The Politics of Fashion

The Victoria and Albert Museum

Eighteenth-century British court style

British court style
This is a spectacularly luxurious example of a mantua, the style of dress worn for attendance at court in Britain in the 18th century.

The mantua is made from an ivory silk brocaded in a pattern of stylised flowers and leaves. This is a French silk – although weavers in London copied French styles very closely at the time.

The abstract form of the motifs is emphasised by the non-naturalistic colours of the precious metal threads.

In between the original use of the garment and its arrival at the museum, the bodice was used for fancy dress in the 19th century. The sleeves had been widened, and the original train removed.

When the bodice arrived in the museum, it was in 7 separate parts.

This is another magnificent example of British court dress of the mid-18th century. It would have been worn by an aristocrat for court events attended by the royal family.

The style of this mantua was perfectly suited for the maximum display of wealth and art; this example contains almost 10lb of silver thread worked in an elaborate 'Tree of Life' design.

For daywear, this sack back characterises women's fashion of the same period. This example was made from silk woven in Spitalfields in London.

A family history
The mantua was found in 1989 in a box labelled ‘dressing-up clothes’ by Theresa Merville Crawley in her grandfather’s attic. A paper label indicated that it had once belonged to a member of the family called Mrs Colonel Clapham, who was granddaughter of Sidney Parry (born Sidney Lewis, in 1738), an heiress with a considerable fortune.

It seems possible that Sidney Parry was, in fact, the original wearer of the mantua.

Sidney Parry was of sufficient status to attend court, with the means to own such a splendid gown, and she was between 17 and 22 when the gown was made – in other words, at an age when she might be presented at court.

From fashion to formality
At the beginning of the 1700s, mantuas were worn as fashionable dress, but 50 years later they were so formal that they were only worn at court. This process of 'formalising' happens just as much today: our wedding dresses are based on the fashions of earlier periods.

This doll, known as Lady Clapham, was made between 1690–1700. Her clothes are of great historical interest, because they show us – in perfect miniature – fashionable dress of the late 1600s. This gives an insight into the evolution of the mantua.

The stays would have been worn over a shift.

The high quality of Lady Clapham and her clothes indicates that she would have been expensive. There is little evidence of use, which suggests that she was admired by adults rather than played with by children.

Accessories such as the stockings, cap and shift are valuable to dress historians, since very few items from such an early period survive in museum collections. The fact that we can see how the clothes were worn together is equally important.

A political statement?
The mantua was made during the Seven Years War (1756–63) between Britain and France. During this time, trade between the two countries was severely restricted. After the war there were heavy taxes to be paid on all French silk entering Britain.

French silks – such as this – were the most expensive, fashionable and desirable fabrics in Europe, and everyone wanted to acquire them, whether legally or illegally.

Britain had its own silk industry in the 1700s located in Spitalifelds, London, producing beautiful fabrics brocaded in silver and gold. The British government established high taxes on imported textiles to protect the Spitalfields production.

The London Chronicle in 1760 noted: 'In all public places, our ladies appear to be much more French than English. The legislature has prohibited the importation of French silks, laces and linens; and for that very reason, to obtain them is become desirable and esteemed more genteel...'

It seems likely, therefore, that the silk used for this mantua was smuggled into Britain from France, to be worn at the court of King George III, while the two countries were at war.

It is possible that the wearer valued fashion more than the law.

Credits: Story

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