I love costume museums, from the Victoria and Albert in London to, for example, Bath in the west of England. Many of these museums have costumes through the ages from around the 18th century to modern day.
Some museums are lucky enough to have a mantua. One of those fantastic huge dresses with a skirt that sticks out on either side and looks as wide as it is long. Whenever I see something like that I think that you could take afternoon tea with your cup and saucer balanced on one side and plate of sandwiches on the other!
Following the demise of Oliver Cromwell and his Puritans and the arrival of Charles II Court Dress became more elaborate, which brings us to the mantuas. They were made of rich fabrics and were often highly embroidered.
As the sewing machine hadn’t yet been invented it is hardly surprising that seamstresses went blind at a young age. Imagine all that fine stitching, much of it done by candlelight throughout the night because “My lady” wanted her new mantua as soon as possible.
I am sure no portraitist had to work so hard under such conditions to produce his work of art because that is what these vast gowns are.
Fortunately the everyday dress of “ladies” was less elaborate and didn’t require hoops.
Which brings us to Regency garments. The most popular line became known as the Empire. High waists, low necks, short sleeves and slim line skirt to the ankles. Often trimmed with ribbons or small imitation flowers. Many of the evening gowns were of fine cotton muslin which daring young ladies would dampen to make it cling to their bodies.
Day dresses would be of wool or cotton (depending on the season of course). The cottons often with a print of flowers or in plaid.
With the end of the Wars and the return of silks and laces ladies again demanded elaborate dresses and hoops. Not as exaggerated as in the 18th century – just a simple crinoline.
By this time, rather than competing with the ladies, Gentlemen’s clothing was far more sober. Dark colours, with trousers, long jackets and top hats being the day time dress. For evening wear a tail coat and fancy waistcoat were obligatory.
As the 19th century progressed the fullness of ladies skirts shifted to the rear in the form of a bustle. This style remained popular into the Edwardian era when bosoms came back into fashion and the front of the skirt was almost straight.
The 20th century was the first one when the styles of clothes changed rapidly over the years. There were several reasons for this – the invention of the sewing machine, wars and, of course, female emancipation.
Probably the silliest early 20th century lady’s dress was the “hobble-skirt”. The long skirt being so tight that the ladies gait became a hobble. Unlike the more elegant gliding steps used previously which made the ladies look as if they were on wheels.
With the outbreak of World War I women began to replace men in certain jobs and found that their skirts were too much to cope with. Together with the lack of money and materials skirts gradually became shorter.
I think we all know the popular 1920s flapper style – highly disapproved of by the older generation. Ironically it was the Flapper Generation which disapproved of Mary Quant’s mini-skirts!
As they say, what goes around comes around.