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18th Century Mantua

The Mantua originated in the late 17th century as a coat-like garment, based on an article of clothing from the East called a Banyan

What is a Mantua?

The name Mantua comes from the French word ‘manteau’ meaning coat.

The Mantua was usually worn over a petticoat, which was visible under the front opening of the gown. The petticoat was usually constructed from the same material as the Mantua and was worn over a whale bone hoop. The petticoat could vary in shape and width and the architecture and furniture of the period was often designed to accommodate some of the more extreme styles.

The bodice of a Mantua was open fronted and the gap was filled with a stomacher, a stiff ‘V’ shaped separate piece which could be made from the same fabric as the Mantua or in a contrasting colour and was often highly decorated. The stomacher would be pinned or sewed in place after the Mantua had been put on. A narrow belt was often added to finish off the waistline.

The main distinguishing feature of the gown was a train, which from about 1710 was doubled up at about the level of the hem line of the petticoat and attached to the back of the bodice with pins. It was therefore important to construct the Mantua so that once the train was pinned in place the correct side of the fabric was visible.

By the mid-1730s the Mantua had become a formal dress worn for grand occasions and for attendance at the Royal Court. By the 1760s Mantuas were only ever worn at court, the fashion dying out by the 1820s when George IV declared that court ladies were no longer required to wear hoops.

History of the Lincoln Mantua

The Lincoln Mantua was donated to the Usher Gallery in 1937 by a Miss Charlotte Mary Epton. It had previously been loaned to the gallery for an exhibition celebrating the coronation of King George VI. She claimed the Mantua had been in her family for 200 years, having been passed down from one generation to the next and was her mother’s favourite dress. Miss Epton was a schoolmistress at North Willingham village school between 1936 and 1942.

The Lincoln Mantua consists of a gown and petticoat made from silk. The ground weave is dyed black and is decorated with a white lace pattern, brocaded with large, brightly coloured flowers. The Mantua is a very rare survival, possibly the only example of its style still existing and, although it is known that black was a fashionable colour in the 18th century, very little black fabric has survived from this period because the methods of dying black were destructive to the fibres, particularly silk.

In 1998 Natalie Rothstein, an internationally renowned expert on 18th century woven fabrics, and former curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, positively identified the Mantua as a rare survival of the 1730s, possibly the only remaining example in England, dating it precisely to 1735 (so Miss Epton’s claim in 1937 that it had been in her family for 200 years was quite accurate). She identified the fabric as Spitalfields silk and that at some point the train of the gown had been dismembered and re-assembled in the wrong way.

In 2010 the Mantua was conserved and restructured to its original design by Sheila Landi, a textile conservator based at Burghley House, Stamford. Sheila also constructed replica undergarments for use in display.

Conservation and Restoration of the Lincoln Mantua

A Mantua would usually be constructed on the body of the client by a mantua-maker, a highly skilled seamstress. Using a similar method the Lincoln Mantua was reconstructed whilst on a mannequin, however the underlying shape of the mannequin and the undergarments had to be as authentic to the fashionable shape of period as possible. As the size of the original wearer of the Mantua was not known it was decided to purchase the smallest sized mannequin and pad and adjust the figure as required. A cotton corset was made using an authentic 1735 pattern. The corset was laced both back and front and stiffened with lengths of flat spring steel. A stomacher was also made in plain black silk and decorated with red ribbon. A side pannier or hoop was created from another 18th century pattern, however this went through several changes in shape during the reconstruction of the petticoat. A chemise or undershirt was made from fine cotton. This would be worn beneath the corset.

Before reconstruction the dismantled sections of original fabric had to be treated to prevent loss of fragments and surface fibre. This involved the addition of Stabiltex, a conservation fabric used for reinforcing and backing fragile textiles. Black Stablitex was used as a support, first being treated with a light coating of adhesive (Beva 371), and applied to the silk with a warm iron. Where reinforcement was needed the Stabiltex was stitched to the silk with polyester thread. Missing sections of original silk fabric were replaced with black polyester taffeta.

At some point the dress had been altered into a style more fashionable in the 1740s. The aim of the reconstruction was to return the Mantua to its 1735 design as far as possible. Evidence of the original design was found in traces of stitch lines, old thread, marks of pleating and the creasing that comes from wear. Both gown and petticoat were worked on alongside each other as each section could only be understood in relation to the other.

A replica of the petticoat was made from calico in order to try and understand its original construction. Traces of a different material were found in the original silk, a blue and white checked wool, which suggested there had been an extra panel at some time. By matching the replica petticoat to the gown and making adjustments the present shape was discovered, which closely resembles earlier known Mantua designs.

The bodice of the gown was badly damaged, especially under the arms where sweat had corroded the delicate silk fabric. The shoulder line was too narrow and some adjustments had been made to increase the bust size. The train of the gown remained attached to the bodice throughout reconstruction, but some sections had become detached from the front of the bodice and one section was missing, which had to be replaced. Several attempts were made to join up and arrange the train into its original kite-like shape. Through careful study of the changes in fabric colour and damage to pleats the correct way to reconstruct the train and pin it in place were found.

A set of Brussels lace from the period was kindly loaned by Burghley House in order to complete the sleeves and neckline. This was washed and attached in a two tier ruffle made from fine lawn. As it was difficult to attach the lace to the chemise, as seen in 18th century fashions, it was stitched into the cuff and a further section arranged around the neckline. Finally a black satin ribbon belt was added to the waistline.

Find out more about the Lincoln Mantua from the video below.

Source: YouTube

The Spitalfields Silk Weavers

In the 18th century the centre of silk manufacturing in England was Spitalfields in the East of London. This was due to the settlement of French Huguenots in Soho and Spitalfields who were fleeing from religious persecution in France. Many of the Huguenots who settled in Spitalfields came from Lyons, the centre of the French silk industry. They set up business as silk weavers, using handlooms and raw silk imported from Italy. The industry thrived and their fabrics were exported throughout Europe and the colonies.

Following the introduction of mechanised weaving in the mid-18th century the Spitalfields silk weaving industry declined. The last recorded silk weavers in Spitalfields were to be found in Fournier Street in 1930.



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Last updated: 16 November 2017

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