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 inEurope.  With the of influence trade blossoming and becoming regular throughout Europe, it is little wonder that fashion did the same.  Times changed and so did women’s roles and ideas of dress.  While the Florentine style of dress in one form or another has survived centuries and spread throughout the world, the saia, and a desire to have a more fitted garment which was more masculine rushed through Europe like wildfire from 1550, with a real emphasis from 1580-1610.  This dress possibly changed from being a over-partlet to more of a short coat.  This short coat then went to the waist  and was straight round the ribcage.  Then around 1550, the doublet part seemed to have developed a front point.  This could be due to the evolution of the structured under garment moving from a fitted, roped or boned kirtle to a separate corset.  This corset design, primarily to firm one up, feels more comfortable when the front point is extended past the stomach. 


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.


The saia in Italy seems to be more of a doublet style over dress, left open from the neck to the top of the chest, to the bellybutton or left open.  Most show open to the chest, then fastened to the doublet tip at the hips.  This offers the best line and from trial and error, the most comfortable fit.  The biggest misunderstanding I am finding is the notion of the saia and a ropa being the same thing.  The saia was traditionally the garment that was fitted like a doublet, in fact was most often a doublet with an attached skirt, and a ropa is a loose fitting flowing robe.  Any fitting may be from the shoulders or a yolk in the back (Arnold) it is in no means a fitted garment.  BUT, you can wear a ropa over a saia for added warmth if needed.  Then it would be like a winter coat over a suit coat.


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 Europe and is fabulous in its versatility.  Take for instance extant garments have been found made of silk velvet, brocade, and other rich materials.  Those are the ones that just have survived due to either being buried in them, or that someone thought they were cool and should be preserved.  These were not the only materials that they could be made of.  Portraiture shows many different materials used, including fur for lining or trim, velvet (lower pile), silk, brocade, satin, wool and even linen.  Truly a versatile garment which could be worn when hot or cold, fancy or plain, Sunday or hanging around the house.  And colours, from black to pink to white to gold to purple to orange to yellow to blue to green and the most favored…red (even if it was just a lining).  Fabric weight would be from stiff to flowing, medium to heavyweight.  Stiffness or interlining would be necessary in the doublet to prevent sagging or puckering under the tension, and one would have a lining to facilitate movement of the layers and prevent fabric rub.


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.