Undergarments for an unusual northern Italian beekeeper’s outfit, ca. 1460
As a beekeeper, I have been thinking about making a period bee suit for quite a while. This page describes the start of this journey, beginning with (and inspired by) a surprisingly atypical illustration of beekeepers, and how I began looking into the details of that image, through the current point of creating two appropriate undergarments – a (man’s) camicia and a (woman’s) pair of calzoni femminili.
This is the first time I ever took an online image and tried to find out where it came from, who painted it, when and why, and whether it is likely to show a realistic representation of a period activity (or clothing), as well as how one might re-create such an outfit.
In the end, I read a whole lot, thought about what would actually work best with real bees, and made a lot of ‘best guesses’ of what I think the beekeepers in the image are wearing, including all of the layers and accessories.
Bee suit search – ‘normal’ suits
Beekeeping was a normal part of medieval farming. Some period beekeepers are wearing what looks like ordinary clothing. This could be a preference, or maybe they couldn’t afford specialized clothing. Modernly, some beekeepers also choose not to wear highly protective suits, and depending on the season, weather, and the temperament and activity of the bees, protective gear may not be needed.
There are definitely times that I would like more protection, and it seems that at least some medieval beekeepers felt the same way. Some images show beekeepers wearing hoods, and several have what looks like a woven wicker disc attached to guard the face opening. The best-known image of period beekeepers is the eerie Pieter Breugel drawing ‘The Bee-Keepers and the Bird-Nester‘, 1568.
Bee suit search – this image
This image was on Pinterest with very limited information (Bodl. Rawl. G9). After some searching, I found that the image was originally scanned and posted on the Digital Bodleian website (Oxford, Bodleian Library MS. Rawl. G. 98:, n.d.). It is described as being a part of Virgil’s Georgics, and as folio 049 verso.
The page containing the image of beekeepers is part of a collection of separate pages from other manuscripts. Happily, there were several associated images that appear to be part of the same original manuscript, which together provide a lot more visual clothing details. On the Bodleian website, the fragments are attributed to the ‘Master of the Vitae Imperatorum’, with a location of Milan and a date of the mid-fifteenth century. I was not able to find out much more about the artist, unfortunately.
I located an English translation of the Georgics on Project Gutenberg (Virgil, 2008), and also read more about the author and context on Wikipedia. They were written after a period of Roman civil wars during which many farmers had been disenfranchised. The Georgics are a long poetic narrative in multiple sections romanticizing farming activities, including beekeeping, as part of a campaign appealing for the restoration of land to farmers (Virgil’s Georgics (Wikipedia), n.d.).
From reading the sections of the poem about bees, though, I can attest that the poem contains both extremely accurate representations of many things, and some sections that are pure fantasy – such as the idea that a new swarm of bees can be generated from the blood/body of a dead bull. The (medieval) images accompanying the Latin text may be somewhat romanticized, but don’t seem to be mythological or allegorical, and also contain many small details (like the burning material held by one of the beekeepers) suggesting that the artist observed them in everyday life.
What is going on with that suit (and why?)
The two beekeepers are each wearing a white overgarment with an attached (or separate?) hood and separate gloves or possibly mittens. The garment’s lower parts seem to be somehow wrapped or gathered and secured around the wearer’s upper thighs, over well-fitting hose with black shoes (see above).
Holding institution: Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford. Available for noncommercial use under Creative Commons License CC-BY-NC 4.0
Why is this outfit so different from previous and later versions?
As soon as I figured out the ‘topology’ of the suits, and a possible explanation, it made me laugh and immediately I wanted to make this bee suit instead of a more ordinary style. However, the potential reason for this suit type is not immediately apparent from the image of the beekeepers themselves, but may be inferred from the images of the other figures in the illustrations: my theory is that it may be necessary due to the evolution of hose (calzes) and breeches/braies/braccae/braccia/mutande going on in this place at this time.
Earlier medieval hose were only supported at a single point in the front, so the long braies that were worn with that type of hose could be stuffed all the way down into them to provide fairly good bee protection for tender areas of the anatomy. The earlier style long braies were also made of a lot of fabric, and possibly a fairly coarse fabric for most farmers/laborers, and when combined with a belted tunic, would seem likely to prevent most bees from getting up into tender spots.
However, by 1460, taller joined hose were being worn in many parts of Europe (especially France and Burgundy), but northern Italians were still consistently wearing tall but non-joined hose (calzes) (Embleton et al., n.d.; Malmborg & Schütz, 2018) without a front ‘codpiece’ flap. This is the case in the images from this manuscript, which show nearly all the working men are depicted with pointed flaps hanging down in the back of their hose – clear evidence that the hose are not joined.
Holding institution: Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford. Available for noncommercial use under Creative Commons License CC-BY-NC 4.0
Braies were simultaneously changing, with multiple types shown in images from across Europe. Some of the newer types have no inseam or are even a triangular ‘bikini’ style such as the one found at Lengberg castle (Medieval Lingerie from Lengberg Castle, East-Tyrol, n.d.). Others are constructed with a short inseam of no more than 3-4 inches. There was also a fashion for using very thin (=easy to sting through) linen for the new style braies. One commonality, as seen in this manuscript, is that all the new styles were smaller and tighter and more tailored (=less fabric) and thus worked much better with the taller new hose which must be attached with points at multiple places to the bottom of the farsetto (outer garment). The term ‘mutande‘ is used in northern Italy around this time to describe these new, short braies.
In this manuscript, the mutande worn by the workers appear as if they may have at least a short inseam – see the image of the young cowherd from the same manuscript (below). The shortness (and possibly thinness) of the new mutande combined with the very common issue of the hose being too tight to keep laced up at the back would create a new vulnerable spot for beekeepers to worry about! The two beekeepers above seem to have fixed that issue nicely with their protective arrangement.
Re-creation – where to start?
Identifying all the layers and accessories, aka ‘getting into the weeds’
1. Camicia (visible on others, but not the beekeepers)
- Common white linen garment worn by all to protect good clothing
- Quality of linen would be mid to lightweight, based on paintings
- Men’s camicias were very short at this time, because they were usually tucked into top of calzes (Embleton et al., n.d.)
- Slit at sides, not normally far above hip (about 10″ at most)
- Multiple neckline options: rounded, slit, short collar, ‘fold’ (excess fabric in top front versus top back creating a vertical fold at neck.) Most common in this manuscript is the slit neckline; without a farsetto collar there is no need for a camicia collar to protect it.
- Straight sleeves without band at wrist
- Underarm square gusset (not visible here, but present before and after this time period)
- Rectangular cut or sloped in at shoulders – earlier St. Louis tunic and later Tudor era men’s shirts (Jones, 2004; Arnold et al., 2008) have examples of the inward sloping cut
- No gathers anywhere
- See the cowherd in the image on Folio 034r for an example
2. Braies/mutande (visible on others, not beekeepers)
White linen, on the finer side. They would probably have at least a short inseam as seen on other figures in this manuscript, for tucking into the calzes, and would probably also have an inserted gusset that is normally gathered in the front with a drawstring (Embleton et al., n.d.). The Folio 034r image linked above is a good example for these also.
3. Calzes (visible)
- Bright red or dull brown wool on the beekeepers. Madder was very common at this time, and brown is a natural wool color (Crowfoot et al., 2002, p. 200)
- Likely to be twill, woolen; may be laced over calf
- Probably non-joined, ‘high’, with no codpiece
- Back seam not straight up the back of leg to waist as seen later (Embleton et al., n.d.; Malmborg & Schütz, 2018)
- Full footed hose (not stirrup); shoes with long open vamp show the calzes all the way down the opening
4. Shoes (visible), two variations
- Black leather colored with iron; ankle height (probably single buckle); turnshoe with treadsole and insole construction most likely made of cow or calf leather (Grew and de Neergaard, 2013)
- Same as above, but longer pointed toe, long open vamp – closer to style of earlier ‘poulaines’
5. Farsetto/doublet (visible on other figures, not beekeepers)
- Would be necessary to hold up the (visible) calzes
- Colors: Dark blue, green, brown, rust, etc.
- Material: Wool; interlined, lined with linen
- Laced or buttoned
- Not usually worn sleeveless in this time/place; not worn with a ‘jerkin-type’ underlayer.
- Very full upper sleeve gathered into armscye and into forearm section for mobility
- NO grande assiette or partial detachment of sleeve at armscye
- Lower sleeves are tight from wrist past elbow; not generally slit to show camicia at this time/place; sometimes many fine parallel rows of stitching around forearm.
- One in this manuscript has an extremely small collar, and the rest have none.
- No trim or embroidery on examples in this ms or other contemporary paintings
6. Over-robe/bee suit (visible)
- Rounded and perforated face cover – may be wicker as seen more clearly in other images
- I think the suit is linen for two reasons: 1) for wash-ability, because working on hives is messy, and also 2) because linen is smooth – bees are stimulated to sting by hairiness/fuzziness
- Hood is very rounded and may be separate or attached. It may also have some internal structure. A separate hood would be quicker to take off when you are hot, but it isn’t clear from the picture
- Voluminous skirts are secured around each upper thigh by a rope/strap/etc (not visible, but we can tell by the way the material folds), then the ends are tucked up into an unseen belt
- The way this suit is wrapped is brilliant because not all bees fly; some can only crawl and they tend to crawl upwards until they find a tender spot to sting.
- It’s also good that it’s white because bees prefer light colors; dark colors can make them cranky.
7. Mittens or gloves (visible)
- These, like many in period images, are white. I have heard of the use of tawed (alum treated but untanned) leather for gloves, but have found no documentation yet.
- When my bees are not sweet and mild, I wear goatskin gloves to work on the hives, because they’re tough, thin, and flexible, allowing good finger sensitivity compared to thicker cowhide or deerskin gloves. Deerskin gloves are too stretchy and soft, and don’t hold up well for me. Pigskin was not commonly used (for shoes), but calf or goat are options in this time period (Grew and de Neergaard, 2013).
- It’s hard to see, but the bottom cuff is decoratively scalloped
- In period (earlier and later) we see gloves with all fingers and a thumb, gloves with only two fingers plus a thumb, and mittens. I can’t imaging mittens or two-fingered gloves allowing enough dexterity to work on hives, so even though these look like mittens, I think they may also be normal gloves (with all fingers). Or possibly, one of the figures may be wearing mittens and the other one may be wearing gloves.
No belts are visible, but it appears clear that the bee suit’s skirts are tucked into a belt at the waist. No garters are shown on any of the figures.
While it is sometimes nice to have something under your bee hood to keep the suit away from the top of your head (so the bees can’t sting through thin fabric under tension), or to have something like a coif to wick away sweat when you can’t wipe your face, it can get very hot in a bee suit and whether or not the beekeepers in the image would be wearing either is anyone’s guess. One figure wears a coif in this ms, and a small pillbox type hat was very common in this time and place.
Fabric and thread: I used a light-midweight evenweave bleached linen, 1C64 from Fabrics-store.com. It was a nice weight and sewed very well, and is light to wear, looking very similar to examples in paintings. 100/2 bleached linen thread was used for all seams except as noted. The thread did shrink a bit after the first washing.
Pattern: There is no extant garment from this time/place, but there are many paintings of camicias, including the inspiration manuscript (see the image of the cowherd in particular). I made mine slightly longer, to be more consistent with the majority of other images from mid-fifteenth-century northern Italy. I chose to slope the sides toward the shoulders, to fit over my hips better without making the tops of the sleeves too far out, which can restrict arm mobility. This type of slope is seen in the 13th century St. Louis shirt (Jones, 2004), as well as in men’s Tudor era shirts. (Arnold et al., 2008) The sleeves were cut rectangularly despite my original plan, with no band at wrist. The neck was rounded with a slit. Small square gussets were used under the arms, and there is a slit on each side just to the top of the hip, about 10”, to match with contemporary illustrations. There is no gathering in this simple camicia, and no ties at the neck.
Seams/construction: The camicia was entirely hand-sewn. As can be seen on some Tudor-era shirts, each panel of fabric was individually hemmed with less than 1/4” seams by felling, then the hemmed panels were whip-stitched together to finish the garment (Arnold et al., 2008). The edges of the neck opening and slit were rolled to the inside and finished with a slip-stitch, and a small bar tack was added at the bottom of the slit. I was not happy with the resulting small and slightly rough ridges where the panels were whipped together, so I wetted the camicia and pounded the seams flat with a wooden mallet. The seams came out very smooth, and the garment now moves wonderfully and feels as if it almost has no seams.
Felling stitch Whipping panels together (gusset insertion) Flattened gusset seams
Thoughts: As far as I can tell, it is representative of the time period and place. I used a felling stitch rather than a (slanted) whip stitch for felling as I had done on previous projects, and actually liked it a lot better. It was easier to work, and less likely to catch on fingers, etc. while dressing.
I am delighted with this garment. I have only ever used rectangular construction for tunics and chemises (no inward slope for sides/shoulders) and this (with the slope) fits and looks so very much better. This is also the first time I have used 100% linen fabric and thread, and it was terrific – what a treat to be able to actually finger-press the seams, and have the creases stay put!
Note on shrinkage: After one washing, the untreated linen sewing thread has shrunk noticeably compared to the pre-shrunk linen fabric, so the seams are a tiny bit more puckered than after sewing. Next time I use this thread, which otherwise sews like a dream, I will pre-cut a bunch of lengths and try to pre-shrink in hot water.
Finished camicia; notice the sides slope from opening to shoulder Side opening Neckline Camicia fit
Why make these instead of mutande, or something else?
- Most useful for bee suit to have something with medium length inseam to keep it tucked into the calzes (see article title)
- Did women commonly wear such things at this point in time, in Italy? No definitive proof, and probably not commonly, but…
- See this relatively new article by Andrea Carloni; he visted the fresco of the fountain of youth to get a better look at some of the figures and their various (under)clothing, and reports some research into clothing inventories of a similar time/place, with some interesting hints that female undergarments may not have been quite as uncommon in Italy in the fifteenth century as we may think (Carloni, 2020).
- Eleanor of Toledo apparently had at least one pair in crimson taffeta, ~80+ years later, possibly similar to the lined linen pair in the Prato Museo del Tessuto (Landini & Niccoli, 2005, p. 133). While there is currently debate about whether ‘respectable’ women would wear such things, Eleanor was quite respectable. She dressed elegantly, being influenced by the fashions of Spain, the Hapsburgs, and Florence, yet also saw herself as a role model and remained somewhat conservative in style (Landini & Niccoli, 2005).
- Not interested in making men’s underwear for myself, and my husband won’t ever wear a bee suit 😊
What pattern would be most appropriate for an Italian farmer’s wife in 1460?
Unknown. There are no earlier examples known to have been worn by women; there are three much later extant Italian pairs dating between 1600-1630, of which at least one is thought to have been worn by a woman (Arnold et al., 2008), and several images show Venetian courtesans wearing similar drawers. But since the contemporary men’s mutande pattern (from paintings) with an inseam is probably a similar pattern – usually no seam on outside of leg – and omitting the unnecessary gathered center section, one of the three patterns from Arnold seems fairly appropriate, though the wide waistband with sewn gathers may not be right. I chose to use a more rectangular-cut one with a waistband instead of a drawstring for comfort, #64 (Arnold et al., 2008, pp. 50-51 & 106-107; di Fiore, n.d.). I also did not attach a drawstring or tie at the bottom of the leg since not all extant examples have a tie, and a tie may chafe when worn tucked into calzes.
Shape of single leg pattern Two triangular gussets (right triangles, with one side slightly longer than the other) are attached to each leg, with the hypotenuse (bias) to the straight grain of the leg piece. After attaching the gussets, each leg is sewn up the inseam, stopping after the gussets
Fabric: This pair was made with a light-midweight even-weave bleached linen, 1C64 from Fabrics-store.com. I did not want to have to line them; two of the three extant pairs are unlined and seem to be a similar weight of linen.
Sewing threads: Two of the extant pairs were constructed with silk threads, and embroidered with silk and metallic threads; the other was constructed and embroidered with linen thread (Arnold et al., 2008). I used a blue DMC rayon thread for a silk-like appearance with hopefully better durability for construction, except that the gathering thread was a 100/2 bleached linen and the thread used to secure the gathers to the waistband was a 35/2 unbleached linen. I have used silk threads for a previous project, and don’t think they will hold up to regular washing (or even to my rough hands during sewing!)
Embroidery: I decided not to add any embroidery or lace, first because there are no extant examples this early, second because they are for a farmer or farmer’s wife, and finally because my plan is to wear them tucked into calzes, and lace or embroidery may not hold up to that.
Seams: All sewing is done by hand. The whole garment was constructed with running seams that were felled with a small buttonhole stitch according to the descriptions from Arnold. However, she describes those seams as 1/16th of an inch wide, which was not achievable for me with this weight of linen. I was surprised at the resulting parallel stitches on the outside, which don’t seem to match the photos of the extant items, but the resolution of the photos in Patterns of Fashion 4 is not high enough for those particular seams to see if I am making any mistakes in interpreting the seam details.
Construction: See gallery above. Each of the two leg pieces has two triangular gusset pieces attached with running stitch, then the leg is closed from the bottom of the inseam to the end of the gussets with running stitch. That seam is felled with buttonhole stitch. It definitely gets a little complicated around the gussets! When both legs are done, one is turned right side out and placed inside the other (right sides together), and the crotch seam is sewn with running stitch, then felled with buttonhole stitch. The ‘fly’ edges are double-folded to the inside, hemmed with buttonhole stitch, and are open (like the originals) from the end of the gussets to the top edge, with a small bar tack at the bottom of the opening for reinforcement.
Next, the top edge is gathered, then back-stitched to the waistband, securing each tuck/gather with a single stitch (Gnagy, 2020). That edge is whipped to reduce fraying even though it is enclosed in the waistband. The waistband is folded over and whip-stitched to the body on the outside. An eyelet will be stitched at each end of the waistband, for a finger-loop linen braid. The bottoms of the legs are hemmed with buttonhole stitch, the same as elsewhere. All construction is consistent with the extant garments (with the exception of seam width and any misinterpretation of the buttonhole stitching).
Gathering waist with finer bleached linen thread Backstitched gathers using heavier unbleached linen thread; top edge is whipped to reduce fraying
Finished calzoni femminili
Finished calzoni femminili showing length of front opening Another view of the finished calzoni The ‘intersection of doom’ – two inseams, two front opening hems, four gussets, and the center back seam Calzoni – fit
Next steps & what I would change
After trying on, I have decided to close the calzoni front fly opening up at least halfway, for greater modesty when wearing with the short camicia and un-joined calzes. Men would wear closed-front mutande, so that issue wouldn’t exist in this time period, and in the Tudor era, women would be wearing long skirts and men would have codpieces and/or tucked-in shirts for ‘modesty’.
I would definitely NOT use the DMC rayon thread again (much too slippery), nor the buttonhole stitch (much too slow, and all the decoration winds up on the inside). I would use the same construction and finishing methods used for the camicia for my next pair.
Also, I’ll never prewash linen again with my current unscented/”dye free” laundry detergent. I started seeing blotches while ironing it, and thought it was getting scorched. It was actually the contrast between spots of natural colored linen and the linen stained with the fluorescent purple brightener dye from the detergent, which was unevenly distributed in the washer! It is not actually too noticeable, and hopefully it will even out and disappear with further washing.
Next steps in this project are to make the calzes and farsetto at the same time, since they have to work together. I think I have good patterns worked out, and am just fiddling with the fitting at this point.
- Arnold, J., Tiramani, J., & Levey, S. M. (2008). Patterns of Fashion 4 – The cut and construction of linen shirts, smocks, neckwear; headwear and accessories for men and women c. 1540-1660. Pan Macmillan Ltd.
- Carloni, A. (2020). Mutande femminili nel Medioevo italiano: tracce iconografiche e documentarie. Imago Antiqua Blog Post. https://imagoantiqua.it/mutande-femminili-nel-medioevo-italiano-tracce-iconografiche-e-documentarie-2/
- Crowfoot, E., Pritchard, F., & Staniland, K. (2002). Textiles and Clothing c.1150-c.1450. The Boydell Press.
- di Fiore, M. C. (n.d.). 16th-Century-Italian-Drawers-Tutorial. Retrieved June 4, 2021, from www.kitsclothingcollection.com
- Embleton, G., Howe, J., & Leymeregie, L. (n.d.). The Company of Saynt George Clothing Guide-Men-V. 1.1. Retrieved June 4, 2021, from https://companie-of-st-george.ch/ [Warning: Large file (but worthwhile)]
- Gnagy, M. 2020. The Modern Maker Vol. 3 – Hand Sewing Stitches for Garment Construction.
- Grew, F., & de Neergaard, M. 2013. Shoes and Pattens – Medieval Finds from Excavations in London. Boydell Press.
- Jones, H. R. (2004). Another Look at St. Louis’ Shirt. Blog Post, Heatherrosejones.com. http://heatherrosejones.com/stlouisshirt/index.html
- Landini, R. O., & Niccoli, B. (2005). Moda a Firenze 1540-1580 – Lo stile di Eleonora di Toledo e la sua influenza. Polistampa.
- Magdalena Alberti, M. G. (2016). Italian Renaissance Fashion 1300-1500. La Bella Donna Blog. https://fleurtyherald.wordpress.com/2016/04/18/sartoria-storica-historical-tailoring/
- Malmborg, A., & Schütz, W. (2018). A Handbook for Men’s Clothing of the Late 15th Century – Historical Clothing From the Inside Out (H. Tunberg & H. Alm, Eds.). ChronoCopia Publishing AB.
- Medieval lingerie from Lengberg Castle, East-Tyrol. (n.d.). Universitat Innsbruck. Retrieved June 4, 2021, from https://www.uibk.ac.at/urgeschichte/projekte_forschung/textilien-lengberg/mittelalterliche-unterwaesche/index.html.en
- Oxford, Bodleian Library MS. Rawl. G. 98: (n.d.). Retrieved March 31, 2021, from https://digital.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/objects/120ef54d-0129-4314-9b62-6a2b754fe1d1/
- Pieter Breugel. (n.d.). The Bee-Keepers and the Bird-Nester. Pieter Brueghel the Elder, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons. Retrieved June 4, 2021, from https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/12/Pieter_Bruegel_the_Elder_-_The_Beekeepers_and_the_Birdnester_-_WGA03528.jpg
- Virgil. (2008, March 10). The Georgics. Project Gutenberg. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/232/232-h/232-h.htm
- Virgil’s Georgics (Wikipedia). (n.d.). Retrieved September 30, 2021, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Georgics#Political_context