemble. I am not the type to fixate on a hypothesis and declare: “This is how it was.” One cannot assume that people in the 16th century did things for a certain reason just because it makes sense to us. We, no matter what our educational background and level of historical knowledge, are simply not 16th century people. The biggest danger historical reconstructionists face is assuming that because something makes sense to us, it made sense to the people whose artifacts we study. Indeed most often, we can have no real idea of the whys. We can only say, “This is the way this artifact was made.” It ends there.

So in my mental gymnastics about this middle layer, I have tossed around a number of hypotheses which I recognise are impossible to prove. Knowing this, I was anxious to get on with reconstructing the ensemble because I believe that construction using period techniques can teach us much that mental gymnasitics and hypothesizing cannot.

And indeed, this time was not disappointing. But instead of teaching me which hypothesis was correct, the construction taught me what hypothesis has no chance of being correct. The middle layer cannot have anything to do with bust support. Drawing the layer tightly (as it would have to be to support the bust) distorts the right-angle front opening of this layer. And in every picture where this layer can be seen, one overriding characteristic of the garment is its 90-degree-ness.

Granted, this theory was not high on the list of probability since later examples of of the middle layer are open too far to provide bust support anyway.

(Unfortunately, I can’t show you any pictures because my camera is still not functioning.)

Edit: Here’s a picture taken with my broken camera. I apologise for the blur and lines:

Bodice

I have a lovely hunk of black medium weight cashmere that I have been hoarding for the right project. So today I sacrificed it for this middle layer. I used the bodice of my Kampfrau Gown pattern as the basis because it is right-angled as well. But instead of cutting the back like the Kampfrau Gown, I eliminated the back neckline by cutting straight across the tops of the shoulder straps. I cut this from the wool as well as my black taffeta and pinned in on my mannequin over the smock and yellow undermost gown.

I cut the fronts from wool and taffeta according to the Kampfrau Gown pattern but elongated the shoulder straps so I could position the neckline lower and shift the shoulder seam past the shoulder. I didn’t want it to be seen from the front since you cannot see the shoulder seam or the back in the portrait above or any similar contemporaneous portraits. I sewed the wool to the lining along the front edges, clipped the corners, turned the piece and pressed it well. Then I pinned the fronts in place on the mannequin. With a print of the portrait in my valiant assistant’s hand, I positioned the fronts so they are just slightly higher than the top of the yellow gown’s bodice. I positioned the shoulder straps as in the portrait as well. Everything laid well and looked like the lay of the garment in the portrait.

Unfortunately, this positioning made the fronts touch in the center and they should be about two inches apart. So I took the bodice fronts off the mannequin, made a second stitch 3/4″ away from the first one, checked it on the mannequin, confirmed the measurements, pulled out the old stitches, cut off the excess, clipped the corners, turned and pressed the fronts. Then I pinned them on the mannequin again.

Success! The shoulder straps are in the right position, the angle to the horizontal is correct, and the opening between the fronts looks like the portrait. With the fronts pinned in position, I turn the side seam allowances under and whipstitch the seams closed, being careful to catch the lining in the seam. Then I made sure the shoulder straps were in the proper position as well and tucked those seam allowances under and whipstitched them down.

Before I began construction on this bodice, I wondered if I’d have to interline it or at least bone the front edges so they wouldn’t gap. I was reticent to do this since the pictures of Thomas More’s daughters show front edges that are obviously not boned. It’s also rather early for boned bodices. But I wanted to avoid interfacing too. In the portrait, I can make out the roundness of Katherine’s breasts and if I interlined the undermost layer and this layer, there might not be any roundness by the time we got to the outermost layer.

Pinning the sewn bodice in place on my mannequin demonstrated that no interlining or boning is necessary. The right angles of the middle layer leads me to believe that it was not laced tightly. A “reefed”* lacing of the front opening will do the trick.

My belief in no interlining or boning was reinforced when I sewed on the gold shells. The four or five stitches required to secured each shell have the edge of the bodice a little extra stiffening and the edge now feels quite stable. There are only two shells visible in the center front opening, but I sewed five just so you wouldn’t see a blank space when I move. However I didn’t want to continue lower than that as they will interfere with the lacing.

I have not yet decided on how to lace the front closed, but I don’t think I want to make thread eyelets. I think this would distort the front too much. I may sew rings to each front edge. Have to think on that a little…

The only issue I have with the bodice at this point is that the shoulder straps curve over my upper chest instead of making straight lines like in the picture. Since I am not a terribly curvy person in the chest region (and neither is our Katherine), I am putting the straight lines in the portrait down to artistic license. I do not believe that this line can be that straight on a real human. It does, however, look asthetically pleasing in the portrait. So I’m not going to fret about this minor curve.

So that’s where I’ve left it tonite. Tomorrow I can either work on the skirts or cut the smock neckline (finally!) and start embroidering.

Next: the embroidery…

* “Reefed” as in when a sail is reefed, it’s not too tight and not too loose, but just right.


© 2007 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 and this permission notice are preserved on all copies.