Mantua of the Month – May 2020

Mantua, 1760s © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

This mantua and petticoat dates from the 1760s. It is shaped from French silk, and features an undulating ermine motif. The design mimics the ermine fur trim, which is often seen in royal portraiture. Ermine have a white winter coat apart from their tails, which retain a dark hue. Real fur ermine tails are interspersed in the silver lace on the front of the robe. This would have signified the wealthy status of the wearer, though thankfully the practice of wearing fur is considered inhumane by many today.[1]

Mantua, 1760s © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The gown is thought to have been worn by Catherine Craster née Villiers (1707-1772) who was Maid of Honour to Queen Caroline (d. 1737). In her will, dated 1772, Craster bequeathed ‘to my Servant Sarah Watson in case she shall continue in my Service to the time of my death the sum of Ten pounds for Mourning and also all my wearing apparel of every sort’ – a considerable gift if this mantua was included. The will was apparently discovered by Craster’s nephew in ‘a Closet’ in her ‘Apartments in Windsor Castle’, suggesting that Craster was still at court at the time of her death.[2]

Mantua, 1760s © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The mantua gown was altered in the nineteenth century so that it could be worn as a costume. The original construction sought to make the best use of the expensive silk with as little waste as possible. The mantua-maker avoided cutting the fabric unnecessarily ‘but rather pleated it into shape, attaching widths of fabric to each other using running stitches that could be taken apart easily at a later date when the fabric was recycled’.[3] This was a practical strategy that allowed the wearer to adapt their wardrobe as fashions changed. This Court Mantua featured in the Fashioned from Nature exhibition at the V&A because, as Lesley Ellis Miller noted, it represents a ‘truly global ensemble’, with the silk, dyes, silver, ermine fur, and other raw materials imported from across the world.[4]

A second sack gown and matching petticoat in the V&A (pictured below) is also said to have been worn by Catherine Craster. The gowns were owned by the Pocklington Senhouse family from Cumbria and it would be intriguing to know whether they were acquired from Sarah Watson or from Catherine Craster’s nephew, who was the executor of her estate.

Sack, 1755-1760 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Footnotes

[1] S. North, 18th-Century Fashion in Detail (London, 2018), p. 208.

[2] The National Archives (TNA) PROB 11/981/340 Will of Catherine Craster, Widow of Saint Ann Westminster, Middlesex, 23 October 1772.

[3] L. Ellis Miller, ‘From Cocoon to Court: An Eighteenth-Century Mantua’, in E. Ehrman (ed.), Fashioned from Nature (London, 2018), p. 47.

[4] Ellis Miller, ‘From Cocoon to Court’, in Ehrman (ed.), Fashioned from Nature, pp. 46-53.

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