|RH708 – Mantua
Everyone knows that men in the Baroque period wore Frock Coats and Cocked Hats and Buckled Shoes. But what did women wear in the “Golden Age of Piracy”?
Well, question no more. We’re here to tell you!
By the 1680s, the stiff-bodied gowns of the previous decades were relegated to court wear and a new style was taking over. In France, early versions of this gown were known by the term robe de chambre. In England (and later in France) they were called manteau or mantua. As evidenced by the original French name robe de chambre, the mantua was originally an informal lounging robe.
In the seventeenth century one’s bedchamber was as much a sitting room, suitable for receiving guests and taking meals, as it was a place to sleep. So the mantua must not be mistaken for a sleeping garment or dressing gown. Much like a man’s banyan, the mantua was an informal overgarment appropriate for wear when entertaining casual company in one’s home. In its early years it was not to be worn at the dining table. But in the afternoon in the parlour, it was fine.
Like the banyan, the mantua began as an import from the East. When Charles II married the Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza in 1662, part of her dowry were the cities of Bombay, India and Tangier, Morocco. In addition to the popularization of tea, this new relationship between with the Portuguese (then the world’s foremost trading power) brought many new and exotic items into the hands of the English. Banyans and mantuas were one of them. These essential items of late 17th and 18th century English dress were first brought home by travelers and merchants from the Middle and Far East.
An examination of even a later English-made banyan will reveal its Eastern construction. Indeed they are not unlike kimono or aba in their simplicity. Both the man’s a woman’s versions were cut in two pieces — front and back — with sleeves in one piece with the garment. Later varieties had separate sleeves and added styling.
In the 1660s and 70s, mantuas were worn as simple throw-over garments, worn around the house over petticotes shifts, and stays. The first reference to mantuas as a fashion comes from Randle Holme in The Academy of Armory in 1688. He writes, “There is a kind of loose Garment without, and stiffe Bodies under them, and was a great fashion for women about the Year 1676. Some called them Mantuas.” In illustrations and paintings from that time period, we see women no longer wearing the mantua as a throw-over garment, but pleated into folds over the shoulder to draw the sleeve up to the typical Western position. These pleats were usually held in place by a sash at the waist, but later the pleats would be tacked down, the sleeves made separately and sewn on, and the garment altered permanently.
It did not take long for the mantua to trickle down to all levels of society. As early as 1687, Marcellus Laroon’s The Cryes of the City of London shows women from the tattered poor and common street vendors to well-dressed milkmaids, respectable Quakers and fashionable courtesans wearing versions of the mantua.