A late 15th century headdress for a noble Italian lady.
I made this for my friend Isabella, to go with her new late 15th century Italian gown. The challenge here was to find a suitable headdress that would work with Isabella’s short curly hair.
Research and Design
Most noble ladies of the time wore their hair dressed with jewels, or with fine veils attached to plaited and taped hair. However, there are examples of ladies wearing a reta – a rich net – often held on with a ribbon around the forehead.
The main inspiration for this piece was the Portrait of a Lady by Ambrogio de Predis, which shows a headdress of square net, with an edging of pearls and a decorated headband.
In some cases, the net is attached to a decorative braid casing, similar to the tranzado which was in fashion in Spain at the time (Anderson 1979). The similar Italian term Trinzale refers to a fine cloth covering the hair and sometimes the braid (Herald 1981).
In the Ambrogio portrait, the hair is braided up at the back of the head, with no plait hanging down. The Carpaccio fresco above shows an image of St Ursula wearing a Reta without braid casing, as a scuffia (coif).
Some examples show an open net, while others have the net mounted on transparent fabric. This latter approach would work well to disguise Isabella’s short hair.
I did not have much time for this project, so my supplies came from stash – fine gold silk organza, velvet ribbon, artificial pearls and some buttons which could be used as jewels.
First step was to pattern the coif. I padded up the headform to the right size, then made a mockup in scrap fabric. The front of the coif is further forward than the painting, to cover more curls. I tested out the net spacing, starting with a line to cover the seam. Closer spacing with finer ribbon would have been better, but I was working with what I had on hand.
I cut out the gold organza and machine sewed the back seam, then felled it, and sewed a fine hem around the edge. I basted on the ribbon network, then hand sewed it to the gold and added gold beads to the intersections. I couched a line of pearls along the edge, leaving space for the forehead ribbon to pass.
I cut the loops off the ‘jewel’ buttons and sewed them to the forehead ribbon, then made pearl drops to hang from each one. I sewed the forehead ribbon in place on one side, so it could be adjusted with the tie.
Isabella liked the headdress – and how it worked with her hair. (And yes, it would sit better if the forehead ribbon was worn lower – ah well).
I think it would be fun to make this headdress again, but using silk thread and knotting the net, as many of the portraits show.