Designing the Perfect Gown: From Idea to Reality

by Drea Leed Creating a gown that looks good and is comfortable involves several factors. Most people start out believing that the only things that influence the gown they make are their budget and sewing skill. While these are significant, there are other aspects of making the perfect gown that also play a part. The more forethought that goes into making an outfit, the more it will suit your needs.

The Purpose of the Gown

The purpose of your gown plays a significant part in what your final gown will look like. A good aid to considering the gown’s purpose is by thinking of the five Ws: . Who, What, When, Where and Why.

WHO is your persona, or the character you’re playing?
If you’re a peasant, then naturally you’ll want peasant dress. The gown will be simple and modest, using rougher fabrics and less decoration. A noblewoman, on the other hand, can wear velvets, silks, satins and brocades. If you are playing a particular class or station, or a person in a particular year, you’ll have to research the particulars for that specific time frame and station.

In some cases, this isn’t an issue; if you are making a wedding gown or a gown for the SCA, the extent to which you stay true to a particular persona is up to you.

WHAT will you be doing in the gown?
The length of time you wear this gown, and the activities you’ll be doing, will substantially influence your choice of gown. If it’s a wedding gown or a gown for SCA court, you won’t be doing much—sitting, standing, perhaps dancing. Therefore you are free to choose from a variety of gown styles, including ones with wide skirts, trains, veils and other restrictive elements. If you’re wearing the gown to an outdoor re-enactment or working at a living history site, on the other hand, you’ll be in it for several hours a day and doing lots of walking, reaching and bending. You may have to tend a fire, hoe a garden or haul water. Obviously, you’ll want clothing which offers as much comfort and freedom of movement as possible. These garments usually tend towards the middle and lower-class end of the spectrum.

WHEN will this gown be worn?
A wedding gown is worn once, or at most two or three times before putting it away. It doesn’t have to be durable or easy to clean; this is a chance to go all out with expensive, delicate fabrics. An SCA court gown will be worn once or twice a month, for a period of a few hours. Because of this, comfort isn’t as vital (although it is nice) and you don’t have to worry as much about cleaning it.

A gown worn by a court member in a Renaissance Faire is worn every weekend for several weeks, for hours on end. It needs to fit well and be comfortable. You will want it to be durable and (as much as possible for a court gown) easy to clean, as there are many more opportunities for the gown to get dirty, damaged and sweaty.

WHERE will this gown be worn?
Where the gown will be worn—indoors or out, in the sun or in the rain, during winter or summer or both—is something to take into account. If the gown is for a wedding, you’ll probably be indoors most of the time. You won’t need to worry about excessive sun or rain, and can use expensive and glitzy fabrics for your gown without worrying about damage by mud, rain or sweat from too much heat.

If you are a court member of a Renaissance Faire, you’ll be wearing this gown in an outside environment for long periods of time. The wearer can depend on a few sweltering hot days and at least one rainstorm, and will want a gown which can handle all of these things: a dress which breathes well, provides coverage from the sun, isn’t damaged by water, and is as cool as possible for a court gown.

WHY are you making the gown?
This is the most significant part of a gown’s purpose: what is it for? A Wedding gown, Renaissance Faire gown, SCA court gown and a gown worn by a living history actor each have specific requirements for authenticity, color and design particulars. Articulating the reason you’re making the gown helps bring into focus the particular qualities it has to have.

Body Type

There are few nowadays who resemble the typical 5'2", slender Elizabethan women depicted in the portraits of the time. Choosing a gown and details that compliment your body type makes both the gown and you look better.

The eye is instinctively drawn to light colors and shiny surfaces. If you have features you wish to highlight, use, say, white satin or a shimmering silk. If there are aspects of your figure you don't want to draw attention to, use darker matte fabrics in those places.

The eye is also drawn by contrast and line; contrasting vertical lines, like the center front guards on a gown, are slenderizing. Horizontal lines, like the shiny billiments on a Tudor gown, make that area seem wider. Although styles have changed, these basic rules of fashion haven't; they're still used today.

The desirable look for much of the Elizabethan period was one with wide shoulders, a narrow waist , and a large, flaring skirt. This look was achieved with a variety of tailoring tricks. The large shoulder rolls and the pickadils that replaced them made the shoulders look broader. A pointed bodice, combined with stuffed pleats or a bumroll expanding the hips and a farthingale, made the waist look smaller.

If you are a larger woman, 16th century styles can be quite flattering when done correctly. The corset, needless to say, provides a smooth line to the torso. Although it wasn't designed for the purpose, an elizabethan corset-especially a boned tab one--can cinch in the waist by a few inches. The classic elegance of a Tudor gown and the slenderizing decoration of an Elizabethan gown both lend themselves to plus sizes.

Gowns with low, square necklines are more flattering to the Rubenesque lady than high-necked doublet styles, or gowns worn with partlets. The contrast between the light of the chest area and a darker fabric draws the eye upward, away from the waist. For the same reason, use matte fabrics for the bodice of the gown rather than shiny fabrics like satin; reserve shiny fabrics for trim and accentuating parts of the figure you want to draw attention to.

Gowns with bodice points and bumrolls create the illusion of a smaller waistline. This can be aided by sewing vertical guards down the center front of the gown bodice. Sewing guards or other decoration from the sides of the neckline to the center front can help even more. A black velvet gown with satin guards down the center front and across the neck is very flattering indeed.

A loose gown, or ropa is very flattering to larger figures. The puffed sleeves, lack of a waistline, and the graceful vertical guards down the front combine to create a very slenderizing effect.

If you have narrow shoulders, use pickadils or shoulder rolls to emphasize the shoulders & balance the figure. A low square neckline helps with this effect. If you have very broad shoulders, you can minimize them by wearing a dark Tudor partlet or a doublet bodice with vertical striping on the body and minimal, non-contrasting trim on the epaulets. If you have a flat bust, a corset with straps and a slightly curved front, like the effigy corset, helps to create cleavage. A padded "banana" tube sewn inside the corset below the bust can also enhance the bosom. In fact, you slender and small busted women may consider yourself lucky-you can get away with four to 6 bones sewn into the front of your gown, rather than a separate corset.


Surprisingly, a garment's comfort goes a long way towards making it look truly authentic. If you wear your gown without constantly being aware of it, if you think of it and treat it as normal, everyday clothing, this subconscious attitude affects how others see you and your garments. This attitude helps you achieve that indefinable "just-stepped-out-of-a-picture" look.

It is easier to achieve this attitude with lower class and middle class dress, as those garments tend to be less restrictive and are easier to ignore. This is why you can see a merchant woman and a court lady side by side, in equally authentic garments, but for some reason feel the merchant-woman looks more "real".

The main element of comfort is fit. A well-fitted garment is not only comfortable, but looks better and more authentic as well. To fit your garment, you will need to make at least one "toile", or "muslin". A toile is a copy of the garment (or the garment bodice and sleeves) made out of a cheap fabric of a weight similar to the real fabric the garment will be made out of, and is discussed later on in this article.

The other main element is the style of the gown itself. Late 16th century court gowns, with their wide farthingales and very low stomachers, are inherently less comfortable than, say, a gentlewoman's gown of the 1570s. If comfort is very important, you will want to choose a less restrictive style. Some women can't abide farthingales and get claustrophobic in corsets. Others are prevented from wearing a corset for health reasons, such as back problems.

Boning a bodice is a possible solution; it's surprising how many women who can't abide corsets have no problem with a boned bodice. If someone truly can't wear restrictive underpinnings, however, they will by and large be limited to lower and middle class dress from 1500 to 1570. Interlining a bodice with several quilted layers of canvas can achieve something of a corseted effect, but at the expense of comfort.

The materials of the gown and underpinnings affect the comfort of a gown as well. Linen is much cooler than cotton-polyester fabric for a smock. A linen corset boned with reed or broom straw is five times lighter, and vastly more comfortable, then a silk or brocade covered corset boned with steel. Lighter fabrics and fewer layers make for a more comfortable ensemble. Mix-and-match layering to accommodate various activities, weather and temperature is a way to achieve a considerable amount of comfort. My Flemish Wardrobe illustrates this point. Materials and style are both important elements to consider when designing a gown that will be worn outdoors in the sun and heat.

Putting the gown on
Front-lacing or back-lacing? That is the question. Though putting the gown on doesn't technically constitute "comfort", front closures save considerable time, effort, tempers and sweat for people dressing themselves at re-enactment events. If you will be putting this gown on often or putting it on in a tent or crowded trailer, a front-lacing corset, front-closing bodice or both should be considered. If you're dressing under a deadline before the beginning of a Renaissance Faire, shortcuts such as the afore-mentioned forepart snapped to a farthingale or a hidden front-closing steel busk are handy time-savers. A bodice that hook-and-eyes up the front with large hooks and also laces at the side backs gives one both convenience and size-adjustment.


For the purposes of this page, the authenticity of a garment is defined as how closely it comes to being like an original 16th century garment in material, cut, fit, style and decoration. As fabrics like baize and tinsel are no longer available, and as few of us have the chance to handle original garments, the authenticity of the garments we create is usually judged against photographs of originals, portraits, literary references like inventories and wardrobe accounts, and pattern layouts in books such as Patterns of Fashion.

16th century costumes in today's world cover a broad spectrum. At one end are the wench-creations of Simplicity and McCalls. Though Simplicity historic patterns have improved noticeably over the past few years, most of them take great liberties with the original garments and are designed for use with modern materials, meant to be entirely sewn and finished by machine, and in some cases cut more like modern garments then the originals.

At the other end is the excruciatingly authentic garment woven of a replica 16th century fabric, cut to the exact shape of original garments, and sewn and finished entirely by hand using 16th century seam and finishing techniques (preferably with linen or silk thread).

Most of us fall somewhere between these two extremes, and are continually moving from one part of the spectrum to another. It's common in many re-enactment groups for someone to make their first gown from a McCalls pattern out of modern fabrics, and gradually, as they become more interested in historic costume, make more and more authentic garments.

The authenticity of your garment will depend a great deal on its purpose. A wedding gown doesn't necessarily have to be perfectly authentic, just spectacular. If you are working at a Renaissance Faire, you gown will have to look authentic but may incorporate modern shortcuts (such as false undersleeve poofs, a well-hidden zipper, or a forepart that snaps directly onto your hoopskirt). A gown for a member of the Tudor Group, on the other hand, is expected to be made only of documented fabrics, completely hand-stitched and finished, and as similar to the original as possible.

Aside from these constraints, it is up to you how authentic you want your garment to be. The authenticity of your garment is a very personal factor, but will affect the materials, expense, the pattern you use and the time it takes to make your gown.. Is using real linen and wool worth the cost? Is hand-sewing trim onto your sleeves and hand-finishing lacing holes worth the time it takes? The answers differ from person to person.

Patterning and Sewing Considerations

If you want a gown, you will most likely be choosing one of the following options:

Each choice has pros and cons. Paying a seamstress is expensive, but (usually) guarantees a well made and well-fitting product. Using a ready-made pattern and instructions gives non-expert sewers a relatively safe way to make a garment that fits. Drafting a custom pattern gives you complete freedom to design exactly what you want and guarantees a perfect fit, but without the skill and experience in drafting it can be a perilous and somewhat frightening activity.

Hiring a Seamstress
If you choose to have your gown made by a seamstress, get a look at a real example of her work and look at photos of people wearing her outfits to see how well they actually fit. Get references from previous customers, and have a document drawn up that spells out explicitly what the seamstress will be making-what fabrics will be used and how much of each, what kind of detailing will be done and where, and what pieces are going to be made. Be clear on how much it will cost or what the terms of the barter are. A document like this may seem overly formal if you are having a friend make your gown, but it can save several headaches, misunderstandings and hurt feelings down the road.

Using a Ready-Made Pattern
A commercial pattern is the option which the majority of people use. I recommend it for people just starting out in 16th century costume. Simplicity's #8881 pattern, also called the "Shakespeare in Love" pattern, is exceptionally good for a big-name pattern company. Margo Anderson has a Review of this pattern online. Margo Anderson's Historic Patterns recently came out with The Elizabethan Lady's Wardrobe patterns, which by all accounts are authentic, well-sized, contain clear instructions, and have enough variations on bodice and sleeve shape to create any number of different kinds of gowns.

The other widely used 16th century women's clothing patterns are Period Patterns Women's Undergarments 600-1600, Women's Early Tudor (1495-1535) and Womens' Late Tudor and Elizabethan (1545-1610), and the Costume Connection's Early Tudor Woman and Renaissance Common Woman. Rocking Horse Farms sells a Loose Gown pattern with is well made and has clear instructions, although the sizing runs about two sizes larger then their measurement chart.

I've heard from dozens of people that the Period Patterns patterns have terrible sizing, often ranging two to four sizes of the measurement chart they include. The instructions can be confusing, and in many cases the pattern pieces don't fit together correctly. However, they include excellent documentation with their patterns and the shape of the pattern pieces are in general close to the original pattern piece shaping.

The Costume Connection patterns have excellent sizing and clear instructions. The patterns themselves, however, are more costume- and Renaissance Faire oriented. They aren't cut & finished as authentically as the Period Patterns.

Drafting your Own Pattern
If you have had experience with sewing and decide to make your own patterns, there are some resources available. Jean Hunnisett's Period Costume for Stage and Screen has patterns for several specific 16th century gowns, and Janet Arnold's Patterns of Fashion is considered the bible of 16th century pattern sources. Juan Alcega's 1589 Pattern Book, recently republished, is full of original pattern layouts and designs.

For drafting your own patterns, the book The Costume Technician's Handbook is indispensable. This is the main textbook for many theatrical costuming classes and covers all aspects of drafting patterns from measurements, altering patterns, rotating bust darts, how to correct specific fitting problems and more. I refer to it regularly.

If you want the security of a ready-made pattern but want a gown with a different cut, you can take a ready-made pattern, trace it on butcher's paper, draw in the seam placements you want, and cut out and tape together the new pattern pieces. A knowledge of basic pattern alteration (discussed in the Costume Technician's Handbook) is very helpful when doing this.

The Toile

Whether you're making a gown from a pattern or drafting the pattern yourself, a Toile (pronounced "twahl"), also called a muslin, is essential. No two bodies are alike, and most commercial patterns are drafted for a B cup. Unless you're very lucky, no pattern will fit you exactly without some changes.

To make a toile, trace the bodice pattern with a pen onto a cheap fabric that's the same weight as the fabric you plan to use. (Canvas for velvet, a mid-weight cotton for satin, etc.) If the pattern you're using incorporates seam allowance, draw in the seam lines with the pen 5/8 of an inch inside the edge or wherever your pattern shows them. Sew the bodice together with long stitches (you'll be ripping them out afterward) and try it on over your corset and underpinnings. If you will be wearing a smock under the corset, wear it while trying on the toile.

Now stand in the mirror and, with the help of a good friend, fit the toile. Pin the garment together along the seam lines of the closure(s). If the bodice is too big around, pinch in the fabric and pin it at various seam lines until it fits. You want it to fit snugly, with no wrinkles or gaps, but not tightly. Make sure you take in the same amount on either side. Draw along the new pin-line with a pen.

Check the shoulder straps. Pin them more tightly, or rip the shoulder seams and pin them more loosely until they fit. You don't want the sleeves pulling your bodice down, so the shoulder straps should fit quite snugly. Draw along the new shoulder seam with a pen.

Check the waistline. If it is too long, draw with a pen where you want the waistline to be. Check the neckline. Draw in a different neckline or indicate with a pen where you want it to be higher. Mark that the neckline doesn't show the corset straps or the top of the corset.

Check the armscye, also called the arm-hole. If the pattern included seam allowance, snip in from the edge of the fabric to the drawn seamline of the armhole all the way around the arm. If there are still wrinkles around the armhole, snip in more where the wrinkle appears. (The Costume Technician's Handbook has diagrams showing this.)

Now take the toile off, rip the pattern piece seams and transfer the changes you marked with a pen to the paper pattern. You now have a custom-fitted pattern.

If you have complex or tight-fitting sleeves, such as those on a Tudor gown, it is worth it to make a sleeve toile as well. You can either sew a sleeve to the bodice toile and fit them both at once, or make a new bodice toile to your altered pattern and sew the sleeve to it. The second option, though more time-consuming, guarantees a better fit. Perform whatever alterations the sleeve needs to make it hang correctly, and transfer those changes to the pattern as you did for the bodice.


Ah yes, the evil "B" word. As much as we all wish it were otherwise, the amount of money you have to spend plays a part in the gown that's finally made. If you are lucky enough to have a blank check, then the sky's the limit. You can make any type of gown, using silk satins, lovely brocades and expensive velvets. You can use as much expensive trim as you like.

For most of us mortals, however, trade-offs and compromises have to be made. So far you've let your fancy fly free and created the gown of your dreams, with the the perfect colors, fabrics & trim. Now you'll most likely need to start making the tradeoffs and compromises that will allow you to pay the rent, buy the groceries and make this gown.

Different gown styles take different amounts of fabric. Later period gowns, with their large sleeves and large skirts, take several more yards of fabric than an earlier Tudor gown with a gored skirt, or a 1560s English loose gown. Some techniques, like cartridge-pleating or rolled pleats, take more fabric than conventional pleating.

You can save money by changing the style of your gown, or adding stylistic flourishes. Adding a 12" band of cheaper fabric to the bottom of a 6 yard skirt saves a significant amount of fabric. Changing the sleeve style of your 1570s gown from a long, hanging Spanish Great-sleeve to a closer fitting french sleeve will save you a handy 2 to 3 yards of fabric. Box-pleating your skirt rather than cartridge-pleating it will save significant amounts...and is more period for all but the last few years of the 16th century.

Careful placement and cutting of patterns is another way to save a lot of fabric. The art of conserving fabric was polished to a high gloss during the 16th century, when elaborate court gowns were cut out of 22" wide fabric that could cost up to $1000/yd. The pattern layouts in Alcega's Tailor's Pattern Book of 1589 involve considerable piecing of skirts and bodices and leave very little fabric left over. So do the extant items of clothing in Arnold's Patterns of Fashion. I know one woman who swears that it takes 10 yards of fabric to make an Elizabethan gown...I make mine with 6 to 7 yards. It's all in the piecing and construction.

Finding bargains at the fabric store and at online sites can save you a bundle. Often pieces of brocade will be set out on the remnant table at a discounted price. Online sites often have sales, or good prices on particular types of fabric. This requires you to shop in advance and save fabric for later projects, which can itself be bad for the budget...but that's a different subject.

If you can't find or can't afford the perfect fabric, you may have to compromise, finding a similar fabric of a different color or a different fabric of a similar color. You might change the style of your gown, or make it of a slightly lower class. Don't give up hope! The end result may look better than the gown you originally planned.

One way to spiff up a gown without spending lots of money on trim is to use narrow bands and welts of contrasting fabric as trim instead. This adds a great deal to an outfit, is very striking, and can look even better than store-bought trim.

Designing the Gown

Now comes the fun part--actually designing your gown. Look at pictures of gowns you particularly like, noting the various parts that appeal to you.

Sketch several different combinations of bodice, skirt & sleeve to see how they look. Don’t worry if you can’t draw well; you’re the only one who will see these, and you know what you mean the gowns to look like. Taking all the factors mentioned above into account, choose styles, accessories and headwear that are compatible with the gown you’ve designed.

Take out some fabric swatches and pieces of trim, and mix and match them. Imagine what various colors & fabrics would look like together. Try the same gown drawn with different decoration and trim patterns. If you have markers, colored pencils or crayons, color in some of the gown to see what the colors look like together.

Look at the various gowns you’ve drawn, and consider how well they meet the criteria discussed in this week’s lesson. You’ll probably find that you’ve already decided, without thinking about it, what’s most important to you in a gown. Eventually, narrow down and combine your variations until you come up with the one that appeals to you most. Go over the checklist of criteria and see how well it meets all of these.

Take a piece of paper and draw out your gown on it. Mark comments and descriptions of color and fabric on it, references to a portrait that you want the bodice or sleeve to look like, and accessories that will go with it. Mark page numbers of particular books that you got your design from, for future reference. If you haven’t decided on a particular color or fabrics, note the different color/fabric combos that you have narrowed it down to. If you have fabric swatches or bits of trim, staple or glue them to the sheet. If you have xeroxes of portraits or pictures that parts of the gown should look like, staple or attach these to the sheet with a note on what they are.

I take these finished sheets and put them up on my sewing room wall to inspire me when I’m hemming endless yards of skirt, sewing buttonholes by hand, or any of the hundred other monotonous tasks involved in making a gown. Having a picture there of what the gown will look like is a wonderful aid to motivation.

The factors covered in this article are all important when designing your own gown, but they are also very helpful in designing gowns for others. Often a person has a vision of the gown they want, but hasn't considered the details of cut and style, or thought of how well it actually suits them and the purpose to which it will be put.

With a good solid foundation in 16th century costume history, and the knowledge of how to design a gown to suit all the needs of a particular person, you can help your friends and others to create dream gowns of their own. If you find that you really enjoy designing and making gowns and want some practice, a good place to start is with your friends and acquaintances. Even if they don't really plan on making a gown or having one made, you can have "practice consultations" with them to discuss what they would like in a 16th century dress. Using the criteria discussed above--comfort, authenticity, where it will be worn, whether they'll be putting it on themselves or not-you can come up with a gown that best suits their needs and requirements.

Examples of Perfect Gowns

As part of my Class on Elizabethan Costume, my students must create a gown that meets all of the requirements listed above. See how different people created a gown that was just right for them: