How to Alter Simplicity 8881 for a more period look.


How to look better than Gwyneth Paltrow

Simplicity discontinued this pattern in April 2006 if your local store still has copies I'd suggest buying one or two to share with new costumers. If you've missed out and you don't know anybody who has a copy you can trace, try searching for a copy on ebay.

Simplicity 8881 is commonly known as the Shakespeare in Love pattern because it was designed to imitate one of the outfits worn by Gwyneth Paltrow in the 1998 film, of the same name. You can see a photos of the movie costume this pattern was based on at The Costumer's Guide to Movie Costumes

This document is a combination of some starter advice I received when I asked about using this pattern for a gown in the style of England c. 1560s-80s, my own research in 16th century costume, and my own experience adapting this bodice pattern to a 1540s style dress.

The Dress as constructed by Simplicity

I must also acknowledge my debt to Margo Anderson's review of this pattern, had it not been interrupted by the start of her pattern making business this page would never have existed, however I felt that some information was missing and I decided to attempt to fill the gap.

This pattern was very popular for a while but it produced a lot of 'cookie cutter costumes' (people who slavishly copy the pattern without introducing any ideas of their own even down to simple things like trim placement or colours). Looking at portraits and finding elements you want to include is the best way to make this dress look like your creation rather than Simplicity's.


The selection of fabrics suggested for this gown doesn't offer a very wide choice and many of the fabrics suggested are not accurate.

Technically silk, linen, linen/cotton blend (called fustian) and wool were the fabrics available to an average Elizabethan woman. Silk imported to England would not have had lumps in it like modern Shantung or Dupioni, Elizabethan people valued the skill it takes to create a smooth cloth and saw slubs in a piece of silk as a flaw not an interesting feature. Fine lightweight cotton was available in 16thcentury England but it was hideously expensive. Cotton was so expensive that Queen Elizabeth I is only recorded as having one cotton garment (a smock that was a given to her by the King of Spain) and it is said it was so precious she never wore it (though an alternative explanation is that she didn't want to wear it because it was from the King of Spain).

For winter wear use wool, silk or cotton velvet/een.While silk velvet would have been the fabric available in the 16th century pure silk velvet is out of the price range of most people and cotton velvet is probably the best substitute available and cotton velveteen comes a close second.
In Summer I would suggest linen, silk or tropical weight wool if you can find it, blends of those fabrics are also a good choice. It's especially important to avoid plastic type synthetics in summer as you really will overheat. But you need to think about your own climate and how well you cope with hot or cold weather when you decide what fabrics you will use.

If you can't afford to make two different outfits for different seasons, you can make a summer weight gown warm enough for winter by adding extra layers underneath, such as petticoats or a complete under-gown which can then be worn on its own in less formal situations.

Brocades can be used for the gown but be wary of using brocade for both the forepart and the gown as different brocade patterns will often clash. If you do want to use brocades for both make sure you see the two patterns side by side before you buy. If you aren't sure what patterns you are looking for in a brocade look at Anabella Wake's article on the motifs found in renaissance textiles.
If you opt for wool or linen select it carefully as you need something that is stiff enough to make the cartridge pleats stand out, I aim for something of roughly the same weight as a lightweight canvas or denim. There is an article on
Drea Aleed’s site about the fabrics appropriate for Elizabethan costume.

You can substitute synthetics or cotton for the period fabrics if you don’t mind being inaccurate, how far you go in your substitutions is up to you. However, it is important to remember that plastic type synthetics (polyester, nylon etc.) don’t breathe at all and are a fire hazard. Plant based synthetics (rayon, viscose, tencel etc.) are somewhat better in that they do breathe almost as well as cotton and don’t melt, but they are much more fragile than natural fibres, especially the silk they try to imitate.

Before you start this dress it's a good idea to spend some time looking at Elizabethan portraits to get an idea of what look you are aiming for

Your garments, from the skin out...

  1. A smock, calf to ankle length, which is not included in the pattern. Smocks work to protect your clothes from you, by absorbing your sweat and body oils they keep your outer garments relatively clean meaning your hard to wash velvet ,wool or brocade should only need to be washed if you spill something on it or it falls in the dirt. Having a couple of smocks is usually a good idea. Two smocks means you can wear the same outfit for a whole weekend without having to put yesterday’s sweaty smock back on (altogether now, eeeww). If you’re going to be wearing garb for more than one day in a row two is the absolute minimum number of smocks you’ll need, having two smocks means you can wear one while you wash the other. If you want to avoid laundry while you’re at an event you need to pack at least one smock per day, or at least give them several days to air out.

  2. The partlet should be made of a similar weight fabric as (or could possibly even be a part of) your smock. If you don’t want it to be plain embroidered organza can be a good option though it is more expensive than plain fabrics. If you are on a budget, smaller items like partlets, foreparts or sleeves are are probably the best place to splurge on really nice fabrics as they can make a plain outfit look more special with relatively little fabric. Several portraits show partlets which appear to be embroidered and often match the sleeves (Such as Queen Elizabeth's Pelican portrait, below) Some costumers theorize that these two elements may actually be a single shirt rather than separate sleeves and a partlet, so far I have not seen any firm evidence one way or the other but a separate partlet can be used with different sleeves but an embroidered sleeve could be damaged if you put another, tighter, sleeve over the top. Partlets can be constructed as simply as a rectangle of fabric with ties at the bottom corners to tie underneath your arms. It should not snap into the neckline of your gown as the pattern indicates. (The partlet may go either under or over the corset but this style of lightweight partlet always goes under the gown) Tammie Dupuis has a 'demo' on how to make a partlet, if you want the gathered look as shown in the pattern it's a simple process to make the pattern bigger, cut out an extra large neck hole and gather the neckline in.

  3. A Corset, In this pattern the bodice acts as a corset, there's some evidence that earlier garments may have used stiff fabrics like buckram to create the desired shape in their bodices. By the 1570s, however, there's definite evidence for a separate 'pair of bodies' with bones and a wooden busk, which we would call a corset. For a corset pattern both Drea Aleed and Tammie Dupuis have instructions for drafting your own. If that sounds too daunting Butterick has a pattern for an 18th century corset (4254) that will give you a similar shape to that achieved with a 16th century corset, it will look more 16th century and less 18th century if all the boning is vertical, parallel to the centre front line.
    The best option would be to make a completely separate corset but if you really don’t want a separate corset you could bone the bodice as the pattern instructions indicate (though I don’t recommend it). With a corset you can make the bodice in pretty fabric without worrying about bones working their way through (my first corset was essentially destroyed when the bones worked holes through the fabric). It's also much easier to cover up the ridges created by boning in a corset than if the boning is in the bodice. This is especially important if you use cable ties (see the link below), as they are thicker than the more traditional boning materials like spring-steel so they stand out more, ridges of obvious boning showing through your bodice does not look good. The other reason to create a separate corset is the cost of the boning, boning each one of your bodices can get expensive fast, it is much cheaper to buy enough bones for one corset that gives you the right shape under all of your outfits than enough bones for each bodice you make.
    To achieve the period cone shaped silhouette you will need something stronger than rigilene unless you are entirely devoid of curves. If you are on a budget and can't afford steel boning I've heard good things about the cable ties you can get from hardware stores, they are not only stronger than rigilene they're also cheaper. Look at
    Sarah Goodman's article for more ideas on what you can use for boning.

  4. The Farthingale and Bum-roll, The Farthingale is not a period pattern, but it gives the right silhouette under your gown and anybody in a situation to see you in your underwear is not likely to be interested in critiquing your historical accuracy. The only modifications I would make to this pattern would be, to adjust for the back length to make up for not having the bum-roll underneath and make a proper waistband about one or two inches wide. A waistband is important as with the weight of the hoops plus the fabric of the other skirts on top using ribbon for a waistband may dig in and be uncomfortable. Synthetic ribbon is also slippery to sew and will melt if you accidentally set your iron temperature too high. If you want a period farthingale pattern both of the above sites have articles on Juan de Alcega's farthingale pattern. There is some debate over the existence in period of bumrolls, Sarah Goodman has a good summary of the case against bumrolls. In my opinion bumrolls are essentially a costumers cheat to get the look of a couple of cartridge pleated petticoats while only wearing one layer of fabric.

  5. The forepart and Petticoats. To point out the obvious, metallic pen and gluing on fake pearls is not period and will make it virtually impossible to wash (washing may destroy the glue and dry-cleaning may destroy the pearls, depending on what chemicals are used). If you want to decorate the forepart sewing on beads, jewels or embroidery are more durable and more period. An undecorated forepart is also perfectly period and more common in portraits. Alternatively you could omit the forepart entirely and sew the over-skirt closed in front. It's generally a good idea to wear two or more petticoats (i.e. under skirts), preferably cartridge pleated, in order to give you that 'bum-roll effect' and to prevent the lines of the farthingale from showing on the outside. If you are wearing a forepart that counts as one petticoat.

  6. A gown (one garment with the bodice and skirt sewn together) is easier to manage than a separate bodice and skirt, Melissa Heischelberg has an article on her site explaining the evidence for why I don't believe in waistbands for Elizabethan costuming. Even ignoring the accuracy or inaccuracy of waistbands I advise against a waistband on the outer skirt for practical reasons. Stacking three waistbands (farthingale, forepart and over-skirt) on top of each other will be uncomfortable.
    If you use a corset the bodice should not necessarily require any boning, most of the surviving garments from the 16th century have no boning whatsoever, but an interlining of canvas helps create smooth lines. A lot of people advocate lightly boning your bodice as well as wearing it over a corset. It does help ensure the bodice remains smooth, but because the surviving gowns in
    Patterns of Fashion generally do not have this boning I choose not to bone my outer garments.
    The bodice should be made from the same fabric as the over-skirt. This inaccuracy in the pattern is because it’s a copy of the dress worn by Gwyneth Paltrow in Shakespeare in Love. For some reason the movie's costumer chose to make many of the bodices match the underskirts, despite the fact that this was incredibly rare in period. In total I've found two sixteenth century examples of the bodice not matching the skirt, both of these were Italian.
  1. Bodice modifications: You could cut the centre back piece on a fold and lace along the curved side back seams like the gown worn by Eleanora di Toledo in Janet Arnold's Patterns of Fashion, or lace along the centre back line. Hooks and eyes are period but lacing is usually easier to fasten and allows for a little adjustment if your size changes. For instructions on how to place the eyelets look at Jen Thompson's article ‘the Zen of spiral lacing.’

    The curved front seam in this pattern does not match the fashionable cone shaped silhouette that Elizabethan women wanted to achieve with corsets or other supportive underwear (even women who couldn’t afford a corset wore underwear that gave them a much more flattened shape than you get with a bra). To eliminate the curved seam you need to tape the side front and centre front pieces together to create one front pattern piece. Don't tape the pieces that come in the pattern envelope, trace them onto another piece of paper and use your copy to make modifications, this means if you make a mistake you can go back and start again by tracing the original pattern pieces again.

    The shoulder straps have a tendency to fall off the shoulders I’d recommend raising the back neckline by an inch or two to stop this problem.
     While the back neckline is too low the front neckline is too high. Once you remove the bodice’s curve, it should stop just high enough to safely cover the nipple. If you leave the neckline where it is a stiff bodice will continue in a straight line where your body curves inwards creating a gap between the bodice and your body, you can see this effect in the diagram period and modern location of back princess seamto the left. If the bodice is not boned it will simply crumple and collapse above the point of your bust. 
    The long point at the waist centre front is accurate, but very late 16th century, with a shorter point it fits better into a broader time period (and is more comfortable when you want to sit down).

    Most patterns with front princess seams will also have back princess seams and although curved side back seams are period these seams are placed too close to the side seams, for example the centre back panel of the Eleanor di Toledo bodice (Janet Arnold, p.104) is about 7 inches wide at the waist, it’s probably easiest to remove the side back seams like you did with the side front seams, or you could remove the side back seam and then draw a new seam in a more period location.

  1. The sleeves could match the partlet, the gown or the forepart, all three options appear in various portraits. The sleeves would most likely have been laced on (so you can swap them around to change the look of the dress or remove them when it gets too hot) and the shoulder roll, or other shoulder treatment, hid the lacing.
    I believe the pattern's designer was attempting to reconstruct the look of a shoulder roll similar to the one shown in Queen Elizabeth's Pelican Portrait (right) but used modern techniques and created a puffed sleeve. In reality the shoulder rolls were probably a fabric tube which is curved to the shape of your shoulder (using lots of little darts on the underside) and then covered with the decorative fabric.
    Though you can see this sort of puffed sleeve on loose gowns such as the portrait of an unknown lady (right) but in these cases they match the gown. I have not yet seen a puffed sleeve on this style of 'low bodied' gown (i.e. a gown with an open neckline). If you don't like the look of a shoulder roll there are several alternative ways of covering the shoulder join, just have a look at some portraits for inspiration.

Unknown Artist, 1575, Queen Elizabeth's 'Pelican' Portrait (sleeves match the partlet)

Unknown artist, 1557, Portrait of an unknown lady (puffed sleeves)

George Gower, 1585, Portrait of Lettyce Knollys (sleeves match the forepart)

Unknown Artist, 1575, Queen Elizabeth's 'Phoenix' Portrait, (sleeves match the gown)

  1. Headwear is not included in this pattern, though an Elizabethan noblewoman (which this outfit is otherwise designed for) would rarely have left the house without something on her head or at least a relatively complex hairstyle. The websites I’ve listed below also have information on appropriate hats.

One final tip when determining your size, the finished bodice will be about an inch larger than the measurements on the back of the packet (except for the bust if you’ve modified it as I suggested in 6a). If you are going to use the bodice as a corset it needs to be about 1 inch smaller than your un-corseted measurements in order to lace it in for a period silhouette. If you’ve got a separate corset use your corseted waist measurement to determine what size you want. It's important to use your waist measurement to determine your size as you’ll be changing the pattern’s bust measurement when you tape the two front pattern pieces together.

As with any fitted pattern it’s a good idea to make a mock-up in cheap fabric to check the fit before cutting your good fabric.

And once you have completed your fabulous new Elizabethan gown wear it somewhere in the full knowledge that you look better than a movie star (though you may not get paid as much)

For more information see...

The Elizabethan Costuming Page

A Festive Attyre

Mode Historique

The Renaissance Tailor


Tudor & Elizabethan Portraits

This page is maintained by Elizabeth Walpole

Known in the SCA as Elizabeth Beaumont

Last updated, 11 November 2006