Court Dress. The Historical Background
In the eighteenth century, formal dress was so closely associated with Versailles and the French court that it was universally described as the robe à la française. The robe à la française has a fitted overdress which is open at the front and has a decorative bodice insert called a stomacher covering the corset and an underskirt, the petticoat, showing under the splayed drapery of the overskirt.
During the reign of Louis XIV, France replaced Spain as the leading European trendsetter. As the influence of the Sun King rose, the stiff Spanish silhouette along with farthingale of the previous centuries was replaced by the more loosely draped court robes. But the new trend was also the new extravagance. In its most formal mode, the robe à la française presented a particularly wide and flattened profile accomplished by the new and enlarged panniers. Those were made of supple bent wands of willow or whalebone and covered in linen. Such panniers took on broader or narrower silhouettes. The most remarkable held out the skirts like sandwich boards, barely wider than the body in side view but as expansive as possible in front or rear view. And, of course, a lady dressed like this had to pass through a door sideways....
Courtly Gala Attire/Mantua & Panniers
Courtly gala attire was also the so called "grande parure" (translated from French it would mean - Grand Decoration). It appeared in the middle of the century and featured oval shaped hoop skirts. These were called "panier à coudes" because the skirts were supposedly so wide that women could rest their arms on them. The skirt was flat in the front and back, but so wide at the sides that a woman could not walk forwards through a door. This example confirms that fashion during 18th century created the new body image made by way of dressing. Fashion in the 17th and 18th centuries transformed bodies into living works of art, consistent with its representative social function.
Loosely draped court dress mantua was named for Mantua, in Italy, where silk was produced. Alternative meaning came from the French for coat, le manteau.
The mantua was thought to better display smart design of court dress and highlight the expensive yardage of silk fabrics. Although it was initially banned from the French court by the formal monarch Louis XIV. Nevertheless, it remained persistently popular until the middle of 18th century. The court dress & mantua was especially popular during the time of Mary Antoinette.
The loose, coat-dress gowns were worn over separate skirts and bodices, resulting in the first separate corsets, which were extremely long-waisted. Those were designed to pull shoulder blades together until they almost met, creating an exaggeratedly unique posture. That was the Enlightenment era. During that time the so called age of reason was sparking a newfound interest in mathematics. This fascination with geometric forms has been suggested as one possible explanation for the unwieldy mantua silhouette: an inverted triangular cone perched atop a rectangle and supported by a complex arrangement of panniers, stays and other elaborate underpinnings.
The earliest known definition of the mantua style gown was published in a book that described and recorded symbols for coats of arms. The book was compiled in 1688 by Randle Holme, a third-generation craftsman in that field. In a book mantua has been described in the following words:
"A Mantua is a kind of loose Coat without any stays in it, the body part and sleeves are of as many fashions as I have mentioned in the Gown Body; but the skirt is sometime no longer than the Knees, others have them down to the Heels. The short skirt is open before, and behind to the middle: this is called a Semmer, or Semare: have a loose Body, and four side laps or skirts; which extend to the knee, the sleeves short not to the Elbow turned up and faced. "
References & Further Reading:
1. Lehnert, G. Fashion - A Concise History. - Laurence King Publishing, London, 1999.
2. Scott, L. Lingerie - A Modern Guide. - Quantum Publishing Ltd, London, 2010.