Object in Focus

A Court Mantua


Mantua, 18th century








Prepared by: Jenny Lister and Joanne Hackett, V&A (with Lesley Miller)

Read the full paper here.

In 2007 Joanne Hackett conserved and reconstructed a British court gown (V&A T.592:1-15-1993) [Figs. 1-4] which is now on display in the newly refurbished Fashion Gallery at the V&A. The gown is made of cream-coloured silk (gros de tours) brocaded in metal threads of different qualities, the silk probably being woven in Lyon in France. The silk design dates to around 1753 to 1755, while the gown and petticoat were made in Britain probably between 1755 and 1760. The cut of the ensemble is distinctive, characteristic of the form of mantua worn by women at the British court in the mid-18th century. The ensemble usually comprised three matching pieces: a petticoat (i.e. skirt), a gown which was worn over the petticoat, and a triangular stomacher which was pinned under the open front of the gown, across the body to hide the stays. In this case, the stomacher that arrived with the petticoat and gown was not original, and the one used on display is a reproduction made to harmonize with the gown and express the original effect.

The court mantua retained fossilized elements of the fashionable gown of the same name, worn in the late-17th century. By the mid-18th century, the remnants of a train had been formalized into a pleated flap from waist to hem [Figs. 3&4], and the wide hoops of fashionable dress had been adopted. The distinctive outerside panels of the petticoat and the folded panels of the train distinguished the mid-century mantua from other gowns, such as the sack back or nightgown. The mantua was made of silk – as befitted its courtly usage – and was adorned with a variety of decoration, intrinsic to the fabric or applied to it, on the skirt and on the robings which ran down the front of the gown, and on the stomacher. It was accessorized with lace ruffles visible below the edge of the gown’s sleeves, long gloves, lace cap and lappets on the head, jewellery, and a fan. While the form of the gown remained fairly static, certain details revealed the wearer was following fashionable taste  – the cut of the sleeves (a turn-back cuff in the 1740s, flounces in the 1750s and 1760s), the choice of seasonally changing silk designs for the fabric, and the selection of new costly fashionable lace accessories. The colour white, particularly with metal threads, was associated with brides and was used for the most formal occasions.

Most other European countries favoured the French grand habit for court dress.[i] Like the mantua, it was a late 17th-century ‘invention’ which continued in Court use through the 18th century. Its skirts were wide and worn over hoops, and it was made of silk adorned with fashionable accessories. Unlike the mantua, it comprised a rigid sleeveless bodice, worn over a petticoat, three rows of lace frills covering the upper arm [Fig. 5]. Often a fichu was worn over the shoulders and neck. Both mantua and grand habit wearers conformed to the etiquette of their respective courts. While British women wore mantuas at the court of St James in London, they were required to wear the grand habit when attending the French Court at Versailles.[ii]

[i] Fastes de Cour et Cérémonies Royales. Le Costume de Cour en Europe 1650-1800, exh. cat., Château de Versailles, 2009

[ii] See Alexander Roslin’s portrait of the British ambassador’s wife  Lady Hertford, 1765. Hunterian Museum, Glasgow University. http://www.huntsearch.gla.ac.uk/cgi-bin/foxweb/huntsearch/DetailedResults.fwx?collection=art&searchTerm=43803



Related material

Visual sources

All images are copyright of the Victoria & Albert Museum, London.


Mantua, 18th century

Mantua, 18th century

Mantua, 18th century

Marie Antoinette, Queen of France, in court dress by François Hubert Drouais; France; 1773; oil on canvas. V&A 529-1882



For full details of construction and conservation, see Joanne Hackett, ‘She Walks in Beauty: the conservation, reconstruction, mounting and packing of an English court mantua’, paper delivered at the North American Conservation Conference, Omnipress, 2009, pp. 65-80
Janet Arnold, ‘A Mantua c. 1708-09 from Clive House, Shrewsbury’, Costume, no. 4, 1970, pp. 26-31.
Janet Arnold, Patterns of Fashion 1660-1860, London, 1989.
Clare Browne, ‘Mary Delany’s Embroidered Court Dress’. In : Mrs. Delany & Her Circle, ed. Mark Laird and Alicia Weisberg-Roberts, Yale Centre for British Art and Sir John Soane’s Museum , 2009
Anne Buck, Dress in Eighteenth Century England, Batsford, 1981.
Avril Hart & Susan North, Fashion in Detail. The Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, V&A, 1998.
Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell, ‘Le grand habit et la mode en France au XVIIIe siècle’ in Fastes de Cour et Cérémonies Royales. Le Costume de Cour en Europe 1650-1800, exh. cat., Château de Versailles, 2009, pp. 222-225
Ietse Meij, ‘A propos de beauté exotique: une mantua commandée en Chine’, in Modes en miroir. La France et la Hollande au temps des Lumières, exh. cat. Paris Musées, 2004, pp. 140-49
Norah Waugh, The Cut of Women’s Clothes, Faber, 1968


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