1516 German Red ‘Holbein’ Rock

An early 16th century middle class German gown in red wool, based on the portrait of Dorothea Meyer by Hans Holbein the Younger.

In 1996, I went to Europe and returned inspired to upgrade my 16th century German middle class wardrobe, based on art from the time – not on redrawn images from costume books. This was one of the first gowns I made following that trip (the picture below is a later version of the same outfit).

Wool, cotton velveteen, canvas, linen lining, gold plated buttons

Research and design

Holbein’s portrait of Dorothea Meyer is rightly iconic, and I decided to copy the painting as closely as I could, to learn more about how middle class clothing was made and worn.

The Holbein portrait shows a woman wearing a front-opening red gown, probably wool, with black bodice guarding embellished with 6 openwork gold mounts or brooches. The sleeves are slim, with long black cuffs. The smocked Hemd is gathered into an embroidered band, and applied cords with loose ends.

Although the portrait was made in 1516, the style is more in line with the previous decade. The portrait of Agnes Breu from 1500-1505 shows a simpler Rock with some similar features – the rounded neckline, embellished velvet guards and slim sleeves.

Although you cannot see the waist or the skirt, I assumed a moderately full skirt pleated onto the bodice, and a narrow black guard at the hem, in line with other contemporary middle class images.

I had found some medium weight wool in a twill weave, going very cheaply, so I bought 10m each of red and black. I washed it well before cutting, in case of shrinkage.


The bodice is not straightforward – the sleeves are right on the point of the shoulder, but not quite falling off. I tried several approaches, but could not get this look using a shoulder strap, so I changed tack and used a modified raglan cut. A fairly high curved back also helps avoid the falling sleeves issue. I had not yet learned how important the rotates sleeve seam is, so this has an underarm seam.

The skirt pattern uses 3 drops of the wide wool, cut as arcs, to give a hem length of 4.5m. The total top edge is 3x my waist measure.

I cut the bodice from the wool and also from a heavy twill cotton canvas, to avoid and possible stretch. I basted the pieces together, then sewed the slanted shoulder seams. I checked my guarding pattern, cut it from black velveteen and basted it around the neck and front. Then I sewed up the underam/side seam.

The bodice lining was cut to the sane pattern in black linen. I sewed it up and bag-lined it, sewing around the neck and front, then under-stitching the neck curve to reduce lining creep. I turned it out, measured the guarding width, turned under the edges and sewed them down, then turned up the bottom hem and sewed down the lining.

I made a cuff in black velveteen, sewed this to the sleeve and finished off the sleeve lining.

The skirt was a simple affair. I sewed the side seams, trimmed the hem into a nice curve, then used this to pattern the hem guarding. I sewed on the hem guard and lined the hem with linen The top of the skirt was lined and cartridge pleated onto the finished bodice, leaving a front slit for access.

To close the bodice, I added a pair of lacing strips inside to take the strain, and a row if hooks and eyes along the front edge for a neat finish. I had found some huge openwork gold(ish) buttons for ornaments. I bit of work with pliers and files, and I could sew them on to the front guards.

Now short on time, I made a gathered Hemd (smock) with applied braid stripes, to mimic the effect of the portrait, and a Steuchlein (headdress) in cream with gold threads over a linen Haub.

I was very pleased with this outfit – perfect for cooler days. I wore it for many years, but have few pictures.


These days, I would use different techniques for making the bodice, but it was a great gown for the time.

I’m still not sure about the raglan cut. I have no evidence for it, but have not been able to replicate the off-shoulder look with a standard bodice cut.

I changed shape and this Rock sat in my wardrobe, along with the others from this time. I missed wearing it, so in 2017 I remade the Rock, re-using the skirt but making a new bodice. Lucky I still had some of the red wool!

I still used the raglan shoulders, but raised the neckline and made a new sleeve pattern with a rotated seam – much better. And I did finally make the smocked Hemd to go with it…