La Betulia Liberata – Costume Diary, A Cranach Gown

14 May

Some time ago, no doubt you know, (and if you don’t, I’ll tell you so) I decided to re-shoot my La Betulia Liberata photo. La Betulia Liberata is Mozart’s operatic setting of the Apocryphal book of Judith. Judith is one of the most popular subjects in the history of art, and has been the center of countless paintings, operas and writings. One of the most famous images of Judith is by the painter Cranach.

Judith Victorious by Cranach

Cranach is famous for his “Cranach Gown”. This is a very specific type of gown that, throughout history, has only ever been seen in his paintings, and is generally the only type of gown that women wear in his entire body of work. Cranach painted dozens of images of Judith, and in every one of his paintings she appears in his Cranach Gown. When I decided to re-shoot my photos, I decided to pay homage to Cranach and design the image based on his famous work of art.

I decided to make a Cranach Gown with a collar, though there are many without collars.

Judith by Lucas Cranach. This is the gown with a collar that inspired the direction I went with my gown.

At first, I wanted to make the garment out of velvet, because this is the fabric that is usually used for Cranach Gowns. However, velvet is difficult to work with, and after some consideration and discussion, I decided to use a Burgundy colored silk instead.  In order to make the gown, I did some research. I received some advice from Dragonfly Designs by Alisa and American Duchess, who provided this list of resources, in case you are interested in making your own Cranach Gown:

Reconstructing History Pattern – A pattern for a Cranach Gown.

Karen’s Sewing Corner -A site with sections dedicated to info about Cranach Gowns.

Elizabethan Costuming Page – A site about Elizabethan Sewing Techniques

Naergi’s Costume Site – A site with a break-down of details from various Cranach Gowns.

After looking up all the images I could find of the final product you get from building the Reconstructing History gown, I decided against using it. The reason for this is because every gown I saw that used the pattern looked a little frumpy. So, I read up on the pattern, and the person who drafted the pattern firmly believes there is not corset or boning in the gown. I disagree. Every image you see of the gown is tailored or fitted, which means there is some sort of structure within the gown.

However, in a fully boned/corseted version made by Sandy Powell for the film “The Other Boleyn Girl”, the garment looks too stiff and rigid — the polar opposite of frumpy.

Sandy Powell’s Cranach style gowns for “The Other Boleyn Girl” on the far left and right.

I have come to believe that there is a split between structure and lack of structure, and to get the effect there must be buckram somewhere in there.

In the end, the historical construction process seemed like it would be too labor intensive and complicated, anyway, so I just decided to wing it.

I grabbed the pattern closest to the effect I wanted, which was Simplicity 2172, and I went to work. My goal isn’t historical authenticity, but rather, to get a cool looking outfit inspired by Cranach.

Simplicity 2172 is the pattern I altered to make my gown.

First, I built the corset to go under the jacket. I used a dark-red/gold damask. I have to warn you that when you follow the directions for this corset pattern, the bottom edge of the corset always ends up bendy and weird. I’ve never been able to get it to lay like it does in the photo on the cover.

My gown started with a base corset made of a pretty upholstery damask. Here it is in pieces.

I wanted the bodice to be beaded as seen in some of Cranach’s paintings. I went to the bead store and found some tear drop shaped beads that catch light from every angle, which is great for photography. I also picked up some regular seed beads.

Here are some of the beads I bought to bead the front of the corset with. The tear-drop shaped beads on the left catch light from every angle, which is why I chose them.

I sewed the beads on while watching the first season of “Legend of the Seeker”, which I quite enjoy. I am not so fond of the second season, because every character dies every single episode, but then they’re suddenly revived at the climax, because… magic! — or something –and it just stops being dramatic when the stakes are cranked up to 11 for every episode. But the first season is good drama all around. An alarming amount of guest stars get killed, though.

Once the bead embroidery was finished, I sewed the corset pieces together.

Next, I started to work on the jacket. I altered the Simplicty pattern quite a bit. I also added trim, which I then beaded. I find trim alone always looks cheap, but when you add things to it, it looks much better! I put a collar on my jacket as well. During this process I watched “The Guild”, which is a comedy internet program that I own on DVD. It is one of my favorites.

Next, I built the bodice/stomacher to go around the corset. I used various colored silks for the fabrics, and leather for the lacing. After I sewed my trim on, I added beads, to give it that extra touch.

When I came to the sleeves, I had a bad case of sewer’s block, and had to take numerous weeks off to consider. I did not want to use the endlessly complicated historical techniques. Then, a friend came over and gave a suggestion. She said to take a pile of fabric, make a tube and slash it on the bias. While this process would have been much easier to explain with pictures, I was too busy figuring it out to take pictures. However, it did work! So, I think this is probably the correct technique. Compare the sleeve detail below to the sleeve detail on the top image of Cranach’s Judith. The only difference is the painting has three rows!

Here you can see the finished gown, which looks more tailored than most Cranach style gowns, which was the effect I was going for. I also include a close up of the slashed sleeves.

I decided to leave the top slashes larger than the elbow slashes.

Here is an image of the finished bodice all put together, including the necklace that will be featured in the shoot.

So, that’s that.

If you would like to see dozens of paintings of Judith by Cranach, visit the Blog Judith2You, which features an endless supply of art based on the subject of Judith.

See you all later!


8 Responses to “La Betulia Liberata – Costume Diary, A Cranach Gown”

  1. Ela Very-Faery May 14, 2012 at 7:36 pm #


    your gown turned out really nice! However, I just wanted to say the RH pattern isn’t so bad after all. My friend made her gown using this pattern: 🙂

    • tysonvick May 14, 2012 at 8:04 pm #

      That gown looks very nice! Thanks for sharing! I read a discussion about how the Cranach Gown was only meant to be worn by smaller women, but I still think the thing has an inner structure — That’s if the gown is a real thing at all… because I also read a discussion about how the gown might have just been straight out of Cranach’s imagination! That would explain most accurately why it’s so hard to make!

  2. tanyasewsTanya March 5, 2013 at 1:19 am #

    Maybe if u used spiral steel boning it would look more natural? I noticed the sloppy look as well.Its funny because I have that same Victorian pattern hanging on my “ta do” wall next to the Cranach reconstructing history
    I love your rendition.Cranach with a twist! I bought some dark green velvet for mine but not too sure I like it ,it’s kinda cotton velvet like…hmm not what I thought it was going to be but its my first go at the gown so I’ll use it.Im looking for the upper bust piece & guard fabric.Another thing is Im the same way about trim! I like to add beads,pearls,gem stones etc to mine?!

  3. littlepixiestitches June 4, 2013 at 4:27 am #

    Your gown is beautiful! I should love to make my own someday but I’m afraid I got lost after your corset photos and would have to pester you with questions since I’m learning as I go along ^^;

    Is the white stomacher sewn to the corset?
    Are the jack and skirt portions sewn together or are they separate?

    I have thought about using the Reconstructing history pattern, but I’ve only been able to find one completed picture of it and the link one of your commenters provided didn’t work.

    If you don’t want to reveal your secrets, thts fine. I’ll figure it out with trial and error when I get round to it teehee

    • tysonvick June 4, 2013 at 12:28 pm #

      Hello! I did sew the white stomacher to the jacket, and the skirt to the jacket. I did not sew the stomacher to the corset, though I think if I did it again, I might attach the bodice part to the jacket as well, but I don’t know.

      Burda also makes a cranach gown pattern, if you’d like to look and see if it is correct, or if you could adapt it to your needs.

  4. judith2you February 11, 2015 at 1:34 am #

    I’m late to the party but thanks for mentioning me! I just came upon your winning photo of Judith and am so excited to add it to my blog. It is stunning and you deserve the recognition.

    • tysonvick February 13, 2015 at 10:03 pm #

      Nice to hear from you again! I have a whole series on Judith for this book! I would be glad to share them all with you if you are interested! There’s one before she heads out, and one when she returns taken like portraits, then there’s one of the prince who defies Holofernes, and a big cinematic one where Judith is holding up the severed head!


  1. Judith goes for the throat | judith2you - February 16, 2015

    […] Lucas Cranach the Elder – is exquisite.  The construction of this luscious gown is detailed here, with lively commentary by Vick – who loves to indulge in one of my favorite things:  sewing […]

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