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 (erroneously) 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.

[Insert para specifying why using particular term for banyan]

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.

Conclusion

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.

Sources:

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 – http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/orie/hd_orie.htm (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

16th Century Working Women’s Clothes

Created in 2016 for participation in Kentwell Hall‘s Great Recreation of Tudor Life, this set of clothes consists of a linen coif, two linen smocks, a brown wool petticoat, a russet kirtle, a pair of brown wool sleeves, a linen apron, and a dark grey wool jacket.

Photo by Alastair Simpson

The entire outfit was self drafted from my own measurements, and I’ve found little need to alter it over the years, though I’m considering taking the black binding off the hem of the kirtle and simply hemming it instead. Were I to make it again, I’d use spiral lacing rather than cross lacing, since I now know that cross lacing was not really used in the period. I’d probably also lower the waistline slightly, since my waist is lower than I thought it was when I made it!

Photo by Mike Hill

With the exception of the jacket (or waistcoat, as it would have been known at the time), which I sewed entirely by hand, I used a sewing machine for all of the seams that wouldn’t be visible once the clothes were worn. As such, hems and eyelets and such like were still sewn by hand, while the side seams of the skirt were made by machine.

Photo by Alastair Simpson

The coif was based on the one worn in the sketch of Anne Boleyn in a nightgown by Holbein, though I made the earflaps smaller. The rest was based on instructions in the Tudor Tailor.

Photo by Mike Hill

To complete the outfit, I bought shoes, stockings, a belt, and a knife suitable for a woman of this status in this time period.

Photo by Harriet Still

As a set of clothes, they’re entirely comfortable and practical (aside from the jacket, which has always been a little small, but still makes a huge difference when it comes to warmth), and still fit 6 years later. They don’t restrict movement in any way, and the options of different layers mean that an outfit can be adapted for different weathers.

Photo by Neil Crick

The lacing also means that it’s relatively flexible in terms of fit, and so works well enough on other people provided they’re of similar enough size to me (apologies for the incredibly baggy men’s shirt worn beneath the kirtle in the above image: I didn’t have any spare clean smocks at the time!).

Embroidery: Comparing mine to the jacket in Bath Fashion Museum

Something I should probably have done before beginning my embroidery (but never mind: it wasn’t exactly possible in the middle of a pandemic!) was visit the jacket in Bath Fashion Museum that is similar (but not identical) to the one in the Burrell Collection. I did so last weekend, though, when I went to Bath with Harriet and Serena as an excuse to dress up in 18th Century finery.

It was really useful to be able to compare the two, and I think I’ve managed to learn a lot that will come in useful next time (if there is a next time!).

The Good News!

I’ve managed to get the proportions of the pattern just right! It’s all to the same scale as the Bath jacket. My colours are right, the stitches are right, and in that respect all is well. My linen isn’t nearly so fine as the Bath jacket’s linen, but I was expecting that anyway: I knew the linen I had chosen was somewhat coarse, but fine, closely woven, opaque linen is really hard to come by nowadays… It’s also been really useful to see the Bath jacket because it retains more of its spangles, so once my spangles arrive, I’ll be able to space them out in a similar manner.

The blending of threads that I conjectured had been used to achieve blends of colour was correct, and many of the guesses I had made about rows of stitches (two yellow, two blue in the stripy leaf, for example) were also correct.

The Bad News…

Basically, while I’ve got the pattern the same size, mine is in bold… I’ve been doubling the threads over, because I was concerned that they were too thin, but in reality I’ve gone and made everything slightly thicker than it ought to be. The gold plaited braid stitch in particular is very fine. Likewise, the red thorns are much smaller on the real jacket. It looks like the red zig-zags on the bluebells go on top of the already embroidered white (or blue, in the case of the Bath jacket) so I can stop worrying about which way I should do those now!

While my efforts are by no means perfect, I’m not going to begin this whole process again because I’m using doubled over threads rather than the one strand I should have been using. I’ll continue, and then use what I’ve learned when/if I get around to creating something similar to the Devereux bodice held in the Kyoto Costume Institute!

Anyway, here are some of the pictures I took of the Bath jacket, for those who want a closer look:

Extant Embroidered Jacobean Jackets

A garment of which there are huge numbers of surviving examples, as well as painted depictions, is the late 16th century – early 17th century woman’s waistcoat or jacket. Such garments seem to be almost entirely English, and their survival is perhaps mainly thanks to their small size and intricate embroidery. It’s not very easy to cut them down and turn them into anything else!

English woman's jacket in undyed linen embroidered with silver and gilt-silver yarns and spangles in daffodil scroll pattern, trimmed with metallic lace.
English woman’s jacket in undyed linen embroidered with silver and gilt-silver yarns and spangles in daffodil scroll pattern, trimmed with metallic lace, c. 1610-1615 with later alterations, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Such garments were informal wear for noble women, while the gentry considered them formal wear. Decoration varied from simple wool embroidery on fustian to metallic threads on linen or silk, complete with hundreds of metal spangles.

Margaret Layton Jacket, 1610-1615 (altered 1620), V&A Museum
Margaret Layton Jacket, 1610-1615 (altered 1620), V&A Museum

Possibly the most famous jacket is the Margaret Layton one, since not only does the jacket still exist, so does a portrait of it being worn! Such a survival is rare for something for so old, and it gives valuable insight into how such garments were worn.

“The waistcoat has long, tight sleeves, narrow shoulder wings, semi-circular cuffs and a small curved collar at the back neck, dating it to about 1610. Made of linen, it is hand sewn and lined with coral silk taffeta. Originally the jacket was fastened with pink silk ribbons. In the 1620s, an edging of spangled silver-gilt bobbin lace was added. Fragments remain of the original silk ribbons used for fastening. The waistcoat is embroidered in detached buttonhole, stem, plaited braid, chain, couching and dot stitches, with knots and speckling, with coloured silk threads, silver-gilt threads and spangles.”

V&A Museum
Margaret Layton Portrait, c. 1620, Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger
Margaret Layton Portrait, c. 1620, Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger

The jacket had the lace added in the 1620s, but as fashion was changing, waistlines had risen. Rather than further alter the jacket drastically, Margaret Layton instead wore her petticoat higher up over the jacket, hiding its lower waistline.

For more pictures of the jacket, see its page on the V&A website. There are nearly 100 detailed pictures of the embroidery and construction!

Margaret Layton Jacket, 1610-1615 (altered 1620), V&A Museum, Detail
Margaret Layton Jacket, 1610-1615 (altered 1620), V&A Museum, Detail

Another jacket held by the V&A with a huge number of images is this loose fitting one from c.1590-1630.

Loose fitting linen jacket c.1590-1630, V&A Museum
Loose fitting linen jacket c.1590-1630, V&A Museum

“This simple unlined jacket represents an informal style of clothing worn by women in the early 17th century. Unlike more fitted waistcoats, this loose, unshaped jacket may have been worn during pregnancy. A repeating pattern of curving scrolls covers the linen from which spring sweet peas, oak leaves, acorns, columbine, lilies, pansies, borage, hawthorn, strawberries and honeysuckle embroidered in coloured silks, silver and silver-gilt threads. The embroidery stitches include chain, stem, satin, dot and double-plait stitch, as well as knots and couching of the metal threads. Sleeves and sides are embroidered together with an insertion stitch in two shades of green instead of a conventionally sewn seam.

Although exquisitely worked, this jacket is crudely cut from a single layer of linen, indicating the work of a seamstress or embroiderer, someone without a tailor’s training. It has no cuffs, collar or lining, and the sleeves are cut in one piece. The jacket was later altered to fit a thinner person. The sleeves were taken off, the armholes re-shaped, the sides cut down, and the sleeves set in again.”

V&A Museum
Loose fitting linen jacket c.1590-1630, V&A Museum, Detail
Loose fitting linen jacket c.1590-1630, V&A Museum, Detail

Unlike many other extant jackets, it is embroidered entirely in silk, without the use of metallic threads or spangles that are so visible on so many of the others. The fact that it survives while still being so loose fitting is also interesting, since it wouldn’t have been difficult to cut it down into on of the more fashionable jackets of the later 1630s.

One jacket that has been cut down and altered is this one.

Waistcoat, c.1610-1620, altered 1620s, V&A Museum
Waistcoat, c.1610-1620, altered 1620s, V&A Museum

The neckline has been cut down, cutting into the embroidery, probably so that it could be worn as a masque costume. The sides have been taken in, and the armscyes made smaller by adding pieces to them. It doesn’t seem to be a particularly skilled job, but since masques tended to take place in the evening, in candle light, it is unlikely that anyone would have noticed!

A jacket that was also altered for a masque (though in a very different way!) is also held by the V&A.

Waistcoat, 1600-1620, altered 1620s, V&A Museum
Waistcoat, 1600-1620, altered 1620s, V&A Museum

“Four pieces forming a woman’s waistcoat made of bleached linen and embroidered with coloured silks, silver and silver-gilt filé and spangles. The pattern of the embroidery comprises a lattice of geometric strapwork in plaited braid stitch with threads. Worked inside the strapwork compartments are flowers, fruits and leaves in coloured silks in detached buttonhole stitch. The grapes are similarly worked, but raised for a three-dimensional effect.

The waistcoat was probably altered in the 1620s to wear as masque costume. The fronts were removed, shortened and new gores added, then sewn to new silk backs (not meant to be seen when worn) The waistcoat probably had a scattering of silver-gilt spangles. Many more, each topped with a glass bead, were added, filling the linen ground and almost obscuring the pattern of the embroidery…

…The British philosopher and writer Francis Bacon (1561-1626) wrote an essay, ‘Of Masques and Triumphs’, in 1594, advising on the colours and decorations most effective for masque costume. He recommended spangles, ‘as they are of no great cost, so they are of most glory. As for rich embroidery, it is lost, and not discerned.’”

V&A Museum

On that note, I think I’ll just present you with a collection of some of the other beautiful embroidered jackets still in existence!

Slashing and Pinking

Pearls, spangles, laces, metallic thread, and embroidery, were all expensive in the Early Modern period (and still even today), and so decoration of clothing tended to be the preserve of the rich. While labour during the period was cheap, the materials needed were expensive, especially in the quantity needed to decorate sets of clothes. You can see the quantity of pearls and gold trim in the portrait below, all of which would have been incredibly expensive, and (naturally) beyond the reach of most of the middle classes.

Mary Tudor and Charles Brandon, c.1515

Likewise in the below portrait, while the time and labour involved in the vast quantity of embroidery would have been relatively cheap, the gold and silk threads would have been hugely expensive: unlike the plastic gold threads we have access to today, 16th Century gold thread generally consisted of gold (as in the metal) or silver gilt strips wrapped around a silk core.

Portrait of (possibly) Lady Dorothy Cary

However, a breakthrough in the late 15th and early 16th Centuries enabled far more people to decorate their clothes.

Landsknechte, etching by Daniel Hopfer, c. 1530

The origins of slashing and pinking are unknown, but there are various theories. Soldiers returning from the battlefield with slashed, torn clothes are possibly the origin of the fashion for making pointless cuts and holes in fabric. Other stories involve the Swiss army beating Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgandy, in 1476, stealing the clothes amongst his possessions, and patching the luxurious fabric onto their own in repairs, or (more mundanely) that soldiers cut slashes into their leather tunics to give more ease and manoeuvrability. Whatever the precise origin, it appears to have had military roots.

Landsknecht mercenaries with arquebuses (Tapestries of the Battle of Pavia by Bernard van Orley, between 1528 and 1531)
Landsknecht mercenaries with arquebuses (Tapestries of the Battle of Pavia by Bernard van Orley, between 1528 and 1531)

The thing that helped the trend to spread like wildfire, however, was its simplicity. It didn’t require any extra items to be bought for embellishment: it was embellishment in and of itself. It took nothing but time, and some very simple tools.

Pinking and buttonhole cutting set, The Tudor Tailor

Tailors used scissors anyway, and these could be used for large slashes, or to cut the fabric into strips. For smaller cuts, or more subtle designs, a chisel like tool, a hammer, and a block of wood covered in lead were used to make patterns. These slashes and holes in garments could then show another fabric beneath: just the lining, or (if you had more money) another, expensive fabric.

Lady Diana Cecil by William Larkin, (1614-18) (Ranger’s House, Suffolk Collection)

The fact that the chisels could be used over and over, create countless designs, and took only labour without requiring extra materials rendered this ever popular decorative technique available to the middling classes who had a little money to spend on fashion, not just practical clothes.

Above, you can see slashing on the clothes of some English ladies, a boy from Sienna, and a German lady. For the majority of middle class people who wanted to show off their money through their clothes, slashing and pinking were the way to go, along with applied cloth strips to serve as guards on the hems of skirts, since they served the triple purpose of being decorative, replaceable, and prolonging the life of the skirt.

16th Century German Tailor’s workshop

The majority of fashionable trends in the 16th century were localised, and relatively short lived. Pleated clothing, in Germany and the surrounding area, for example, never spread very far, and with the homogenisation of European fashion in the 18th Century, it died away.

Slashing and pinking, however, continued in popularity all the way through the Early Modern period and into the 19th Century, with women complaining in the 18th Century of careless men letting their swords catch on their dresses in the street, resulting in the tearing of their silk gown. It changed very little in essence and technique, though from the 18th Century onwards, circular holes made in fabrics as well as scalloped edges were far more common.

Despite these changes, slashing in its original form made a comeback in the Regency period on some dresses! While the 1790s-1820s are known for their neoclassical fashions, some dresses were also made to emulate the renaissance period, mixing the high Italian waistlines with slashed sleeve puffs and ruffly chemisettes.

A Brief History of the Fashion Magazine Part 1

In the 16th Century, communication was relatively slow and fashions changed equally slowly. They tended toward very specific regional styles: you can see in the above map that the countries around Germany favour lots of pleats, while the Dutch and Flemish have large, dark hoods, and the English women have fitted gowns that are open down the front. Headwear in particular is different all across the map.

Upper class fashion aimed to imitate the monarch, and monarchs were often the ones who imported new fashions through their marriages, or increased the extremes of fashions through their wealth. Part of the reason for such distinct styles was the fact that the printing press had only relatively recently been invented. Through the 16th Century, a few books appeared detailing patterns for tailors, but these retained the regional styles, and were very much aimed at tailors – not the general public.

Embroidery books did exist from the 1520s onwards, with different patterns for different styles of embroidery and (later) lace. These could be used by ladies undertaking domestic sewing for pleasure as well as professional embroiderers. The fact that the patterns within these books were much plagiarised led to some commonality in the embroidery and laces across Europe, but not clothing as a whole. At this point there was no concept of a fashion magazine.

Books with clothing illustrated in them certainly existed, but they served more as a way of showing differences in regional dress. Lucas van de Heere’s book is an example of this. The one major exception to books illustrating the differences between regional dress is the book of Matthaeus Schwarz of Augsburg, which detailed each and every set of clothes he ever bought (now published as the First Book of Fashion).

While Schwarz’s book was certainly accurate, since its whole purpose was to detail his clothes as he bought them across 40 years, books of costume showing the clothes of different countries relied on letters and accounts of travellers. Such descriptions of clothes were often lacking, and so the books tended to be somewhat less accurate. Compare the painting of an English woman from 1567 with the woodcut of an English lady! The foreign interpretation is radically different to the reality.

The silhouette is relatively accurate, but there have certainly been some creative liberties taken. The headdress is not something I’ve seen anywhere in mid 16th century fashion, and the hoops of the farthingale showing would only be accurate for late 15th century Spain. The partlet and small neck ruff seem reasonably, but the neckline of the gown is bizarre. The wrist ruffs with the cuffs seem an odd combination, and the muff hanging from her girdle is ridiculously small. The slashing on her bodice seems very large, but not impossible: I have seen similar slashing on slightly later bodices. All in all, it’s an image that seems to have been created by someone who didn’t know what they were looking at or (more likely) didn’t have anything to look at!

One notable exception to the lack of fashion magazines was in Italy. Printed images were produced showing hairstyles, and while the intention was to show the hair styles of different places, women would use them as inspiration for dressing their own hair. This is something we know thanks to a few lines in a play by Ben Johnson:

Philautia:…What, have you changed your head-tire?

Phantaste: Yes, faith, the other was near the common, it had no extraordinary grace; besides, I had worn it almost a day, in good troth.

Philautia: I’ll be swon, this is most excellent for the device, and rare; ’tis after the Italian print we looked on t’other night.

Ben Jonson’s Cynthia’s Revels, first acted in 1600. Philautia addresses her friend Phantaste (Act 2, scene 1)

Part 2: Louis XIV’s Bright Idea