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Venetian Costumes

( Originally Published 1928 )



VARIOUS authorities (Charles Knight among them) set 1581 as the date for the action of "The Merchant of Venice." Cortez, a Spaniard, conquered Mexico in 1520 and Shylock speaks of his argosy sailing from this country, with which Antonio traded— "He hath a third at Mexico." The play was written in 1598.

Vecellio, a brother of Titian, wrote a book in 1589 dealing with Venetian costume ; this is recommended for all plays about the Venice of Shakespeare. Abbey, the American artist, illustrated "The Merchant of Venice." His costumes are free from the stiff lines of the times, and, by means of artistic license discreetly applied, make for more attractive stage pictures.

Venice was a law unto itself in the matter of fashion, the ruff, save a very small one, being practically eliminated and the breeches without bombast. Vecellio says that through the slashes in the latter, which were cut in the form of stars and crosses, could be seen the lining of colored taffeta. Abbey dresses his Bassanio merely in a satin doublet like the old cote-hardie and full length silken tights with leather soles.

Very young lovers wore velvet caps, silk cloaks, stockings and Spanish morocco shoes, and carried a flower in one hand with gloves and a handkerchief in the other. At the age of twenty they put on a long gown with wide sleeves called a comito.

The Doge on days sacred to the Holy Virgin was dressed all in white with an ermine cape reaching to the waist. His cap, shaped like the Phrygian, always corresponded in color to that of his robe, which varied, ac-cording to the occasion, from cloth of gold or silver to crimson velvet.

Chiefs of the Council of Ten and Magistrates of Venice wore gowns of red cloth, camlet or damask, with long sleeves turned back over the wrist like those of the houppelande, and a long flap of the same material laid over the left shoulder. Stockings and slippers corresponded in color.

The Ten were robed entirely in black, save for a tiny falling band of white, one inch in width, about the neck. Very long and wide-sleeved gowns were worn over the doublet and hose. A flap of taffeta crossed the left shoulder; the cap was of felt and brimless.

A doctor of laws, according to Vecellio, always dressed in black damask cloth, velvet or silk with a sash of silk, the end hanging down to the middle of the leg. Despite this, Portia usually wears a red gown in the trial scene.

Citizens, doctors, merchants and lawyers ordinarily wore beltless robes of black cloth with ribbons of black moire over the shoulder. The garment was fastened at the neck by a pin of silver or iron. Doublet and breeches were of moire or satin.

The law of Venice required a Jew to wear a yellow bonnet of a tawny shade. There is a story that the color originally was scarlet, but changed after a Jew had been mistaken for a cardinal. However, in England from the days of Richard I, the customary headdress had been a yellow cap. The form of the Venetian cap was identical with that of the black one worn by the Christian merchants. Shakespeare speaks of Shylock's Jewish gaberdine, a garment variously described. For stage use it is often cassocklike in form with long hanging sleeves permitting the doublet-covered arm to pass through a slit at the elbow. The decoration consists of horizontal bars placed the length of the garment, each terminating in a button. With it is worn a sash from which a leather money pouch depends.

Shylock's beard is usually red, for the tale has it that Burbage, often at Kenilworth Castle where his father was stationed, saw and copied the tawny beard of Dr. Lopez, Elizabeth's Jewish physician, when creating Shy-lock.

An Italian doublet was always cut running to a low point in front. Striped material placed to run in circles, a touch typically Venetian, formed the tight forearm sleeves. For his gallants, Abbey uses the one-armed drape, which always allows of many graceful curves.

The hair of young men was cut round with curled ends, the bang being frizzed. It has been described in a play of the period as looking like "a half moon in a mist."

For women, Abbey makes use of the simarre. The varied sleeves admit of puffing and slashing at shoulder and elbow. When wing sleeves are used the inner tight-fitting one is often striped horizontally; these accompanying round, full skirts opening in front to show a petticoat worn with or without the farthingale.

Cauls of gold and pearls decorated the hair. Long veils of transparent silk reaching to the ground were of white for young girls, yellow for Jewish women, and of black for wives and widows. This last color was seized upon by courtesans in imitation of those respectable women. However, it is said that the chopines, shoes with cork soles twelve inches high or more and fashion-able in Constantinople, were first worn in Venice by these ladies. The craze for them died out in Venice in 167o, spreading later all over Europe, even to England.

Vecellio says that besides their yellow veils the Jewesses were heavily painted ; otherwise their costume corresponded to that of the Christian women.

The flag-shaped fan was Venetian. In Venice as well as in other Italian cities, very high flaring collars of lace were worn on dresses, and of a self-material on cloaks. These stood up across the shoulders with the center portion bent forward and caught down on the head in a fashion resembling the Mary Stuart cap. The portrait of Marie de' Medici by Rubens in the Prado, Madrid, offers a striking example of this style; the high black collar on the cloak is arched over a widespread wired one of white.

The Council of Ten wore masks. A fad for these disguises spread among the citizens. Worn with dominoes which were of all materials and colors, wide-sleeved and with hooded shoulder cape, the wearer could mingle in the wildest parties without fear of recognition.

Venetian lace enriched with gold and silver has always been of great beauty.

Both "Othello" and "Twelfth Night" are located in Venice at this period. "The Taming of the Shrew" calls for Italian costuming of Shakespeare's time. Katherine usually wears a farthingale and virago sleeves. Ada Rehan used a caul on her bobbed wig.



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