In our latest blog post we asked PHD candidate Rebecca Morrison to tell us about her fascinating research into the methods of the skilled Eighteenth-Century clothing creators known as mantua-makers.
With the opening of the V&A’s new exhibition Fashioned from Nature there has been much in the media about sustainable clothing. Designers such as Stella McCartney have talked to the press about how little of our clothing is recycled (a shocking 1%), and the resources required to provide today’s ‘fast fashion’. Few would deny that we are now quite divorced from the process of production.
Our experience of acquiring clothing is probably a trip to the shops, culminating in our purchase being unceremoniously folded into a carrier bag, but this is of course a relatively new occurrence. Although there have always been a few garments available ‘off-the-peg’, mass produced ready-to-wear clothing only developed in the late nineteenth century.
Before this shift in production, almost all clothing was made bespoke, but not in the way we think of it now. It was not just the wealthy who had their clothes made to measure, but almost all levels of society. And although alterations to clothes might be done in the home, most new garments were produced by experienced professionals, the tailor, or the mantua-maker, and it is the latter on which I’ve focused my research.
So, who was the mantua-maker and how did she work? 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 V&A. 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. We’ll never know the details of these conversations, but it must have been a collaborative undertaking.
There are still many things that baffle me; questions that I hope to answer over the course of my research. I will continue to delve into archives, hunting down rare written accounts of these women’s lives – bills, letters, court accounts and newspaper advertisements. I will study each meticulously matched pattern, painstakingly placed stitch in search of makers and clients interwoven in the layers of the gowns they made and inhabited. Looking and listening for hidden histories, which as Hogarth wrote, reveal ‘the very minds of the people by their dress’.