Mantua Makers and the rise of the Female Dressmaker

When thinking of 18th-century clothing, images immediately come to mind of opulent silk gowns worn over panniers, heavily trimmed and embroidered. Such gowns were the work of female mantua makers and seamstresses. For the first time in European history, women were making outer garments as part of a legal guild, but the story of how that came to be is not exactly straight-forward. The origins of such gowns can, in fact, be traced back to Japan.

Japanese trade with Portugal and Holland

A Japanese painted screen by Kanō Naizen showing a Portuguese carrack ship and traders. (Kobe City Museum, Japan)

The Japanese Kimono (the word literally translated means ‘clothing’) is a T-shaped garment with a relatively simple cut and construction, those of higher status showing off sumptuous fabrics and embroidery. Those of the Edo period, with which we are concerned, saw a great deal of innovation in the fabrics and decorative techniques, while the silhouette remained fairly standardised. They were worn layered with other garments, but I’m afraid I have neither the expertise nor the time to discuss them here. For more information, I’ve attached a list of sources, most of which are freely available online.

Japan and Europe began trading in 1545, with the Portuguese acting as middle men between Japan and China, who had trade embargoes on each other until the end of the 16th Century. However, the Portuguese were also strongly trying to push Christianity onto the Japanese, particularly since their translators were Jesuit priests. In the 1590s, the Dutch arrived, and also began trading on a small scale, but focussed most of their interests on the East Indies. However, all this changed with the full ascendance of Shogun Iemitsu in 1632. He enacted a variety of anti-Christian policies as part of his plan to unify Japan. In 1637 the Shimabara rebellion occurred: an armed revolt against these policies. In putting it down, Shogun Iemitsu had thousands killed. Since so many of those rebelling were Christian, it was an ideal excuse to kick out the Portuguese and restrict the Dutch to trading only from Deshima, an artificial island just off Nagasaki.

The Dutch were in the Shogun’s good books (relatively speaking), since they didn’t go around trying to convert everyone to Christianity, and actually used careful diplomacy in trade agreements rather than just force of arms. In restricting the Dutch to Deshima, Iemitsu was completing the process of fully isolating Japan that he had begun by forbidding all the Japanese from travelling abroad or returning home. As such, the Dutch were able to facilitate shipping between Japan and Japanese settlements in Siam, Quinam, and Tonkin, as well as take advantage of the fact that they were now the only Europeans trading with Japan. They were able to supply the Japanese with textiles from China and Europe, spices from the East Indies, ivory from Africa, and hides from Thailand and Taiwan, while exporting gold, silver, copper, camphor, porcelain, lacquerware, and grains back to Europe. Deshima became quite the tourist attraction, with souvenirs depicting the Dutch sailors being sold to visitors in Nagasaki. The Dutch continued to have the monopoly on what little trade Japan allowed until the re-opening of Japan in the 19th Century. As such, Japanese scholars studying the West had a very Dutch-centric view of things, not realising that Holland was not, by the 19th Century, the centre of European affairs.

Portuguese Sailors, 16th Century

The Adoption of the Kimono by the Europeans

At this point, you’re probably wondering what on earth any of this has to do with 18th Century gowns! Well, in annual audiences in the 1640s with the directors of the United East India Company (the Dutch traders), the Shogun gave them 30 silk gowns (kimonos) by way of showing that the trade agreement was re-established for another year. The scarcity of these garments brought back to Holland made them incredibly desirable, and elevated their status. Soon enough, replicas of these ‘Japanese gowns’, also known as banyans, morning gowns, or night gowns began to be created in Europe. Banyans (derived from a worn in Gujerati for a Hindu merchant or trader and applied to the dress that Europeans thought such traders wore) quickly gained popularity throughout Europe, and by the 1670s were being made in fashionable European silks.

A c. 1540 illustration of Portuguese nobles in India. From the Códice Casanatense (Biblioteca Casanatense, Rome) Text possibly reads unmarried Christian women Indian.

These gowns, based on kimonos, were worn as informal wear by men, initially, and then adopted by women (as is often the case throughout history). They were available from tailors, and could also be bought from gown warehouses specialising in high end ready-to-wear garments; their looseness meant that they did not need any particular fitting. Copies were made both in Europe and Asia, making use both of ‘exotic’ fabrics and more familiar European prints.

16th Century Tailors

Tailors were almost invariably men, who had undergone a 4-7 year apprenticeship in which they would often eventually specialise in a particular sort of garment. This work tended to require a great deal of skill when it came to cutting and fitting a garment to a client’s specific body shape.

Women, meanwhile, were mainly shut out of the tailoring industry, relegated instead to spinning, and making simple undergarments like shirts and smocks. Shirts and smocks were far less fitted than the garments that tailors made; they tended to be cut according to the width of the linen, and the pattern pieces were squares and rectangles (with the occasional triangle). As can be seen above, in terms of shape, they are very similar to the night gowns being produced as copies of the kimonos.

Sir Isaac Newton by James Thornhill

Where they differ, however, is that the sleeves of a nightgown, like the sleeves of a Kimono, are cut in one with the body (see the picture above – no shoulder seam!), meaning that the pattern continues the same way up on the sleeves as the body when the arms are held out, but is rotated by 90 degrees when the arms are held down by the sides. Seamstresses, who were already used to making similarly-shaped, loose garments, took advantage of the increase in demand for these informal garments among less wealthy customers, and began manufacturing gowns for both men and women. To be able to wear such garments before donning more formal attire was a show of status (both in having the time to wear such a garment, and the money to afford it). By the end of the 17th Century, the Manteau (as it was known in France), was evolving further away from its origins.

Note – For men, the banyan continued to be fashionable informal wear into the 19th Century, sometimes being loose and dressing gown-like, at other times being more fitted and rather more resembling a long, tailored coat. We’re going to stop talking about men’s dressing gowns here, however, and look exclusively at women’s wear from now on.

The Development of the Mantua

17th-century women’s fashionable dress tended towards highly-structured, highly-fitted two-piece dresses worn over a chemise and a (sometimes visible and decorated) petticoat. The informal Japanese gown represented a step away from these fashions when in the privacy of one’s own home, despite the fact that it was still worn over the dress bodices or stays. By the 1670s, however, the informal ‘Manteau’ had become the ‘Mantua’, an acceptable form of outside dress not only adopted by the French elite, but even worn by working class women. Not only was the mantua gaining popularity in the 1670s, by 1675, Louis XIV licensed Parisian seamstresses to form a guild of their own, allowing them to legally produce the following women’s and children’s garments: ‘Dressing Gowns, Skirts, Justaucorps, Manteaux, Hongrelines, Camisoles, Bodices, and all other Items of all kinds of fabric to clothe Women and Girls, with the exception of Dress Bodices and Dress Skirts only…’. While this particular development began in Paris, it quickly spread across Europe.

Manteau, ca. 1685-90, fashion plate by J. Bonnard from La Mode Illustrée

While it was cut in the same way as the Manteau, or Japanese gown, the Mantua was somewhat more fitted, by use of pleats at the front and back of the bodice. It was worn over a set of stays and a petticoat, and, as can be seen in the above image, was often worn with the skirt looped up at the back. The simple shaping acted in much the same way as the Kimono it originated from: the aim being to show off the sumptuous materials often used.

The wide popularity of the mantua was caused by many things. For starters, they were cheaper to make than the more complex court dress, requiring less time, less skill and less fabric. Only one set of stays was necessary, since they could be worn under various different mantuas, as opposed to the court dress, where every different skirt required a matching set of stays. It could be made from anything, from relatively cheap printed cotton up to richly decorated silks, rendering it accessible across the social spectrum. It was a garment that worked both formally and informally, and could be worn further down the social scale: bourgeoise women were able to adopt this new fashion without attracting such ridicule and mockery as they would have done if they had adopted imitations of full court dress.

Its popularity was also likely thanks to its timing: the mantua came about not only at the same time as the formation of the first seamstresses guilds, but also at the same time as the first fashion magazine: the Mercure Galante. This magazine not only gave information on what certain noble men and noble women were wearing, but also from which seamstresses and tailors one might procure similar garments: ‘Those who wish to have them made like they make them at Court, only have to address themselves to Madame du Creux, Rue Traversine who dresses the largest part of the people of the first quality’.

Female seamstresses produced most women’s clothing by the 18th Century, with the exception of more tailored garments such as riding habits, stays, and the more specialised court dress. The association of the Mantua with seamstresses was incredibly strong: the English term for a seamstress by the 18th century was ‘Mantua-maker’.

Mantua to Sacque

The Mantua continued to evolve through the 18th Century, ending up far away from its simple origins, in the form of the sacque, worn over wide panniers, and the far more fitted robe a l’Anglaise. However, echoes of it still remain, even in these dresses.

The initial change to the mantua occurred in the opening of the bodice to reveal a highly-decorated stomacher. The next change, however, was into the robe volante, another wonderful way of displaying beautiful silks with large patterns, and the stepping-stone between the mantua and the sacque.

Here, there are some small pleats at the side seam, as well as the back, increasing the volume of fabric in the skirts. Additionally, the sleeves are cut separately, yet still carry echoes of their Japanese origin, most clearly seen in striped dresses, where the stripes on the bodice and skirt tend to be vertical, while the stripes of the sleeve are horizontal. This continues for the rest of the century.

Sack, 1770-1775, V&A Museum

The cut of the sleeves of women’s dresses through the 18th Century is also thanks to the Kimono. Female seamstresses’ experience with sleeves was initially only through their work with shirts, smocks, and mantuas. None of these garments have the curved sleeve head we would think of when making modern sleeves. Since 18th-century mantua makers were generally draping their garment onto their client, rather than cutting to a pattern, sleeve heads copied from 18th-century extant dresses can look incredibly strange when compared to a modern day sleeve, or even the sleeve of a man’s coat of the period.

Finally, the habit of cutting the bodice and skirt as one continues in dresses such as the robe a l’anglaise (where the back pleats of the bodice run on into the skirt, while the rest of the skirt is cut separately to the bodice), and the robe a la polonaise (NOT a skirt gathered up at the back, but in fact a dress with a fitted bodice wherein there are no waist seams: the skirt and bodice are cut entirely as one, with all fitting along the side seams).

Dress, 1725, MET Museum, showing the construction of the robe a l’anglaise; the skirt pleats at the sides are merely seamed to the bodice, while those of the centre back continue from above.


While various articles and books (many of which I have used as sources) have connected the Kimono and the Banyan, the Banyan and the Mantua, or dealt with the evolution of the Mantua to the Sacque, I have yet to come across anything that draws the line from the Kimono to the Sacque. The interconnectedness of Dutch-Japanese trading agreements resulting in the rise of female guilds is something that I find fascinating.

There is much more to be delved into in the importation of the popular ‘bizarre silks’ of the early 18th Century, and the imitations of Indian Chintz and Chinese silk painting being produced in Europe all being used as materials to make these beautiful gowns. However, I’ve really written too much already, and should stop here for now.


Arnold, Janet, Patterns of Fashion 1, School of Historical Dress, London, 2021

Arnold, Janet, Patterns of Fashion 5, School of Historical Dress, London, 2018

Blaine, Dr. Ilana Singer, Kimono, Tikotin Museum of Japanese Art

Crowston, Clare, Engendering the Guilds: Seamstresses, Tailors, and the Clash of Corporate Identities in Old Regime France, French Historical Studies, Vol 23:2, Spring 2000, pp.339-371

Crowston, Clare, Fabricating Women: The Seamstresses of Old Regime France 1675-1791, Duke University Press, Durham and London, 2001

Crowston, Clare, Women, Gender, and Guilds in Early Modern Europe, paper presented at The Return of the Guilds, Utrecht University, 5-7 October 2006

Doolan, Paul, The Dutch in Japan, History Today, Vol 50 (4), April 2000, pp.36-42

Glamann, Kristof, Dutch-Asiatic Trade 1620-1740, Martinus Nijhoff’s Gravenhage, Den Haag, 1981

Hill, Daniel D., History of World Costume and Fashion, Prentice Hall, New York, 2011

Joby, Christopher Richard, Dutch in Seventeenth-Century Japan: A Social History, Journal of Low Country Studies, Vol 42:2 2018, pp.175-196

Koda, Harold, and Richard Martin. “Orientalism: Visions of the East in Western Dress.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000 – (October 2004)

Kramer, Elizabeth, and Akiko Savas, The Kimono Craze: From Exoticism to Fashionability, 2020

Mikhaila, Ninya, Jane Malcolm Davies, The Typical Tudor, ….

North, Susan, Indian Gowns and Banyans – New Evidence and Perspectives, Costume, Volume 54:1, pp.30-55

Satsuki Milhaupt, Terry, Kimono: A Modern History, Reaktion Books, London, 2014

Thunder, Moira, Object in Focus: Man’s Banyan, Word and Image Department, Victoria and Albert Museum

Thursfield, Sarah, Perfect Linens Plain and Fancy, 2006

Toyoshima, Masako, The Evolution of Japanese Women’s Kimono from A.D.200 – 1960, Master’s Report, Kansas State University, Manhattan, Kansas, 1967

Wahid, Abdul, The Dutch’s ‘Floating Life’ on Deshima Island: A Gloomy Side of Dutch-Japan Relationship During the Tokugawa Periode, 1715-1790, Jurnal Kajian Wilayah, Vol. 6 No. 1, 2015. pp.1-16

Van Veen, Ernst, VOC Strategies in the Far East (1605-1640), Bulletin of Portuguese – Japanese Studies, Vol 3, Dec 2001, pp. 85 – 105

“Frizzled” Hair Styles

Europeans in the 18th Century saw hair as an indicator of character: hence so many of the cartoons mocking women with overlarge, overly elaborate hairstyles. Smooth hair was “civilized,” while African hair, particularly the most tightly coiled, kinky hair was seen as mere wool: an indicator to their white contemporaries that they were “wild and disorderly”. The Europeans did not see African hairstyles as remotely important, when in reality they date back over 3000 years, and could contain complex communications, indicating occasion, religion, family, status, age, marital status, and occupation.

Agostino Brunias, West Indian Women of Colour with a Child and Black Servant, c. 1780

However, forced labour in America meant less time to spend on hairstyles, so they became simplified, and mingled different cultures together. In many cases enslaved women working in households were forced to cover their hair with headwraps by the Tignon laws and thanks to the jealousy of their mistresses – tightly coiled African hair with its height and volume is (ironically) far more suited to the elaborate high hairstyles of the white upper classes.

Agostino Brunias, Servants [Enslaved People?] Washing a Deer, c.1775

While some Black people in colonial America used hair powders, it is of note that even they kept their natural hair texture, as a form of passive resistance against white beauty standards and control over their bodies.

Antoine Vestier, Portrait of a Lady with a Book, c.1780

In the later 1770s through to the beginning of the 1790s, many European women adopted a “frizzed” hairstyle, very similar to an afro. They weren’t shy about where they had acquired the style, either:

French women are “covered with a vast load of false hair, which is Frizzled on the forehead so as to exactly resemble the wooly heads of the Guinea negros.”

Tobias Smollet, 1760s
Galerie des Modes, 39th issue, 3rd Illustration

1780s fashion plates displayed the “Coiffure a la Jamaique” alongside such styles as the “Robe a la Creole”.

While “wooly” hair was seen by Europeans as morally degenerate when it was on the heads of Black people, on the heads of white European women it was evidence of their status: they had the time and money to be able to twist and set their hair into the volume required by fashion. Such appropriations of Black hairstyles continue to this day: such styles that are looked down on as “unprofessional,” “ghetto,” or “ugly” on the heads of Black people are seen as “chic,” “stylish,” and “groundbreaking” when worn by white models and celebrities.

Even the legislation against Black hair has continued, with girls being sent home from school for their afros being “too big,” or for wearing their natural hair, or women being denied jobs if they don’t cut off their dreadlocks. There is a complete lack of understanding within modern day white society about the sheer quantity of cultural significance that Black hairstyles contain, and I will confess to being guilty of only knowing about them in the context of the 18th Century in America.

Agostino Brunias, Market Day, Rosaeu, Dominica

For more information on this subject, it is very much worth looking at Cheyney McKnight’s essay in the American Duchess Guide to 18th Century Beauty, and also at her YouTube channel, Not Your Momma’s History.