J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, May 06, 2018

The Art and Mystery of Mantua Makers

The U.K.’s Arts and Humanities Research Council recently posted an interesting essay by Rebecca Morrison about her research into mantua makers.

Here’s an extract:
Until the late seventeenth century male tailors made almost all fashionable female outerwear. However, in the closing decades of the century a new style, known as the mantua, became fashionable. It was an unstructured gown, worn loose over separate stays (corsets), in stark contrast to the heavily structured bodices and co-ordinating skirts which had typified the formal wear of preceding years. Seamstresses who had previously been limited to making linen underwear and accessories seized this opportunity to make outerwear. And within a few decades women were almost exclusively making clothes for women. In France these seamstresses were known as couturières, and in England mantua-makers. A moniker that would stick with them, long after the mantua was consigned to fashions past.

The French couturières were granted the right to form guilds, and because of this, a large number of records revealing their working lives remain today – indispensable to the modern historian. The English mantua-makers, however, formed no such organisations. In fact most of them worked very privately and usually from their own homes. So, without written records how do we find out about these early dressmakers?

Much of my research has involved studying gowns held by the [Victoria & Albert Museum]. Although many were worn by the gentry or nobility, they reveal much broader patterns of cutting and construction techniques, and even aspects of the relationship between client and maker. I start each study by taking a pattern off the gown, i.e. drawing the pieces of the fabric, the cut and fold lines. I then record the different stitches and where they have been employed. I look at the trimmings and linings – how and at what step of the process they are attached. I also consider alterations – the marks left by earlier seams, and the addition or removal of pieces. This is a time-consuming process, but a rewarding one. The longer I spend with each garment the more intimately I come to know it, and the clearer the process of production becomes.

It is a process that would be unfamiliar to modern consumers. If you were lucky enough to be buying a bespoke dress today a fitting would involve the client trying on the unfinished garment, in either the final fabric or toile made from an inexpensive cloth. However, the eighteenth-century mantua-maker did not have paper patterns or a dress-stand at her disposal, and the cost of using even a cheap fabric for a toile would have been prohibitive. Instead she used the client’s body to shape and fold her cloth. She would pin it in such a way that it could be sewn immediately.

No ‘right-sides’ together, followed by turning inside out. Long petticoats which do not take much strain would be stitched with a quick running stitch. Not only fast, but also easy to remove as fashions changed. Economy was important as the cost of fabrics dwarfed the wages of the mantua-maker. Although these gowns were quick to make they were not ‘fast fashion’. Rather an investment that could be remade, gifted or sold to the thriving second-hand market. Many of the decisions regarding fit and form could be taken together, between maker and client at the earliest stages of construction.
In 1796, eight women were listed as “mantua makers” in the Boston directory: Hannah Boyd, Elizabeth Goddard, Rachel Hall, Mary Laughton, Hannah Moore, Sarah Peirce (who also kept a boarding house), Sarah Snow, and Hannah Tileston. That was distinct from a “sempstress” like Mary Box or a “tayloress” like Abigail Kneeland.

According to Marla Miller, the last woman to call herself a “mantua maker” in the Boston directory was Rebecca Godwin Major in 1845. You can watch Prof. Miller’s talk about “The Last Mantua Maker” here.

(Pictured above is a mid-1700s formal dress owned by the Faneuil family and now in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts.)

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