For court wear in the early 18th century, women wore the open-fronted mantua, with a train and matching petticoat. To give the figure the required shape, stays (an 18th century precursor to the corset) and hooped petticoat, or panniers, were worn underneath. Designed to reflect the wearer’s status, mantuas were typically decorated with opulent embroidery incorporating gold or silver thread or gilt lace.
Above: Woman's stays made from linen and stiffening. Lengths of cane have been sewn into the interior with rows of vertical stitches. The reverse of the stays can be adjusted with a length of linen interlaced through eyelets at the centre back opening. English, c. 1730-50.
What was the inspiration behind the design of the mantua?
The mantua was worn only on specific royal occasions, such as receptions at Hampton Court and St James’s Palace in London. The King’s birthday was one of the man celebratory events of the year, when the nobility would gather in London and commission new clothes. It’s possible that the mantua was made for one of George II’s birthdays (10th November) as gold brocade fabrics were usual for this event: the firm of William Sharp in 1752 advertised a ‘great variety of gold and silver brocade for ladies, and rich waistcoat stuff for gentleman’s wear, entirely new, for the ensuing birthday and winter wear’.
The wide skirts of the mantua reflect the contemporary fashion, but their extreme exaggeration is purely a court affectation. In Britain the shape remained largely the same for many years, with only minimal changes in the formation of the train, or the fashionable pattern of the silk.