When you think of 18th century fashion immediately luxurious fabrics, elaborate embroidery and sumptuous trimmings come to mind. An abundance of skills and expensive hand made materials were needed. Before the days of the sewing machine the whole process was labour intensive and time consuming with every element hand made from a tiny embroidered button to the endless yards of braiding.
The mantua or manteau (from the French manteuil or "mantle") was a new fashion that arose in the 1680s. Instead of a bodice and skirt cut separately, the mantua hung from the shoulders to the floor (in the manner of dresses of earlier periods) started off as the female version of the men's Banyan, worn for 'undress' wear. Gradually it developed into a draped and pleated dress and eventually evolved into a dress worn looped and draped up over a contrasting petticoat and a stomacher. The mantua-and-stomacher resulted in a high, square neckline in contrast to the broad, off-the-shoulder neckline previously in fashion. The new look was both more modest and covered-up than previous fashions and decidedly fussy, with bows, frills, ribbons, and other trim, but the short string of pearls and pearl earrings or eardrops worn since the 1630s remained popular.
The draped skirts of this magnificent 1730s mantua cleverly conceal its complex construction. One of the mantua’s characteristics was a long train, which was sewn as a flat piece of silk and arranged with each wearing. The train was folded up, then folded in and draped over a loop of thread on either side of the waist. In order that the finished side of the silk always show when the mantua was worn, the train was constructed with panels of the right and wrong sides of the fabric sewn together. Pinning up and draping a train successfully was an art and required the help of maids to achieve the perfect effect.
The mantua was worn over a matching petticoat and the resulting ensemble constituted formal daywear in the 1730s. Also typical for this period is the silk, intricately brocaded in a flowing pattern of large, realistically rendered flowers and leaves.
The tangled garden of chenille decoration on this court mantua enhances the white silk satin fabric. It is tamboured (chain stitched with a hook instead of a needle) with coloured silk and chenille threads, in a meandering pattern of flowers and leaves. A fly fringe (braid) of chenille threads, wound into the shapes of more flowers and leaves, trims the mantua. Bobbin lace of blonde silk and chenille edges the fringe and neckline.
The quality of the needlework suggests French production. In style, the design reflects the woven silk patterns of the 1750s, designs that remained fashionable in embroidery until the 1790s. The mantua was probably made in the late 1770s and the bodice modified slightly in the 1780s. Its petticoat of matching fabric suffered extensive alterations for fancy dress in the late 19th century.
This richly brocaded ensemble illustrates the style of dress worn by women at court in England.
This example is made from an ivory silk brocaded in a pattern of stylised flowers and leaves. The abstract form of the motifs is accentuated by the non-naturalistic colours of the precious metal threads. Such a design is typical of French silk weavers and the fabric was probably imported. However it could also have been woven in London, as English weavers copied French designs very closely.
Although considered stylish daywear in the early 18th century, the mantua had become very old-fashioned by the 1750s and was worn only for court dress. Wide hoops were beginning to go out of style, but kept their extreme width at court. To make up for its conservative cut, court dress was always made from the most fashionable as well as expensive fabrics and trimmings.
Images © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
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