Arts & Sciences Research Paper #21: Symmetrical vs. Asymmetrical “Offset” Lacing on Front-Laced Women’s Gowns in Western Europe, 1450s-1550s
Our twenty-first Research Paper comes to us from Lady Elena Hylton of the Barony of Carolingia. She examines over 100 paintings to explore the question of how lacing holes on women’s gowns were arranged over the course of a century – and discovers a surprising difference from the conventional wisdom! (Prospective future contributors, please check out our original Call for Papers.)
Symmetrical vs. Asymmetrical “Offset” Lacing on Front-Laced Women’s Gowns in Western Europe, 1450s-1550s
Table of Contents
Lacing is perhaps the most common type of clothing closure seen in the later medieval/early renaissance period in Western Europe and is used frequently in modern recreations of women’s historic clothing. However, lacing holes can be spaced along a garment in two ways, symmetrical or asymmetrical (also called “offset”)
Spiral lacing (where a single lace is wound in a spiral through the lacing holes) is a popular method seen throughout the medieval period and later, but many people also assume that the only method to secure such lacing is by offsetting the lacing holes (asymmetrical lacing). This offset arrangement is often thought to be the only “period” option for lacing and is frequently cited in modern costuming blogs and clothing texts as the best method. The Medieval Tailor’s article “Kirtles 3 – Lacing” states that “You will notice that the holes are staggered with the exception of the first and last holes.”  One book claiming to describe all of Tudor women’s dresses states that “It is also worth looking at the alignment of those eyelets. They are not parallel across the opening, but staggered; they are not designed to be laced across like shoes, but in one long continuous spiral.”  This equivalency of spiral lacing and offset/asymmetric lacing holes is very common in popular advice, and most likely caused the belief that because spiral lacing does seem to be one of the most common forms of lacing in many periods that therefore all women’s lacing in the renaissance period should be offset. While the occasional modern text does show spiral lacing with symmetrical lacing holes (such as Thursfield’s Medieval Tailor’s Assistant) these seem to be in the minority, with the conventional advice to be that all lacing should be offset. 
Looking at paintings in several periods, this popular advice did not seem to fit with what I observed as many paintings seemed to show spiral or other types of lacing (such as ladder lacing) across symmetrical holes, as in Crivelli’s Madonna and Child with Two Angels (fig. 2) (see fig. 3 for images of different types of lacing seen in paintings of the period).
I decided to conduct an analysis of Western European paintings from the 1450s-1550s to determine the frequency of symmetrical versus asymmetrical lacing styles on women’s front-laced gowns. I selected the time period as that was where I originally noticed the disconnect between the advice and the paintings, and because it covers a wide range of styles of gowns (“Cranach” gowns, multiple Italian styles with substantial variations, Tudor, and more across all of Western Europe) which had all been grouped together under the umbrella of “medieval and renaissance” and therefore assumed to be offset. Out of a sample of 101 paintings showing such gowns, asymmetric lacing holes/rings, while often present, were substantially less common than generally assumed.
To achieve an unbiased sample set I examined the works of approximately five hundred European artists from 1450-1559 across various online catalogs and museum galleries, including the National Gallery of Art (US), the Colonna Gallery of Rome, the Victoria & Albert museum, the National Gallery (UK), LACMA, the Rijksmuseum, and others. I searched for paintings based on time period and location and then manually determined if the paintings met my criteria (listed below). To ensure unbiased results, I did not use any examples I have found outside of those I came across using this method. While this meant that I excluded many paintings I know of showing front lacing, I believed that adding individual paintings could alter the results. By limiting the paintings counted to only ones found from the full collections, I believe the results show a representative sample set of the frequency of the various lacing styles in period.
I searched collections by time period (1450-1559), by object type (painting), and location (Europe) and then went through the results and logged paintings when they met the following criteria :
- Female subjects
- Lacing appeared to run at minimum from bust to waist.
- Lacing was visible and in the center of the front of the dress.
Out of my initial set of approximately five thousand paintings, this left me with 101 paintings across the 109 year span of time, for an average of 9.266 paintings per decade (see Appendix for full list of paintings analyzed). I then organized the paintings by decade and by lacing style. I did not sort the paintings by location as while that is an essential factor to determine if an individual gown from a specific time and place is more likely to have been symmetrically vs. asymmetrically laced, this project was looking at overall trends in popular Western European culture.  While I did not purposefully exclude any paintings on the grounds of them showing allegorical scenes (which often may not show fashions actually worn in period), the majority of clearly allegorical scenes showed looser, draped clothing and therefore were automatically excluded by not showing front-lacing women’s gowns. Likewise, it is true that paintings are not photographs and should not always be assumed to be exact representations of the actual clothing worn in period. However, there is clearly a large number of highly detailed paintings showing visible depictions of the lacing going through symmetrically-spaced holes seen across multiple schools and styles of art and following the trends in the changing fashions (see figs. 2, 5-9). Especially for times and places where no extant gowns exist, examining detailed paintings seems to be the best method for determining an accurate historical recreation.
Different lacing looks (the lines created by the lacing cord) can be created depending on if the lacing holes/rings are symmetrical versus asymmetrical, and depending on the method of lacing used (spiral, ladder, or other), so I analysed both the lines created by the lacing as well as the relative position of any visible lacing holes/rings on the garment (see fig. 3 above). 
Out of the 101 paintings meeting my criteria, 62 showed symmetrical lacing, 23 showed asymmetrical, and the remaining 16 were unclear. This shows a clear trend towards favoring symmetrically laced options overall, contrary to the prevailing idea that offset lacing was the preferred method throughout the entire medieval and renaissance periods.
Individual decades varied dramatically however. Breaking down the number of paintings by decade we see several trends emerge.
Asymmetrical lacing does make up the majority of examples found in the 1450s and 60s, but from 1470 onwards the trend veers substantially towards favoring symmetrically laced gowns overall (see fig. 4 for numerical data).
Figure 12. Frequency of Paintings Showing Front Lacing Gowns by Decade
It is interesting to note that this change occurs when the gowns go from being laced completely closed (as seen in the medieval fitted gowns up to the 1450s/60s, fig. 5) to the style where the lacing is often left open, revealing the layer below (seen mostly in the 1470s and later, fig. 6). You do see a resurgence of asymmetrical lacing in the 1520s and 1530s where it matches or comes close to the frequency of symmetrical, but it then dies out again by the 1540s.
While the paintings are not broken down by location, these trends do tend to be somewhat consistent across both the Italian and Northern Renaissance schools, despite the differences in gown styles. For example, in the 1480s Italian fashion shows a distinct style quite different from the Northern European style regarding waist seams, waist height, and sleeve style, with the Northern European styles sharing more similarities with the 1460s and prior styles. However, both fashions do see a switch to predominantly symmetrical lacing in the 1480s as seen in the works of the Master of the Legend of Saint Lucy and Hans Memling (both considered Northern European painters) as well as many paintings by Domenico Ghirlandaio, Vittore Crivelli, and Sandro Botticelli (of the Italian school) (see fig. 6).
In conclusion, while asymmetrical lacing is certainly a documentable option for many styles of gowns in the 1450s-1550s, it is by no means the only period option, nor even the most common option of lacing hole placement seen in extant paintings of the period. The overwhelming numbers, 62 examples of symmetrical to 23 examples of asymmetrical (especially considering the absence of enough extant gowns to have a similarly large sample size for study), refute the commonly held belief that “offset is best” for the entire late SCA period in Western Europe.
- Cynthia Long, “Kirtles 3 – Lacing,” The Medieval Tailor, accessed January 9, 2017, https://medievaltailor.com/kirtles-overview/kirtle-lacing/.
- Ruth Goodman, How to be a Tudor: A Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Tudor Life (New York: Liveright, 2015), 21.
- Sarah Thursfield, The Medieval Tailor’s Assistant (Marlborough: Ruth Bean Publishers, 2001), 54.
- Not all collections allow their online catalog to be searched automatically for all of these categories. When such automatic sorting of search results was not possible I determined if the paintings met the criteria manually through a broader search of the catalog.
- There were several reasons for this. Not all museums detailed the location of the artist beyond “Europe” or “Northern Renaissance,” and also there is sometimes a disconnect between the painter’s native home and the location where the painting was found. As such, trying to break down the 109 paintings by location as well seemed like it would require too many personal judgements to be valid. As the popular advice is not generally limited by location, I choose not to break my results down by location either.
- Many of the paintings I initially examined do not show visible front lacing on women’s gowns, especially in certain periods. In several instances the vast majority of women in paintings from a decade did not have visible front lacing. This project was designed to examine the frequency of symmetrical versus asymmetrical front lacing options and did not count any gowns not showing visible front lacing.
Crivelli, Vittore. Madonna and Child with Two Angels. 1481–82. New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Ghirlandaio, Domenico. Portrait of Giovanna Tornabuoni. 1488. Madrid, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza.
Goodman, Ruth. How to be a Tudor: A Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Tudor Life. New York: Liveright, 2015.
Long, Cynthia. “Kirtles 3 – Lacing.” The Medieval Tailor. Accessed January 9, 2017.
Master of the Legend of Saint Lucy. Virgin Surrounded by Female Saints. 1488. Brussels, Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts.
Memling, Hans. Triptych of Adriaan Reins (central panel). 1480. Bruges, Memling Mseum.
Style of Domenico Ghirlandaio. Costanza Caetani, 1480-90. London, The National Gallery.
Thursfield, Sarah. The Medieval Tailor’s Assistant. Marlborough: Ruth Bean Publishers, 2001.
Appendix: Full List of Paintings Examined, Listed by Decade and Lacing Style
Cosmè Tura, Terpsichore, 1450s
Jean Fouquet, Melun Diptych: Virgin and Child Surrounded by Angels, 1452
Cosmè Tura, A Muse, Calliope, 1455-60
Giorgio Schiavone, The Virgin and Child, 1456-60
Giovanni Bellini, Portrait of a Woman, 1450 – 1470
Cosmè Tura, Pietà, 1460
Piero della Francesca, Madonna del Parto, 1460s
Francesco Benaglio, Virgin and Child, 1465. Symmetrical, but may be hooks of some sort instead of lacing rings.
Workshop of Andrea del Verrocchio, Madonna and Child, 1470
Piero della Francesca, Madonna of Senigallia, 1474
Sandro Botticelli, Portrait of a Young Woman, 1475
Attributed to Domenico Ghirlandaio, Lucrezia Tornabuoni, 1475
Andrea del Verrocchio, Madonna and Child, 1470-1480
Master of the Prado Adoration of the Magi, The Presentation in the Temple, 1470-1480 Though challenging to see, the young, shorter girl in the back shows symmetrical lacing when viewed closely.
Master of the Legend of Saint Ursula, Legend of St Ursula, the Church and the Synagogue, 1475-82
Master of the Saint Godelieve Legend, The Life and Miracles of Saint Godelieve, 4th quarter 15th century
Domenico Ghirlandaio, Announcement of Death to St Fina, 1473-75
Master of the Life of the Virgin, Visitation, 1470. Under close inspection of a high resolution photo, the gown of the woman in red to the far right appears to be symmetrical, but the image is not clear enough to determine it with certainty.
Master of the Life of the Virgin, The Birth of Mary, 1470 Front lacing is visible but it is unclear if symmetrical or asymmetrical.
Carlo Crivelli, Altarpiece for the Cathedral at Ascoli Piceno: Madonna and Child, 1473 Closures are symmetrical, but may not be lacing.
Leonardo da Vinci, Portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci, 1474-78. This is debated if it shows symmetrical or asymmetrical due to the 3/4 profile causing the image to be seen at an angle.
Sandro Botticelli, Profile Portrait of a Young Lady (Simonetta Vespucci?), 1476. Appears to be symmetrical lacing, but could also be trim.
Master of the Legend of Saint Lucy, Legend of St Lucy, 1480
Hans Memling, Triptych of Adriaan Reins (central panel), 1480
Domenico Ghirlandaio, Portrait of a Young Woman, 1480s
Vittore Crivelli, Madonna and Child with Two Angels, 1481–82
Vittore Crivelli, Enthroned Virgin and Child, with Angels and Saints Bonaventure, John the Baptist, Louis of Toulouse, and Francis of Assisi, 1482
Sandro Botticelli, Venus and the Three Graces Presenting Gifts to a Young Woman, 1483-1486
Both the woman in green and the woman in white show straight lines of lacing across the bust.
Hans Memling, Triptych of the Family Moreel (right wing), 1484
Antoniazzo Romano, Annunciation, 1485
Style of Domenico Ghirlandaio, Costanza Caetani, 1480-90,
Domenico Ghirlandaio, Study, 1486
Domenico Ghirlandaio, Birth of Mary, 1486-90. Entered under asymmetrical as well because both styles are seen.
Domenico Ghirlandaio, Marriage of Mary, 1486-90
Domenico Ghirlandaio, Birth of St John the Baptist, 1486-90. While the front-laced gowns are all either symmetrically laced or not visible, there is a side laced gown that is offset.
Domenico Ghirlandaio, Herod’s Banquet, 1486-90
Domenico Ghirlandaio, Portrait of Giovanna Tornabuoni, 1488
Master of the Legend of Saint Lucy, Virgin Surrounded by Female Saints, 1488
Master of the Baroncelli Portraits, Baroncelli Portraits, 1480-1490
Hans Memling, Diptych with the Allegory of True Love, 1485-90
Domenico Ghirlandaio, Birth of Mary, 1486-90. Entered above as well because two women show symmetrical where one other shows asymmetrical.
Crivelli, Carlo, Madonna and Child, 1490. Difficult to see, but the lacing is clearly spiral laced through symmetrical holes upon close examination.
Davide Ghirlandaio, Portrait of Selvaggia Sassetti, 1490
Alunno Niccolo’, Our Lady of Succour, 1490
Workshop of Domenico Ghirlandaio, Portrait of a Girl, 1490
Lorenzo Costa, Portrait of a Woman with a Pearl Necklace, 1490
Carlo Crivelli, Saint Catherine of Alexandria, 1491-4
Bernardino del Signoraccio, Madonna Enthroned with Saints, 1495
Sandro Botticelli, Judith with the Head of Holofernes, 1497-1500
Juan de Flandes, Portrait of Joan the Mad, 1496-1500
Agnolo di Domenico Mazziere, Portrait of a Young Woman, 1490
Master of the Virgo inter Virgines, Virgin and Child with Sts Catherine, Cecilia, Barbara, and Ursula, 1490
Leonardo da Vinci, Madonna Litta, 1490-91. This shows two sets of symmetrical lacing over the breasts, one of which is unlaced allowing Mary to nurse. An interesting concept.
Giovanni Ambrogio de Predis, Portrait of a Woman in Profile, 1495-9. While there is front lacing, it cannot be seen if it is symmetrical or asymmetrical.
Juan de Flandes, Herodias’ Revenge, 1496. This may be front laced, but it also may be trim on the center front of the bodice.
Gentile Bellini, Portrait of Caterina Cornaro, Queen of Cyprus, 1500
Bernardino di Betto (Pinturicchio), No. 5: Enea Silvio Piccolomini Presents Frederick III to Eleonora of Portugal, 1502
Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (Raphael), Portrait of Maddalena Doni, 1506
Andrea Solario, Salome with the Head of Saint John the Baptist, 1507-09
Girolamo di Benvenuto, Portrait of a Young Woman, 1508
Lucas van Leyden, Card Players, 1508-10
Francesco di Cristofano (Franciabigio), Head of the Madonna, 1509
Unknown artist, Profile bust of a lady facing left, 1500.
Follower of Jan Gossaert (Jean Gossart), The Magdalen, early 16th century
Master of the Holy Blood, Lucretia, 1500-1520
Anonymous, Woman with Unicorn, 1510
Vittore Carpaccio, Portrait of a Young Woman, 1510
Lucas Cranach the Elder, Portraits of Henry IV of Saxony and Catherine of Mecklenburg, 1514. Only visible under extreme magnification, but the lacing is clearly symmetrical when examined closely.
Hans Holbein the Younger, Portrait of the Artist’s Wife, 1517
Lucas Cranach the Elder, A Princess of Saxony, 1517
Lorenzo Lotto, Judith with the Head of Holofernes, 1512. Due to the position of the front lacing it cannot be determined if it is symmetrical or asymmetrical.
Hans Holbein the Elder, Portrait of a Woman, 1518-20. The front lacing could be interpreted either way due to the 3/4 profile putting everything on a slant.
Andrea Solario, Salome with the Head of Saint John the Baptist, 1520-24 (the artist had painted a similar work by the same name approximately 15 years earlier).
Lucas Cranach the Elder, Ill-Matched Couple: Young Man and Old Woman, 1520-22
Jan Mostaert, The Expulsion of Hagar, 1520-1525
Lucas Cranach the Elder, The Bocca della Verità, 1525-27
Lucas Cranach the Elder, Ill-Matched Couple: Young Widow and Old Man, 1525-30
Workshop of Master of the Magdalen Legend, The Magdalen Weeping, 1525
Lucas Cranach the Elder, Portrait of a Young Woman, 1522
Bernardino Licino, Portrait of a Woman, 1524
Attributed to Francesco Torbido, The Holy Family with Saint Catherine, 1525
Paris Bordone, The Venetian Couple in Love, 1525-30
Lucas Cranach the Elder, Ill-Matched Couple: Peasant and Prostitute, 1525-30
Lucas Cranach the Elder, Martin Luther and Katharina von Bora, 1526
Lucas Cranach the Elder, Portrait of a Woman, 1525
Lucas Cranach the Elder, Portrait of a Woman, 1526
Jan Provost, The Coronation of the Virgin, 1524. This could be symmetrical lacing, but it could also be trim.
Girolamo da Santacroce, Christ and the Woman of Samaria, 1530s
Ambrosius Benson, Virgin Mother, active 1520s-1540s. You can actually see the ladder lacing used here as the ladders are done on the outside.
Lorenzo Lotto, Portrait of a Lady as Lucretia, 1530-32
Lucas Cranach the Elder, Saxon Princesses Sibylla, Emilia and Sidonia, 1535. Also listed under asymmetrical as both lacing styles are seen here.
Lucas Cranach the Elder, Ill-Matched Couple: Young Girl and Old Man, 1530
Lucas Cranach the Elder, Portrait of a Young Woman, 1530
Lucas Cranach the Elder, Saxon Princesses Sibylla, Emilia and Sidonia, 1535. Also listed under symmetrical as both lacing styles are seen here.
Lucas Cranach the Elder, Portrait of Princess Maria of Saxony, 1534
Master of the Female Half-Lengths, Three Musicians, 1530. While under close observation this appears to be symmetrical (the top lacing runs parallel to the trim), the arm cutting across provides enough room for doubt that I am not counting it.
Lorenzo Lotto, Portrait of Giovanni della Volta with his Wife and Children, 1547
Lucas Cranach the Elder, Portrait of a Young Girl, 1540
Paris Bordone, Portrait of a Woman, 1550s
Tiziano Vecellio, Girl with a Fan, 1556
Follower of Titian, Portrait of a Woman (perhaps Pellegrina Morosini Capello), 1558-62