Research and Reasoning’s for the ‘anti-gravity’ dresses – 200 Years of a ‘style’… Under Construction

Please note: If you wish to reproduce this in any way please credit me. We all work very hard and share our knowledge freely in the SCA. It would be a shame to find my work in someone elses name. Thank you. 

 The ‘anti-gravity’ sleeve idea:

What has been seen….cannot be unseen….

From at least the mid 1300’s till the mid 1500’s there seems to be a consistency of neckline style in the art depicting women’s dress in Italy, France, England, the Netherlands, Flanders, Germany, Italy, Vienna and the Czech Republic.

The sleeves and the neckline in the pictures seem to try to defy gravity. The bust looks suspended while still providing full movement, as is evidenced in the paintings of women doing everyday tasks. Logically the garments had to be functional and cope with everyday stress and usage, as well as what is shown in the manuscripts.

The 1300’s show a ‘boat-neck’ style which then later moved to a fuller busted lower scoop neck as is evidenced in the paintings, manuscripts and wall art. The neckline seems to have had little variance till the 1500’s,where it then shows difference in bust height and neckline shape (i.e. round, square etc.) depending on the country and region.

As with everything it is a ‘style’. It is not the only one and was not everywhere, but there is enough pictorial evidence to suggest that it was a trend that reached different areas and evolved.

Some of the early examples of this can be found below:

Viennese: women’s clothing from the The Tacuinum Sanitas late 1300’s. 

Different working women showing different dresses, head wear, belts, neck coverings, sleeves folded back, aprons etc.

Various countries, mainly French:

This shows early mid 14th Century garb with the ‘anti-gravity’ style.


Capture  snowballs Climate-snow-and-ice-Tacuinum-Sanitatis-c.-1390-1400

Très Riches Heures,

Duc de Berry, c.1412-16.

8 1525 Bernardino Licinio (1489-1565) Woman with book caterina Esforza

please note – references to come

GirolamoDaCarpic1530      673f40a41f024c304332f631385ba63c

hans holbein 1520     Christoph_Amberger_-_Portrait_of_Felicitas_Seiler_-_1537

Lucas Cranach (Northern Renaissance Painter, 1472-1553) and his workshop The Saxon Princesses (Sibyl, Emilia and Sidonia of Saxe) c 1535Dwaze maagd met uitgedoofde olielamp in landschap, Niklaus Manuel Deutsch, 1518


Portrait of a Lady c. 1520 Attributed to Martin Schaffner    Portrait of a Lady by Barthel Beham,1537

ortrait of Anna Scheit, nee Mem(m)inger Beham, Barthel (painter) 1528    nobles Holbein Hans, le jeune (Les Simulacres de la Mort c. 1526

Meister von Meßkirch 1531 32 st ursula


Most things start with inspiration, some with a theory. The pattern (and because of that) the dresses that I will discuss below, came from both.

The inspiration that comes from pondering why something looks the way it does in paintings, and the particular theory that came from being overly tired of being big busted, overweight and not feeling like I was able to find a ‘good’ period style for my body shape, led me to the research and ideas below. It also came from years of searching, many hours and much money spent travelling, looking, experimenting, reading and hopefully growing in my craft.

The sum of this research comes from a lifetime’s passion for material, sewing and design without any idea of where that passion came from, why I like studying it so much and a lack of formal training.

Observation of the world around me and a desire to obtain an acute awareness of what is required of a human  ‘in period’ while in a garment, is what lay within the desire to find out the ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ of the material world.


To think of the world without a deep study into what it was over the centuries, we are forgiven if we rationalise it within our individual mental boundaries. Without other thought, we draw from our possibly limited awareness of what we know of it today,  imagined with the help of ‘media machines’ such as Hollywood, and popular historical novels / T.V. series, tell us what we should be allowed to believe.

However, with such wide information now available, through books, new studies and on the world wide web, a lot of the pre-conceived notions can be quickly seen through with a little careful consideration and a grain of salt.

The maps that are easily accessible on the internet, and other articles in journals and books on the subject show us that Germany was not Germany, France was not France and the Italian states were very different to each other and defined pre 1600’s. Even if we do not trust the web, there are still pockets that can enlighten and enhance our awareness on these matters with enough research and awareness in mind.

Wars, politics, religion, marriage, disease, common human nature, and many other milestones shaped and changed the land masses and the cultures that lived on them over the centuries. Places we know in modern terms were divided and conquered, ruled, ruined and rebuilt over centuries of what is listed above.

(talk about Fr, Ger, Burgundy etc here)

Something I noticed:

When you see something, it often can’t be unseen. There are many people over the last few years that I have waxed lyrical to about the ‘anti-gravity’ shoulder look. I have had many Facebook private messages, or had it mentioned in person about how after it has been pointed out, the amount of countries and time periods that you see this style in is now noticed everywhere by the person browsing pinterest or the google images, and how the subtle change of sleeves and skirt pleats make it German, French, English or Italian.


The journey started in 2012/2013 when a few things happened. I was fortunate enough to go to Europe to do some work and then saw pictures that I wanted to emulate, my friend in Southron Gaard asked me to help her make an Italian dress from the late fifteenth century, and I was asked to fly down and help my friends in Southron Gaard (Christchurch) make ‘cote hardies’, along with my stumbling on and entering the Realm of Venus competition.

More information on the why and how in detail can be found on the 1390’s French / Italian fitted gown page below:


Musing 1:

Logically it makes perfect sense that a style could be the same. Countries that are so much in each others pockets due to trade, boarders and war, tend to show a similar ‘style’ and seem to imitate each other in certain areas.

Musing 2:

There are a lot of myths out there about what females did and therefore what they wore that have been put forward due to men writing history, Monks writing history and Hollywood re-writing history.  We know from tapestries, manuscripts and pictures that women hunted, did archery, had to look after / fight for the castles when the men were away. Women were Ambassadors to other countries, owned their own land and ran businesses on their own….why are we then weak, feeble creatures that whimper and sit at windows waiting for our Princes to come? Knowing what we know about women in period, we needed functional garments that could move in, not outfits that constrained us.

Musing 3:

The internet has a lot to answer for and our belief in it can be mis-founded. We see the same pictures come up on Pinterest and image searches, and we often take for granted that what they are labelled as etc. is what they actually are.

Musing 4:

When a new Queen or King comes to the throne, their paintings are displayed / taken around to the populous. The Ladies and Lords of the country see the fashion and take these ideas to the local Tailor. The Tailor like us only has the picture or what has come before to go off  and therefore, there may be many ways of creating the same dress. As a side note: I use this as a way to describe why the French Gown (or Tudor Gown as it is more commonly known) might have different ways of constructing it.

Musing 5:

People like Janet Arnold are amazing – Goddesses even! However, if we base all we do on one set of extant items and one only, then we are stopping ourselves from learning or going further in our creativity. For example – the back lacing Kirtle with spangles is possibly not the best garment to base your assumptions of all Kirtles off, especially those which we wear as lower class farmers…

Musing 6:

It doesn’t require a huge amount of stiff fabric and heavy layers to create a supportive garment. I have found that 2 layers of linen are a minimum with my bodice pattern that fully supports – even after a whole day of wear.

Musing 7:

Taken from an excerpt from the page on the idea of the ‘cotehardie’ (on the 1390’s dress page)

“The ‘Fitted Gown’ /’Gothic Gown’ / ‘Cotehardie’ is an interesting kettle of fish.

Generic names like the above seem to label a very big time span of one dress, and countries, and with any generic thing it is too easy for it to become generic, both in construction and look.

One of the other issues associated with generic names and styles within our re-enactment communities is that we are also used to seeing certain types of garments in person or on the internet all made in certain ways – some widely accepted as ‘accurate’, others not.  Unless we ask at the time of the person wearing it –  is that from the 1420’s or 1390’s or early 1300’s? or is it from France, England, Italy? we may never know beyond the surface that there are differences and different examples out there from just looking at pictures on the internet of recently constructed garments.

The other issue you face is that some people just make things because they are pretty or because they want to  – which is fair enough – not everyone cares to the same degree about accuracy or the historical side to things.  The pictures on the internet that people base their outfits on may not even have a particular period or place attached to the garment, so the new comer to the period or style that is interested in the ‘accuracy’ of something, needs to be wary and hunt around A LOT if they are wanting to be as historically accurate as they can be.”


THE 1390’s BLUE DRESS and then all the others:

The way I have cut the bodice is the secret to the success of the initial ‘experiment’. I was told years ago when working at New Zealand Opera, that the person who had trained and learnt how to make patterns etc. was jealous of my lack of formal training. She said she knew that in the workroom she was employable as a cutter, and I was not, but she knew about the amount of work that I did in the children’s theatre world in terms of odd creations that required patterns from scratch and huge problem solving.  The costumes I made had to also be incredibly durable and just like the Historical Costume I was looking into at the time; involved a lot of guess work.

She said because I wasn’t trained that I had a unique perspective, i.e. no preconceived ideas of how to do it ‘right’. She seemed to think that in my case, the modern way, the right way for the 21st century, was something I wasn’t tainted by, and the things that sewers do now to create cuts and finishes that conflict with the ‘historical’ way of doing it, was something that I was lucky to not have to think about which allowed me more creativity in sewing.

I had always felt inadequate in professional settings due to my lack of being taught/attending a course to learn this craft. The course I choose to take has always been one of logical progression,  and the design process. I always tend to fall back on logic and reason for practical reasons. When I was in Belfast in 2014 working on Game of Thrones, I had initially been terrified I wouldn’t know anything and that they would realise I was a fraud. Due to the nature of what the Designer wanted for the look of the programme, I found myself constructing and finishing the garments in  ‘Historical’ ways. Everything that I had been doing for years in terms of technique, was what was required for the job.

My Pattern:

For the particular pattern that I was seeing in the paintings, I wanted to create a garment that sat off the shoulder, without falling off the shoulder, supporting the bust fully while giving full movement and not using any ‘un-period’ devices for the style such as shaping, boning or zips to fit.

From cursory investigation one can ascertain that stiffening is evident in Italian outfits in the 1500’s, and stays are evident under garments (seen in the cut and line of the outer garments) in the  1500’s in countries such as England and France. However, the curve that was evident in the portraiture and the paintings of the mid 1300’s to the early 1500’s suggested no such things. The curve was round, un-interrupted, with no lines and and nothing to suggest stays or boning.

In fact “If clerics lamented the amount of leg the men were showing, it was the cotehardie’s wide neckline and fitted bust that caused problems for women. A papal legate to the French court, writing in 1376, complained that “so tightly do the women of the court constrain their bosom, that there can be little doubt as to its form, while the breath of their collar is want to distract men to contemplate the fruits found beyond.” In 1388, his concerns were echoed by the chronicler Giovanni de Mussia, who turned his attentions to the cyprianae – an Italian version of the cotehardie that fully revealed the collarbones and was generally worn without even a veil to conceal the neck. Giovanni wrote that the gowns of the ladies in Piacenza would haven quite beautiful, “were their necklines not so great that their breasts always seem want to leave them.” An exaggeration to be sure; just as it is sure that the fashionable ladies of Europe were little concerned with scandalizing Giovanni or his counterparts. Indeed, one wonders if these ladies weren’t bemused by just how loquaciously these clerics wrote about their bosoms! ”


In 2009 I made my first research trip over to England. I still have my notes and my ponderings and I now wish I had written them up and published them. I had a little knowledge of the undergarments of the Roman to 1600’s period, and being a big busted large woman myself, constantly wondered about the un-natural support needed pre-modern bra period.

There was breast binding and a form of Bra as discussed below in different texts of the period:

“If her breasts are too heavy, she should take a coverchief or cloth to bind them against her chest and wrap it right around her ribs, securing it with needle and thread or by a knot; this allows her to be active at her play”. P10 Illuminating fashion. (taken from the Romance of the Rose, begun by Guillaume de Lorris in the early 13th century and completed by Jean de Meun’s towards the end of 1200’s) p10 Illuminating Fashion.

In the “Poem by Eustache Deschamps (1340-1406) with the refrain “Lady let the teats have mercy” he complains that women are no longer binding their breasts under a single cloth (as was recommended by the Old Woman in the Romance of the Rose), but placing them separately in pockets in their smocks held up by knotted cords. “P12 Illuminating Fashion.

Stays are visually evident in the portraiture of certain countries generically from around the 1530’s onwards, as stiff fronts with small soft cupped stays such as the later Queen Elizabeth effigy stays show us.

As said before the clear ’round shape’ of the bust and some kind of support (cut of dress / ‘bra’ / breast binding) was evident in most paintings pre and post stay. Paintings that do not have a stiff front but show breasts high and a certain amount of cleavage, are scattered throughout French and Italian manuscripts of the 1300’s and 1400’s and in the 1500’s there are no end of stiff fronted with small bumped dresses in most countries.

I surmised back in 2009 that maybe there was some kind of ‘bra’ under the garments, after all, where is the evolution of the idea of stays? Suddenly there is a hard fronted, soft cupped undergarment – but why? and was it the dress style that called for it, or the evolution of the undergarment and the restriction of the waist that shaped the outer garment?

When they made the Bra findings known, I slapped my forehead, rolled my eyes and sighed. The logical progression was right there! Something I had hypothesised and pondered on, now knowing it was an actual reality, made me feel like I may actually be right about other musings, as I am usually prone to convincing myself I am wrong etc.

While my pattern can be worn without ‘breast bags’, it does give that extra bit of lift and support that you would expect. The pictures of the bath attendants seem to quite clearly resemble the look that my bodice pattern achieves – which was also something for me to ponder.

Both types of undergarments have now been patterned for two of my friends and tired with success. The instructions for my interpretation of the Lengberg bra find, and the bath attendant ‘chemise’ can be found on the main menu.

The key points in how my supportive bodice pattern works:

The pattern requires 2 layers of linen at a minimum to support. The tension and movement is shared equally all over giving maximum flexibility in the bodice around the chest. However, the way it maintains its full support and shape is the small arm holes and tight lacing at the sides, and without this the pattern does not work, I learnt this the hard way…

The pattern was not created by simply taking in the front and the back curve which other people have suggested over the years, I have personally never found that this gives flexibility of movement. Mine instead was made by carefully manipulating the material and then re-cutting the pattern.

I could see how a ‘bra’ under the supportive bust would help in weight fluctuations (i.e. the bodice itself wouldn’t have to be so tight) as the pattern does give some flexibility, but would have more if supported by an undergarment (not just the chemise).

The blue dress that I made as the experiment was made when I weighed roughly 100kg, it was able to still be worn – with some damage to the underarm area, some unflattering back rolls and the lacing mostly undone at the sides when my weight rose to around 110kg.  I had no time to make new clothing – so the answer was to wear my red wool snowball dress over the blue only, or add the front lacing grey/blue dress over the top until I was able to lose weight.

One of the problems I face is I have a Chronic illness called Chrons disease. My weight and my absorption of all things from Iron to water is affected by this. In a lot of ways having to cope with this in the context of historical costuming is an interesting study into real life in a garment. If i am putting on weight and fluctuating, it lets me see how my garb functions in a range of ways as I am positive that 500-800 years ago, they also fluctuated and didn’t have the time or money to quickly make a new dress every time they did.

The repairs that I have done to my underarms worked, and if I had needed to, I would have patched them leading to another lot of thoughts around patching and piecing on extant garments etc.

Around the neckline and on the side seams there is tabby woven silk ribbon, as the extant examples show us, and there are eyelet holes on the side seam as seen in some Italian paintings of the time. These eyelet holes change in number depending on the waist length of the wearer.

I have now shared the pattern  with over 30 people of all different sizes, and fitted all but four of them into the pattern myself, and copies have been taken and shared with people beyond me by those that already have a copy. The way to get the correct fit when re-sizing it lays in the front and back seam, side seams, shoulder seam, arm scyth and waist length of the person. Pretty obvious I know, but in most people it is simply one of two of these points that needs adjustment, but it is absolutely necessary that the arm scyth is correct so that the ‘side boob’ does not happen and that the pattern sits flat to the breast without a gape appearing. Tension and correct fit can be achieved by adjusting the centre top back – this can pull in the gaping at the side front chest area and can be shaped slightly to the sway of the back. The shoulder seam adjustment also helps in this.

Common Issues and Myths:

The common issues and myths associated with the ‘anti-gravity’ dress are:

A) Take a normal bodice, pinch it in in the front and back seam under the bust and where the curve in someone’s back is and this will support the bust.

B) The neckline at the back needs to be high, otherwise it won’t work.

C)The arms need to be really tight because that’s how it supports the look of the sleeves

D) It doesn’t matter if you can’t move your arms, bend down, or lift – restricted movement is fine as long as it looks right- as nobility didn’t need to do anything anyway.

E) There needs to be stiffening or boning or stays for it to work, you can’t support the bust any other way

My answers to these are:

A) This doesn’t work for me. The restricted movement that comes from purely taking int he front and the back is too hard if I want to move my arms back and forward to perform all the tasks I need to perform. The material doesn’t give it the right way across my chest if all I have done is take some of it away.

B) If your garment has a high neckline in the portrait then great. But if it doesn’t, then logically to me, that indicates that, it is not patterned and is not working the way it should if you need a high back to support the shape and movement of the garment when it is a low neckline in the portrait.

It is here that I would like to point out that there is no better back or front ‘height’ with this pattern. I have had people come up to me and blatantly tell me that I have achieved the look by having a certain height to my neckline, to which I then show them the varying time period necklines pointing out differences that can be achieved with the same pattern.

C) The arms do look tight on some of the paintings (French / Tudor gown), but they are not tight in other time periods / countries (The Duc de Berry book of hours, and the Tacuinum Sanitas ) and are not restrictive. They can be tight, but they still need to be able to move, swing, bend and work in order for even nobility to drink/eat and do necessary everyday activities.

D) Which brings me onto the next one, similar to the last.  It does matter if you can’t move/lift and bend etc. Even if you are nobility. The Queen still needed to move and in some time periods – defend her holdings. There needed to be enough movement to toilet, sew and to lift food and drink to their mouths at least. If they were then be-questing their dresses etc to those ladies in waiting in favour at the time, they needed to be able to do all the things necessary for the Queen that is expected of you, so how, if the Queen couldn’t move in the garment, would the lady in waiting then move?

E) There should be stiffening and boning where they belong and no where else in my opinion. The round busts and curves that the painting show have no lines etc that suggest any of those things in early period. The replicated look from the Duc de berry’s book of hours (1416) and my friend Genevra’s outfit from the 1490’s portraiture, and my 1530’s Pink Italian dress show this clearly.


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