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

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:

A Day Out in Bath!

In an effort to actually finish our Georgian gowns (having a deadline makes things so much easier!), Harriet and I arranged a weekend in Bath with Serena. Jane Tearle took the most wonderful photographs…

Serena had made hair powder and pomade, so we spent most of the morning experimenting with 18th Century hairstyles. I think some more experiments at some point could be rather fun…

Silhouette shadows were fun!

Chemise a la Reine?

Marie Antoinette, 1778, by Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun.

French court fashion in the last half of the 18th century was excessive. Marie Antoinette set the trend, paving the way for fast fashion as we know it today. She would spend up to £20,000 a day, reportedly commissioning 300 dresses a year, and hardly wearing anything twice.  At a time when fashions changed slowly, fashion plates were being printed every 10 days to keep up with her!

Such silk gowns were worn over the top of structured underthings: after putting on a shift or chemise, stays, panniers, and petticoats would be used to help the wearer achieve the ideal fashionable figure. Silk was the most popular fabric for gowns and coats: the aristocracy at court kept the French silk industry afloat, and their clothes were a display of their patriotism in doing so.

Marie Antoinette en gaule, 1783, by Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun.

Taking French Court fashions into mind, it is little wonder that this portrait caused such a scandal when it was exhibited publicly in 1783!

Marie Antoinette has shed the visible indicators of the fact that she is queen, and there’s no evidence of her husband (the King) anywhere! She’s not even wearing any jewellery, and there’s certainly no subtly placed crown in the corner.

The dress is loose fitting, with no panniers beneath the skirts to hold them out.  You can barely tell that she is wearing stays! On top of that, its made of cotton muslin, not French silk.

Finally, (and arguably most scandalously) the dress looks a lot like a chemise or shift: the under most linen or cotton garment worn by women, which was easily washable and served as protection both for the body from stays rubbing, (think wearing a tight shoe without any socks), and preventing sweat from soaking into the unwashable stays and outer gown.

Marie Antoinette in a posthumous portrait, 1800, by Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun.

However, fashions rarely materialise out of the blue. They all have their origins somewhere, and this dress was not thought up by the Queen for her pastoral fantasy at Le Petit Trianon.

Vêtement dit a la Créole, Galerie des Modes et Costumes Francais, 1779

Vêtement dit a la Créole, composé de celui que portent nos Dames Françaises en Amérique: c’est un grande robe de mousseline, à manches justes qui se serrent au poignet; la robe est un peu ajustée  à la taille et dégagée autour de la gorge dans le gout d’une chemise: elle est cependent sortaisée et ouverte par devant; on l’áttache en haut avec une épingle lorsqu’on veut qu’elle joigne, et a la ceinture avec un ruban comme la Lévite; par dessus un caraco à coqueluchon sans manches; celles de la robe forment l’amadis. Cette figure est coëffée d’un chapeau dit à la Grenade.

A dress a la Creole, made up of that worn by our French Ladies in America: it is a large muslin dress, with fair sleeves that tighten at the wrist; the dress is a little tightened at the waist and clears around the throat in the way of a chemise: it is however taken off and opened at the front; you fasten it at the top with a pin when you want it to join, and at the waist with a ribbon like a Levite [a member of the Hebrew tribe of Levi]; over this a short sleeved caraco jacket; those of the dress form the lower sleeves. On her head is a hat a la Grenade.

[Apologies for the slightly dodgy translation: my French is rather rusty…]

Agostino Brunias, West Indian Creole woman, with her Black Servant ca. 1780

The Chemise a la Reine was rarely called such in the C18th, and was instead known by a variety of other names, primarily (and most notably) the Robe a la Creole. Such a garment began to appear in fashion plates from 1779 in the Galerie des Modes et Costumes Français, as the “Vêtement dit à la creole,” described in the caption  as being “made up of that which our French ladies wear in America.” What the title tells us (that the caption does not) is that the French ladies in America were copying the dress worn by black freewomen (and quite possible enslaved people as well), which approximated European fashionable dress using the materials these women had available to them. Since such clothes were less restrictive and better adapted to the warmer climates, it didn’t take too long for white colonial women to begin wearing them too.

Detail from Linen Market in Dominica, Agostino Brunias, 1780s, “Robe en chemise de mousseline,” Cabinet des Modes, 1786

Marie Antoinette succeeded in popularising the simple cotton dress amongst her friends, but it took the French Revolution for cotton to become so vital to fashion. Luxurious silks and excessive dresses, as a symbol of the fallen aristocracy, were anathema to the revolutionary ideas. The dramatic simplification of dress in the late C18th – early C19th fuelled the rise of the slave trade, and made it possible to later declare that “Cotton is King.”

Agostino Brunias, Linen Market in Dominica ca. 1780

For more, see:

Sonia Ashmore’s book “Muslin,”

Creole Comforts and French Connections

The Little White Dress

The Origins of the Chemise a la Reine

A Brief History of the Fashion Magazine Part 3

In the 16th and 17th Centuries, the most popular printed materials were newspapers, pamphlets, and broadsides. Unfortunately, in the early 18th Century, the English government realised that an awful lot of political propaganda was spread through these cheap, easily made publications, and so decided to stick a tax on them. In order to cover everything, the tax was on “single and half sheet publications.” Publishers responded to this tax by printing lengthier material less frequently, and so the magazine was born in England.

16th Century Broadside

However, other magazines had begun to appear in the late 17th century, in Germany, France, and the Netherlands. It was easier for publishers to have a regular schedule, but it would be difficult to say that the magazines they produced were particularly easy reading: they tended to be intellectual and fairly heavy going, until the publication of the Mercure Galant in 1672, combining news, pleasurable reading, and images.

The rise of female literacy rates meant a new market for publishers, too, and the Lady’s Mercury appeared in 1693, intended specifically for women: the Athenian Mercury ran an advice column that was so popular with women, a separate magazine was briefly created. It was not truly a magazine as we would recognise it today, however, being printed on two sides of a single sheet of paper. The Review, the Tatler, and the Spectator all emerged in the early 18th Century, and likewise grew offshoots aimed specifically at a female audience.

The first Fashion Magazine after the Mercure Galant, however, did not appear until 1770. The Lady’s Magazine (an offshoot of the Gentleman’s Magazine (1731-1907)) lasted until 1847, and contained detailed illustrations of clothes alongside fiction, biographies, music, medicine, and news. Middle and upper class women found it of equal appeal: the court dresses shown helped those of higher rank keep up with the fashions, while the middle ranks could attempt to emulate it on a smaller scale.

The main difference between magazines aimed at women and men in this period was the manner in which politics was treated. While men were being prepared to take military roles in upcoming wars with neighbouring countries, women were reassured that all was safe, and there was nothing to fear, so that no upset was caused in the domestic sphere.

Cabinet des Modes, 1785

While the Lady’s Magazine was varied in its material, and contained relatively few fashion plates, other magazines, such as The Gallery of Fashion (1794-1803), Gallerie des Modes et Costumes Français (1778-1787), and the Magasin des Modes Nouvelles Françaises et Anglaises (1786-1789) consisted almost entirely of fashion plates. These were (unfortunately) more expensive to produce, hence their short lifetimes, but the fashion magazine as we know it today was born!

These magazines gave very detailed descriptions, elaborating on colours, materials, styles, and how such items might be procured. Adverts for various manufactures were included, too.

Such plates could be hand tinted before distribution, coloured by hand once bought, or, more unusually, turned into “dressed prints” with colour being added through the use of fabric and glue.

While these magazines were ostensibly aimed at women (though that is not to say that they didn’t also include male fashion plates too!), they also contained a voyeuristic element for men, from the high fashion of the 1780s involving women’s breasts showing over their necklines, to the form revealing fashions of the 1790s and 1800s.

The effect of these fashion magazines was a homogenisation of European fashion. Marie Antoinette’s constant spending and ever changing styles led to them being printed every 10 days to keep up with her, and while some small regional variation remained, fashion at the end of the 18th Century was very similar all across Europe, with the same silhouettes, styles, trims, and headwear rendering it virtually impossible to tell where someone was from by their clothes. When countries were at war, efforts were made to avoid imitating the styles of the country you were fighting against, but that tended towards small details.

One notable feature of dress that remained radically different depending on location was court dress. Strict rules were in place, dictating what could be worn in front of a country’s monarch, from silhouette to train length, and such things as sleeve length and headwear varied depending on occasion and time of day. As can be seen above, the English retained the paniers of the mid 18th Century, raising them with the waistline, while the French adopted the new fashion of slim skirts.

Such magazines continue to this day in much the same manner as the first 1770 Lady’s Magazine, containing everything from fashion and news to fiction, biographies, and recipies.

For more on fashion magazines, and the history thereof, see (in no particular order:


John L. Nevison’s “Early History of the Fashion Plate

British Library’s Article on Fashion Magazines

Articles in the Lady’s Magazine

Fashion Plates in the National Portrait Gallery

Julia Jones’s “The Fleeting Art: Fashion and Culture in Eighteenth Century France”

Matthaeus Schwarz’s Fashion Book

The Gentleman’s Magazine

The Lady’s Magazine

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.

“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.

The Beginnings of Making the Sacque

This probably wasn’t the best of ideas, but if you’ve read either of my other two posts you may have gathered that I’m impatient and rarely do things in the best order. I have yet to finish my petticoat, and I’ve already begun my gown…

To be fair, I have at least begun my petticoat, and it is sort of wearable. Following the instructions in the American Duchess Guide, I’ve decided to try and sew the entire gown by hand – it’s less scary, and sewing with silk is terrifying at the best of times! Anyway, the petticoat is simply two rectangles of fabric with shaping along the waist line to make the hem nice and level when it’s worn over pocket hoops.

The hem’s level! I’ve never leveled the hem at the waist before! (Please ignore the mess)

The fact that it was two rectangles of fabric meant that Mantua-Maker’s Seam was ideal to use, and it was nice and quick. That and the pleating along the top edge only took me 8 hours, and that was with accidentally hemming one of the top edges because I didn’t realise it was going to be covered by the waist tapes…

Once the hem of the petticoat was level, it was time to add the frill. Since I’d quite like to be able to wear this with more informal jackets as well, it’s going to be between the longer length of a formal petticoat and the shorter length of a more informal petticoat, and hopefully I’ll be able to get away with it? I also decided to try and have decoration going all the way round the petticoat, since the back will be visible when I’m wearing a jacket. This all points to having a frill around the bottom…

…which seems to be going on FOREVER! On a happier note, the scalloped pinking shears I bought from Vena Cava were amazing, but then I may just be biased, since my old zigzag shears are going blunt. Anyway, since the frill was going on forever, I decided to try and get on with the gown. This is probably not a good idea, and means that the odds of me ever finishing the petticoat properly are incredibly low, but still…

I actually made a mock-up! Which then turned out to be completely unnecessary…

I began by deciding to try and drape the pattern with some spare fabric, just to see what it might end up looking like. I looked at the Jean Hunnisett pattern to give me an idea of proportion, which was a bad idea. I only have a finite amount of fabric, and theatre seems to make things in bigger, more exaggerated proportions, meaning even more fabric. The American Duchess book was far less terrifying, so I ended up giving up on the mock-up (I was trying to be good!) and just trying to follow their instructions instead, which was far less scary.

The first step was fitting the lining, so that the dress could be built over the top. This was simple enough, along with the advice that for very broad backs, at least 80″ will be needed in the back of the sacque.

Then it was a case of working out how best to iron the silk. I covered the carpet with a couple of old sheets (one on top of the other) and then was able to iron it spread out on the floor!

Since it was 54″ wide, I worked out that the best way to cut everything would be to have the back panels as two 40″ wide pieces, the front panels as two 20″ wide pieces, and the bodice pieces and so on cut from the 14″ piece down the side. It was then a case of working up the courage to cut into the silk, and then pleating it and ironing, which was FAR TOO MUCH MATHS! With the pleats worked out on slightly narrower panels of fabric, I was then able to back stitch the centre back seam together.

My next step was to cut the bodice pieces. These are cut on the bias, so they’ve got a bit more stretch and fit round the body better. Then it was a case of attaching everything to the lining.

I found these clips to be really useful when it came to attaching the silk to the lining. They didn’t leave any pin holes, and the dent they make can be ironed out.

Anyway, that’s that for now. There’ll probably be a part two (and maybe even three?) at some point, depending on where I get to. I might even finish the petticoat!

(Update!) I’ve entirely forgotten about a part two or three, I’m afraid, so you’re just going to have to guess at how I finished the rest of the dress. I did do it all by hand, and between frustrations with sleeves and general lack of motivation, it took me months (and months, and months…) to get this outfit finished. I got there in the end, though, and you can see the finished results here!

Pocket Hoops

Since I’m planning an 18th century sacque gown, the next undergarment needed is a pair of pocket hoops. I used a variety of different patterns and resources for them, which was nice. They’re so much less complicated than stays!

First, it was a case of drawing out the pattern. Since it was a fairly simple shape, I drew it straight onto the cotton drill I had in my stash using some tailors chalk. As well as the American Duchess Guide to help me, I also had Jean Hunnisett’s book Period Costume for Stage and Screen: Patterns for Women’s Dress 1500-1800, and the The Dreamstress’ Instructions. To be honest, they’re all much of a muchness – there’s not much difference between the patterns. I think I ended up using the American Duchess pattern with the Dreamstress’ instructions, but they’re all really useful resources.

Having cut the pieces out, it was then a case of adding the twill tape along the right lines, and sewing it down. I found it easiest to put the pins along the middle of the tape, so I didn’t have to keep stopping to take them out to avoid sewing over them – I could just take them out at the end. The chalked on numbers are to remind me how long to cut the steel boning for each channel.

Having sewn the channels on, it was then a case of sewing the short edge at the top to the slightly longer edge at the bottom of the below picture. Unfortunately I’ve been most remiss, and failed to take a picture of any of the rest of the processes, which is going to make trying to explain it fun…

Having sewn it into a loop, it was then a case of adding the bottom semicircular pattern piece, which both helps the pocket hoop hold its shape and means that you can use it as a pocket! Then, with the boning added and the ends of the tape finished off so that it couldn’t escape, I pinned in some pleats at the top while it was on Molly (the dressform) so that I could see what it might end up looking like. I think I must have cut and hemmed the slit at the top at some point, but I’ve no idea when.

Once the pleats were pinned, it was then a case of adding a tape all round the top to hold them up. I had run out of tape when I did this, so I ended up using a strip of the cotton I’d used instead. I think I might end up replacing it with tape when I have some more, and then I’ll be able to add some tapes further down to stop them moving around too much.

On to the gown!

C18th Stays

Yes, I know I’m not doing this in the right order… I should really begin by making a smock, but I’m also impatient, and would rather make the exciting things! I had heard that Redthreaded are brilliant when it comes to corset patterns, so rather than drafting my own, I decided to use their pattern instead. I do have the resources to draft it myself, but ready made patterns feel safer. And it came with instructions! This wasn’t necessarily to my advantage…

Stays pattern laid on the floor with mustard yellow cotton drill, a roll of plastic boning, sand coloured bias binding, and corset lacing.

I had the cotton drill in my stash, but the rest of the notions came from Vena Cava Design, who (along with Sew Curvy) seem to be the main corsetry suppliers in the UK. Even though we were in lockdown at the time(the joys of 2020!), the supplies came really quickly! The pattern in the picture is a photocopy of the first one I printed off – temperamental technology is the bane of my life – I should have realised I wanted a second copy to scribble all over when the printer was working! Anyway…

I am incredibly bad at making mock-ups before diving head first into a project, but am trying to get better at it. I made this mock-up of the stays pattern in the final fabric, figuring that it was more likely to need to go smaller than bigger. I wasn’t entirely optimistic, since I have very little bust, and not a lot to squidge at the waist, which means that standard sized stays don’t fit brilliantly, and I can’t have as much waist reduction as some pattern drafting books seem to think I should have. I’ve made a set of C18th stays before, but they… didn’t go brilliantly. I might do a post on things I’ve learned from past projects, now I think about it. Would that be of interest?

Back to the topic at hand! The mock up was (funnily enough) bigger than I would have liked in certain areas, but I was able to shrink it down at the side seams without too much apparent hassle.

C18th Stays mockup in mustard yellow cotton drill.

As you can see from the multiple lines of stitching here, it had to be taken in quite a bit to get it to fit, especially around the bust. I don’t blame the pattern for that though – I’m not exactly standard proportions! Unfortunately I don’t have any pictures of me trying the mock up on, but I’m sure I’ll get better at taking more relevant pictures with practice.

After this I skipped to making the boned stomacher that goes in the front of the stays for them to lace over – it felt like it would be easier than sorting out the lining.

I by no means have the neatest machine stitching in the world, but I wanted to finish it quickly. One of these days I’ll try making some stays by hand, but not yet. I used synthetic baleen, which was just like using cable ties except it’s so much easier to cut to the right length! For extra stiffness, I used a layer of buckram between the cotton drill outer and the linen lining, though I don’t know how much of an effed this had.

The main advantage of the buckram is that it’s slightly see through, so it was really easy to mark the boning channels on with a pencil and then sew along them. I know they don’t look the neatest, but they function, and no one’s going to see them (except anyone reading this, obviously…).

I didn’t have a wider piece of boning to use at the centre, so used several pieces of narrower boning, figuring that it would have the same effect. It… doesn’t exactly… They all tend to bunch up when I’m wearing it, but it doesn’t really matter too much in terms of comfort or shape – it just looks a bit odd.

To bone and line the stays, I made things a little more complicated for myself than I really needed to… Rather than unpick the mock up so that the interlining and lining could be cut to the right shapes, I decided to leave it all sewn together, and trace the shapes onto the buckram to use as pattern pieces. Not unpicking the lining also meant that I couldn’t follow the instructions included in the pattern, where the stays are flatlined, but I’m very rarely any good at following instructions either…

I then traced the boning channels through the buckram, and sewed them all (again, not terribly neatly), and added the boning. I added the lining last. I’ve no idea if it’s a proper way of lining something, but I sewed each bit of lining so that it overlaps the last, so there are no raw edges showing, while at the same time attaching it to the rest of the stays at the top and bottom and along all the seams. Now, with all the boning in, I figured it’d be a good idea to check they fitted properly again, before going through all the work of binding and eyelets.

It worked! I’m cone shaped! You can probably see the weird bunching in the middle of the stomacher – don’t be like me. Make sure you have all the right materials to hand. Anyway, in full knowledge that it fitted and was comfortable, I began the long process of binding and eyelets. Rather than do all of one and then all of the other, I alternated between the two so that I could get bored of one and still be productive by doing the other.

Binding is incredibly fiddly when going round tabs, which is part of the reason I decided to do it by hand rather than try and follow the instructions for machine sewing it. I prefer hand sewing to using a machine, and find it far easier to make things neat that way, even if it is slower. It’s also closer to the way in which it was originally made.

By swapping between the binding and the eyelets (which are so much easier when I have access to a proper awl!), I managed to finish them fairly quickly. I was also helped by the fact that I used the shoulder straps made of twill tape – something I learned from this American Duchess video (about 10 minutes in, if anyone’s interested). I should really have timed myself, but because I’m constantly picking up and putting down my sewing in between doing other things, it makes it quite difficult to estimate how long things really take. At any rate, I’m quite pleased with the result! On to the pocket hoops