Tuesday, March 3, 2015

History's Runway: The Lady Cowdray Mantua Gown, 1740-1746

This and all related images from The Victoria & Albert Museum

In the Seventeenth Century, a “mantua” was, ostensibly, a loose gown. As the decades passed, the garment became more stylized and, but the mid Eighteenth Century, the term “mantua” referred to an over-gown or robe which was worn over stays, heavy petticoats and stomachers. The mantua was, by this time, essentially worn in the Royal Court. Examples from the Eighteenth Century, such as the one we see here, show that these over-gowns were often extremely overdone and proportioned almost ridiculously. Still, they were the height of elegance and were truly the most fashionable article a woman could wear in the French and English Royal Courts.

Let’s examine this example of a mantua from the V&A. This would have been worn by a woman of aristocratic birth to show the Royal Family that her own family also possessed maximum wealth and and understanding of the fashionable arts. The opulence of a lady’s mantua was a direct indication of her family’s rank, power and financial standing.

This example contains almost ten pounds of weight from silver thread alone. The silver has been worked into an elaborate “Tree of Life” design. The train is signed “Rec'd of Mdme Leconte by me Magd. Giles.” “Leconte” is a name long associated with Huguenot embroideresses working in London between 1710 and 1746.

The mantua is composed of the over-gown, petticoat and fabric stomacher—all made of silk embroidered with real silver thread. Evidence of colored silk thread beneath the silver indicates that the textile was changed midway through in order to introduce the more aristocratic element of precious metals. Seven breadths of the textile create the wide skirt which, at its widest point is six feet across, filled out by a series of side hoops.

The gown has been altered. In the 1920s, the back seams were repeatedly taken in and let out in order to adapt the mantua for use as a fancy dress costume. Upon acceptance to the V&A, the mantua was relined and the damage from these Twentieth Century alterations was repaired.

No comments: