Renaissance Flemish Peasant Women

Bruegel Flemish Peasant 16th Century Costuming

Pieter Bruegel the Elder Wedding Dance in the Open Air at the Detroit Institute of Arts
Pieter Bruegel the Elder Wedding Dance in the Open Air at the Detroit Institute of Arts

Flemish Peasant Links:
Drea Leed’s kirtle pattern
Jessica Finley’s website, & my inspiration.

Bruegel Flemish Peasant – Sleeveless Gown


The Bruegel sleeveless dress is one, which in many of his paintings, the women wear separate sleeves which appear to be pinned or tacked on. In Constance Fairfax’s Commonplace Book, she suggests that there was a kirtle underneath these dresses.

In Drea Leed’s book: “The Well Dress’d Peasant: 16th Century Flemish Workingwomen’s Dress”, she suggests a kirtle and a overdress that is open. She has amended that at the Elizabethan Costume group on Facebook ( ) : “I’ve learned a lot since writing the book and have changed my mind about two major things in it: 1) stomachers were worn under the open-laced gown, rather than full kirtles; and 2) the skirts of the outer gown were usually sewn shut in the front, rather than open all the way down.” -Drea Leed

I cannot find evidence of any sort of kirtle or under-dress of any sort (besides the shift) except under the long sleeved gowns (IN BRUEGEL’s PAINTINGS, there IS evidence of other things such as stomachers in other areas. I am focusing on the Bruegel peasants), which leads me to believe that the sleeveless dresses with pinned on sleeves are actually being used as the kirtles underneath the long sleeved gowns. I asked Constance why she wears a kirtle with hers, she said that the reason she uses a kirtle, is not because she was able to see it in any of the paintings, but because of the “support” issue.

I do have a theory that what appears to be a kirtle underneath the long sleeved gowns is the sleeveless dress. That and fact that the long sleeved dresses are more of a 2nd layer against the chill, like a long coat almost. It appears by some of the women in the painting that they only have the bodice from the long sleeved dress which effectively makes it a jacket. But now I’m getting off track, see the long sleeved dress page for more.

Detail Wedding Dance by Pieter Bruegel the Elder Detail Haymaking by Pieter Bruegel the Elder Detail Haymaking by Pieter Bruegel the Elder Detail Haymaking by Pieter Bruegel the Elder    ily portrait by Hans Holbein

Ok, from what we can see from the detail in “the Wedding Dance” and “Haymaking”, there is always an open lacing in the front of the bodice, but not to the extent of the ladies of the court in the early 16th century as seen in the sketch of the Moore Family Portrait by Holbein. Like the Moore family women, I believe that the front of the sleeveless gown is open in the front, to about mid thigh, where the skirt is then sewn shut with a seam. You can see from the detail in “Haymaking” where the woman with her sleeves rolled up in the dark dress isn’t wearing an apron, and you can see a bit of her shift peeking through, but it stops there. In any of the paintings I’ve seen, it doesn’t appear that the gown is open all the way down, but usually the front is covered by an apron. Even in the “Haymaking” detail with the three women are walking together, the one in the middle isn’t wearing an apron, but her skirt seems in one piece as the hems of the other two women on either side of her. This would eliminate the necessity for a kirtle or petticoat, and allow for looser lacing when pregnant (see Moore Family women).  In Bruegel’s paintings we can also see the women’s white shifts underneath their bodices which appear to be quite snug fitting, you don’t see gathers or bunching, but loose enough for freedom of movement with the arms.

Now, I’ve taken a period style bodice pattern (from Margo Anderson’s Lady’s Wardrobe), and I made the back neckline com to a V as is seen in the “Haymaking” and the “Fight Between Carnival & Lent”. I have also created the V seams in the back, kept the side back princess seam, eliminated the side seams (as it’s even suggested in Margo’s pattern for a period line) and I’ve shrunk the front center to leave a gap for lacing. I’ve also made the strap a separate piece which you can see in the 3 ladies in the “Haymaking” detail photo.

bruegelptn03 1/16/04 – I’ve made it up in canvas with reeds in the center front for boning to prevent bunching and to keep a straight line. I also found that the shoulder strap was good to be one piece with the bodice, but I need to move it in towards the front center slightly. The bodice was cut in a little too much and the waist a little too low. I’m also going to round the neckline slightly where the neck meets the shoulder strap. No photos yet. Let me get it a little better tweaked.

8/25/07 – Here are photos of me with the canvas and linen dress with wool padded back pleats. No sleeves, it was HOT.

flemishfront02 flemishfront01 flemishback01 flemishback02

Bruegel’s Flemish Peasants – Long Sleeved Gown


Drea Leed started the middle/lower class Flemish craze with her book “The Well-Dress’d Peasant: 16th Century Workingwoman’s Dress” and her website. She explores paintings of Flemish working women of the 16th century and explains how to recreate the rather comfortable look. Going a step farther, Jessica Finley looks at the peasant paintings of Pieter Bruegel the Elder and attempts to recreate the dresses and explain the strange back lines with economic pattern cutting. I have looked at a particular dress from Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s painting “The Wedding Dance” and created a modified version of Jessica’s pattern.

I have a theory that what appears to be a kirtle underneath the long sleeved gowns is the sleeveless dress. That in fact the long sleeved dresses are more of a 2nd layer against the chill, like a long coat almost. It appears by some of the women in the painting that they only have the bodice from the long sleeved dress which effectively makes it a jacket.


Assembling the Bodice:

The first thing you need to do is take your waist measurement, divide that by 4, note it as measurement A. Measure from the side of your neck where it meets the shoulder, to your wrist and add however many inches you want your cuff to fold back (I suggest 3), note it as measurement B. Measure from under your bust to your natural waistline (it may be better to measure it from where your bra line sits at your side, to your waist), note it as measurement C. Measure from your under bust line in the front, over your shoulder to the under bust line in the back (in other words, measure from under one breast, at the bra line, over the shoulder to the back bra line in about the same position), note it as Measurement D. Measure your neck circumference, divide it by 4 and mark that as measurement E. Then lastly, measure from the base of your neck to your waistline at the middle of your back and note it measurement F.

flemis3All pattern pieces are rectangles (some are cut to triangles). If you intend on lining the piece (suggested) you will need to make these pattern pieces of both the lining and the outer material. Piece a uses Measurements A and C, and you need to cut 4. Piece b uses Measurements E and F and you only need one piece (after it is cut out, you should cut it on the diagonal which makes 2 pieces). Piece c uses measurements D and B. Since people are different sizes (and fabrics are different widths), I suggest finding the measurements and drawing it out on a piece of graph paper to find out which way the pattern pieces use the least amount of fabric.


The front of the long sleeved gown comes to a V in the front. To sew it together, make sure all seams are right sides facing. You will want to line up one piece a with Measurement A side to the measurement B side of Piece c meeting at the corner. In the corner parallel to that, put the other Piece a. Take one Piece b and on the side that you cut diagonally, match up the small angle with the bottom of Piece a, along it’s Measurement C side. See the diagram above.

Then fold it in half so that the right sides facing each other, and both sides with measurement B on Piece c are matched up, along with whole Pieces a. Sew it together from the bottom corner of Piece a, along Measurement C, then out along Measurement D. Do the same thing (but mirrored) for the right side.

To put the left and right pieces together, you will just line up the backs at Measurement F and sew together with right sides facing each other.

Repeat for lining.

Once you have the lining made, sew it together with the main fabric, right sides facing at the sleeve cuffs, and neckline. Turn at the waistline. Here you can attach a skirt directly to the bodice, or you can finish the bottom edge by turning the ends under then using a hemming stitch, or basically however you want to finish it off.

Then you will want to add lacing holes to the front. You may want to set them off from each other so you can spiral lace it, as is shown in this and many paintings of the period.

To add a lined skirt:

To add a lined skirt onto it, measure out the length from your waist to the floor. Depending on how full you want the skirt, you can add or subtract the width of the piece, but I suggest around 3 yards. Take your outside fabric and your lining fabric and sew them together along the bottom, and up the front except for about 3 inches at the top (you may want to baste the top edge togeather). You should have a large lined tube with a seam in the front. Here you will want to have the front part mostly flat, and the back with large full (box, knife or rolled) pleats. To adjust the hem before you sew it to the bodice, pin it onto the bodice, try it on, and have someone help you adjust the height where it is sewn on. Don’t forget that they didn’t wear them brushing on the ground, it seemed to be about ankle height or a little higher, but you can always tuck your skirt into your belt as well. Once you have the height set, you may want to reinforce that front seam where it opens and attaches to the skirt, and fold it over and sew it down so it looks nice.

You don’t have to, but you should wear this over a gathered kirtle from Drea Leed’s website, a sleeveless (or with the pinned on sleeves) Bruegel Dress (which is basically a gathered kirtle, just a little more specific), or a petticoat/skirt and shift, or at least the shift. And there you have a pretty comfortable 16th century Flemish woman’s dress.

And onto the photos! Gotta love those crazy back seams.

mockupflemishback1 mockupflemishback1s mockupflemishfront2s mockupflemishside3s

trishflemish01 trishflemish02 trishflemish03 trishflemish04

I made it with this checked cotton in this dark red and white, it makes it so you can see the seams a little better. This is just the mock up. I’d use wool if I were doing the real thing (which I probably will at some point…don’t ask when). I’m wearing a shift, a gored kirtle (the one from Drea’s site) and well, the gown and in some of the pictures I have a belt that the dress is tucked into in some of the pictures. The apron is a piece of white material that I found in my linen closet held on by a string which can be seen in other period paintings. Brughel’s women seem to have the cord sewn to the front part with the edges free. If I were doing this again, I’d make a sleeveless gown that would help the pleats to spring out more in the back. Oh, and I’d also line the skirt, which I didn’t do on this one. I made the partlet out of black wool, using 3 rectangles and cutting the third diagonally and adding a hook at the back which latched to the apron string, and I made a coif by using a long rectangle of fabric, finding the center, putting it at the top of my forehead, stitching it so it’s snug, then I took the sides and pinned it up on the top of my head (and it looks more like the paintings in person).

In October 2009 I went to the Grand Valley Renaissance Festival with a bunch of friends. I was going to be helping to run a friend’s booth, and I knew I’d be spending a lot of time outside in the cold. I wore my sleeveless Flemish Peasant dress with a new hand-sewn wool Long-Sleeved Flemish Peasant dress (with machine sewn linen lining). I also couldn’t find my accessories, so I made all new ones. I was one of the few, not shivering.