Versatility of the 16th Century
overdress - the saia
In order to study the progression of
the saia, one must understand the impact of this garment in
Studying the overdress called in Italian saia there is variation and flexibility of this garment. It was worn at home, out of doors, to church and good enough for a portrait. Now you wonder, why one would consider if a garment is good enough for a portrait. Mind you, you are paying this painter a large sum of money (in those days and today) to paint you. Would you choose just any outfit, or would it be your best outfit? From having to do this choice myself, it is clear that a lad y would have chosen her ultimate best outfit for a painting to hang on the wall. She’d want all of her jewelry, the pearls, her hair done up as beautifully as possible, and of course trinkets. (dogs, books, gloves, etc) Of course there are also the paintings done by painters of their families at home. In perhaps the most relaxed state of dress.
Another view would be the “man on the street”. We are lucky in that journals of sketches have been uncovered and show this very thing. The sketches found in the Album Amicorum or friends journal at Los Angeles County Museum of Art and are well worth seeking. They are sketches of people as they walked by. Colours, length of hems, and entourage would show their status as they walked through the streets going somewhere. This is a great representation of general wear for the middle and upper classes. It also shows the diversity of ladies garments as they would have been seen by others. The only other recognized reference of this type is that of Vecillio and his renowned woodcuts, which also have saias.
Alcega in The Tailor’s Pattern Book 1589 has instructions for a saya y sayuelo de seda and a saya de seda para mugger, ysayuelo which is a jerkin with attached skirt. And Janet Arnold in Patterns of Fashion has graphed the gown worn by Pfalzgraffin Dorothea Sabina von Neuburg which clearly show the fitted doublet with skirt attached. One may argue that these were gowns of the rigid Spanish fashion, but truly it could be assumed that this is the same cut for as the Italian saia.
To obtain the correct look, this garment must be layered. Underneath this overdress there are many variations, which leads us to believe that this is an overdress and meant to be worn at most times. When going out, having a portrait done, etc, one might have one of two types of garments as a second layer underneath. A doublet and skirt, or a square necked dress. At home one could wear an overdress, an underskirt, and chemise (for hanging out at home when no one is coming over, NOT worn in public) , or a more casual doublet with less ornamentation as found in the Sacchia portrait of the girls playing chess. One would also have a corset, not heavily boned, but firmed. A chemise, seen or unseen, and a farthingale or corded petticoat (something to keep the skirt off of the feet) would also be worn. Farthingale seemed to be optional depending on the manner worn. (out and fancy – yes, home not necessarily) One could also have a fancy partlet with ruffles inserted underneath the saia, and/or a ruff.
But why study this garment
at all. For the fact that it was a
prevalent garment found throughout
Other variations seen were sleeves. There were long sleeves which were fitted or false decorative, and short sleeves that went to the elbow or ended up somewhere between the elbow and shoulder. These sleeves could be plain, or dressed up in all manners from trim to slashing to pearling, with bands at the bottom or not. The last type of treatment seems to be just a set of tabs or cap sleeve, offering full range of motion from the sleeve below. While I have tried many of the versions of sleeves to saia, my favourite has become the cap or tabbed accent on the overdress armscye.
Lastly the final set of variation would be the one that delineates fancy from plain, special from daily. That would be decoration. Decoration on the saia consisted of trim, metallic bobbin lace, beadwork, embroidery, fur, slashing, decorative treatments of the fabric and fasteners. If trim was applied it would be initially down the front of the saia. More trim would include the V formation from the sleeves and meeting to the doublet point in front and back and trimming of sleeve tabs and sleeves. Embroidery was on the doublet and down the front of the skirt. Fur would be on the inside of the collar, front facings and slashing (MoWA). Slashing was anything from multiple little cuts to large cuts taking up most of the doublet panels. If slashing was done, sleeves were also done, or may be in panes. Voided velvet and brocades were used as decorative accents to the dress. And many varieties of hook and eye made up the fasteners. Anything from a hidden hook and eye on the doublet to fasteners which resembled Chinese frogs has been seen.
The explosion of colours and textures would entice many in the newly formed middle class and the upper class to adopt this style of dress due to its ease of variation. Previous differences of region really melt away as personality and class make the deciding factor on what one wore.