Sunday, 17 May 2015

In search of the working woman's mantua

May is all about Practicality for the Historical Sew Monthly.  I like practicality.  It appeals to me on a philosophical level.  On a historical level, practical clothes intended for work and everyday living are often more interesting to me than the clothes of the elite, because they are the clothes that most people would have worn most of the time.

My project for this challenge started out as one thing, but ended up being something completely different.  It was initially going to be a 15th century working woman’s dress, made from a pattern I drafted last year.  It was going gangbusters too, right up until I got to the sleeves.  I didn't do a great job on drafting those sleeves, and they don’t fit at all.  They did the first time I made this pattern, but I used different fabric then.

Fixing this problem was going to require me to actually sit down and learn how to draft sleeves properly.  Screw that.  I decided to go right back to the drawing board and make a mantua instead.  And you know what?  I’m glad I did.  It'll still be a lower class garment - no frills, no train, made from plain dark blue wool and suitable for working in.

The mantua, which started to become fashionable in the mid-1670s, is a supremely practical garment.  It was much more comfortable and less restrictive than the heavily boned bodices that had been worn previously, and quickly became a popular choice for ladies of quality.  As you might expect, the mantua became popular with the working classes too.  For an excellent overview of the mantua, see Isis' Wardrobe here.  However, while a number of upper class mantuas still exist, I'm not aware of any working class versions that have survived.  Reconstructing a working woman's mantua will involve researching existing mantuas, and period art showing working class women.

The Cryes of the City of London, a series of etchings from 1688, depicts a number of lower class women doing all kinds of practical business activities while wearing mantuas.

A street trader walking to left with a basket of fabric under her left arm; from bound series of the Cries of London.  1688  Etching and engraving
Look at those sleeves.  Those are easy to fit.

A strawberry seller standing to front, carrying fruit on a large flat basket on her head, and punnets in her hands; from bound series of the Cries of London.  1688  Etching
No front pleats.

The number and placement of pleats is variable in these examples, as is the neckline.  The woman in the second picture there doesn't seem to have any pleats at all on the front of her dress, while the third woman doesn't seem to have pleats at the back, though I suspect the center back seam on her bodice may in fact be two pleats that meet in the center back, a bit like the Shrewsbury mantua. She wears her skirt draped back over her hips the same way upper class ladies wore their mantuas.

A fruit seller walking to left carrying a basket on her head and another hanging from her left arm; from bound series of the Cries of London.  1688  Etching and engraving
Either no back pleats, or two pleats that meet in the center back.  I can't tell for sure.

Surviving garments and pictures and the mantua patterns in The Cut of Women's Clothes and Patterns of Fashion reveal that construction methods for these things varied in terms of detail, but revolved around the same basic principles.  The bodice and skirt were cut in one with bodice shaping achieved by pleating the fabric, and in some cases the front and back were a continuous piece of fabric with no shoulder seam.  Sleeves were elbow-length and quite roomy, with the sleeve head pleated into the armscye.  Skirt gores tended to have a right-angle triangle shape.

Because there’s so much variation I haven't used any one pattern.  I've based my construction on the Kimberley mantua pattern in The Cut of Women’s Clothes, and the Shrewsbury mantua pattern in Patterns of Fashion, and the more generic pattern in Period Costumes for Stage and Screen.  From there I simply cut my cloth and pleated it into shape.

This is one of my front pieces with the pleats pinned in place and ready to be sewn down.  The armhole hasn't been cut yet.

I found trial and error was the best way to figure out where the pleats should be.  I pinned them in place and tried a few different ways of doing them.  After joining the back and front pieces together, I changed the front pleats again.

The pleats look deep, but in fact the depth varies along the length of the pleat from 40mm at the waist to 10mm over the bust.  After some experimentation, I found the front pleats worked best if I didn't stitch them down over the bust.  The back pleats got sewn down along their whole length and are just straight pleats tapering from 40mm at the waist to 10mm at the shoulder.

Draping a garment to shape can be a wasteful way to cut cloth, but in this case I don't think it was.  There were very few offcuts - just little curves cut out to form the armholes and a couple of little bits at the sides.  I find this interesting.  In the pre-industrial world fabric was expensive, and even wealthy people could not afford to waste it by using uneconomical cutting layouts.  So I was curious to see how much fabric the mantua would use compared to the Medieval dress I originally intended to make, and the answer is about the same.

At first I wondered if the women wearing unpleated mantuas in the pictures above had cut them that way to save on fabric, because bodice pleating was a defining feature of the upper class mantua and I've only seen unpleated versions on pictures of working women.  I now think that may be true, but not necessarily.  I've sketched out (roughly - these aren't to scale) the cutting layout for my mantua, and the cutting layout I would have used for the 15th century dress using a pattern made according to the directions in The Medieval Tailor's Assistant.  As you can see there's not much between them.

So why omit the pleats if it wasn't to save fabric?  Well, I wonder if some of these working class mantuas are hybrid garments made by combining the overall look of a mantua with the kind of shaped bodice block used for earlier fashions (see this pattern from Reconstructing History).  Perhaps the seamstress didn't know how the bodice of an upper class mantua was constructed, or perhaps she preferred to stick with a pattern that she knew would work for her.

Next time, we'll look at construction details.


  1. I love the idea of an Early Modern garment that isn't luxury wear for the rich, and that blue is divine. I look forward to pictures of you modeling the finished product.

    1. Thanks Cathy! I really like these lower class Early Modern clothes too; I definitely should make up the petticoat and shift to go with this mantua and convince someone to take some photos. Not too sure what to do about shoes though. Must look out in the op-shops for something that'll work.