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Skirting the Issue: How to Draft Skirt Patterns

So, at the two extremes of skirt patterning, we have the rectangular skirt pattern which puts just as much fabric at the waist as at the hem, and we have the circle skirt with its huge hem and wasteful cut. This is where the hybrid, the conic segment skirt pattern, comes in.  It’s nothing new.  You’ve probably heard it called by its more familiar name: the gored skirt.

Madonna and Child, Jean Fouquet, c. 1452-5
Jean Fouquet's Madonna and Child (c.1450), depicting Anges Sorel in contemporary dress.

Gores themselves show up way back in time.  Jean Fouquet’s Madonna, painted c.1450 using Agnès Sorel as a model, very clearly shows a shaping seam over the left breast that continues down past the waist into where the skirt increases in fullness, quite similar to a modern princess seam. (Sorel was the official mistress of King Charles VII of France. She was quite the fashion figure of her time, although a rather ironic choice for the subject of the painting.) Many of the gowns and some tunics from the Herjolfsnes colony in Greenland, abandoned in the late 1300s or very early 1400s, show gored skirt panels and/or triangular insets for shaping. (Particularly items 37, 38, 39, 41, 42, 43, 45, and 63. Much gratitude to Marc Carlson’s page on the topic.)  Likewise, the Moy Gown (age a matter of some discussion) uses triangular insets at the sides and the center front/back of the skirts to achieve a gore-like effect.

In all of these cases, the main of the garment is constructed in panes that begin at the shoulder and continue, uninterrupted, to the hem.  Additional panels may be set in at or slightly below waist level, but there’s no waist seam. And then, out of the blue, something magical appears:

Detail of the "Banquet de Herodes", Pedro Garcia de Benabarre
The waist seam appears in contemporary art. “Banquet de Herodes”, Retable de san Juan, c.1470, Pere Garcia de Benvarre

You’ve probably seen this image before. It’s the one everyone uses when they talk about the first appearance of the spanish farthingale, or vertugado, in the later fifteenth century. There’s more on that in another post, and this time, it’s not really what we’re interested in. We’re interested in the join between the bodice and the skirts. Instead of the smooth line of shoulder-to-hem gores seen previously, we have the abrupt transition between a tightly fitted body and a large, artificially supported skirt.  This is particularly visible on lady in waiting in the red dress, where the artist appears to have added fine black outlines to differentiate her from the other lady in waiting in a red dress directly behind her.  One of these black lines encircles her waist.

This is where I totally geek out, because the presence of a waist indicates a totally different approach to shaping clothing to fit the human body. See, European fashion went through round abouts a thousand years of shapelessness (ie, the Dark Ages, when the body was a tool of the devil, and having one was something of a spiritual conundrum).  Somewhere in the twelve or thirteen hundreds, the notion of wanting to look like something other than a sack of potatoes, or the more risque belted sack of potatoes, started to catch on.  When you look at the pieces of the Herjolfsnes gowns or the shaping seams on Fouquet’s Madonna, you see that yes, indeed, the garments have been shaped to the body beneath them. If you take a good, close look at the piecing on the Herjolfsnes gowns, there’s a lot of detail in the shaping. The pieces are incredibly subtle, with areas of slight curve in the seams near the hips and through the torso. That could be dismissed as some sort of lack of skill on the part of the cutter or seamstress, but to me, the shapes look very much like what I’d expect from a pattern that was draped on a form.  I suspect that, through the torso, these garments were fitted to individual wearers. The T-tunic of the dark ages became the fitted gowns of the high medieval era via an approach that boils down to the classic “then remove everything that’s not an elephant” school of sculpture – it’s more of a method than a pattern. Draped patterns are like that – they work closely with the form, rather than trying to quantify or idealize it.

But that all changes in the blink of an historical eye. The shapes we see on the ladies in Benvarre’s Banquet are very different to what’s come before.  They’re geometric. They’re conic in the skirt and torso. Tailors have taken the older shapes of high fashion, like the incredibly fitted panels of Fouquet’s Madonna, and thought about new ways to make the same sort of fit with fewer seams. They started imagining ways to idealize the human form with cloth and osiers and lacings. Suddenly patterns don’t depend on the body; the body depends on the patterns. And that is the very incredible point in the history of European clothing where pattern-making really becomes an art in its own right.

Why the change in cut? Well, the official answer runs something along the lines of “changes in the popular fashion”. I don’t believe fashion just happens. Styles tend to change in response to specific social pressures and/or technological advances.  The appearance of both the farthingale and the waist seam happens round about the same time as the major boom in in exports from the Italian silk industry. I’ve heard the theory before that farthingales were originally designed to show off amazingly expensive brocaded silks. Separating the skirts from the bodice allows both the skirt and bodice to be cut with far fewer seams, thus fewer interruptions in the pattern of the brocade. (A gored skirt can be made with as few as two seams, whereas the gowns from Herjolfsnes contained up to ten panels – that’s a lot of seaming!)

Next: I Stop Blithering and Get Drafting….

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  1. Denise
    Denise October 1, 2010

    Wonderful tutorial! It explains so much to me! Such as: why the skirt on my first Irish dress, while simple to make with its rectangle skirt panel, look awful when I wore it!

  2. Denise
    Denise October 1, 2010

    Thank you! Thank you!

  3. missa
    missa October 1, 2010

    You’re welcome! I’m glad it helped. :) Check back in the next couple of days – I’m working on an ebook on the specifics of drafting gores. It will include info on controlling fullness at the waist and hem, and how to draft gores to match specific angles. (Just in case anyone is trying to reproduce that darned Alcega farthingale…)

  4. Irmgard
    Irmgard October 5, 2010

    omg, I think my brain just exploded from the brilliance of this post! (actually, it first exploded when I read that (paraphrasing) gored skirts were wasteful of fabric. um, whut? you get a LOT more bang for your buck with gores! :)

    Thank you for yet another incredibly fabulous tutorial!!!!

    (I will say, though that I think there *are* some examples of rectangular skirts later period, but that they appear to have *way* more than 2 or even 3 times the hip measurement… especially mid-16th c German dresses…)

  5. missa
    missa October 5, 2010

    Thanks, Irmgard – you’re totally right. There are regions and eras that do go back to the rectangular cut. (The Pompadour styles are my fav example. There are gored examples, but the height of the era makes amazing use of rectangle skirts and an extremely sophisticated bodice cut to make that back-that-flows-from-the-shoulders look work.) I think it’s fair to say that no one in the 1500s too advantage of the gore for a totally smooth, controlled skirt like the Spanish. The rest of Europe started to put far more fabric into the tops of their gores.
    I’m so glad you enjoyed the article! :) (ps – I think the notion that gores are wastful comes from modern cutting plans, were we waste fabric to avoid extra seaming. We forget that aesthetics have changed over time!)

  6. Anna-Carin
    Anna-Carin October 9, 2010

    Am I right in assuming that when you use the square root in calculating the waist radius, you start out with the crosscut area of the waist, as supposed to the more frequently used waist circumference? ;-)

    I’ve followed your site for some years, and I really enjoy your writing style – and being prone to perfectionism, I appreciate your healthy attitude to research vs cutting corners! Can relate to the sewing/programmer background too. I love the idea of historical style clothing, though unfortunately I can’t see a place for it in my life at the moment. I based gowns for my wedding and MSc degree ceremony on designs in Patterns of Fashion 2, and they really made me feel very special!

  7. missa
    missa October 9, 2010

    Hi, Anna – You’re correct, and I’m all wrong – I really meant to use the circumference formula instead of the area formula. Yipes! Thanks for the great catch. I’ve corrected it in the post. You know the really silly part? I have pictures of both my calculator and my notes showing that I was doing the circumference formula. (I double-checked, because the base of the neck of the bottle is a hair larger than the top, and I wanted to make sure I had a good number.) I think I just really like square roots…
    Thank you!

  8. pip
    pip September 15, 2013

    This post is just wonderful. I found your site when researching patterning and I am so glad I did! I appreciate the passion you have for the art of clothing and the evolution of fashion aesthetic. I hope your web store will be up soon so I can check out your e-books.

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