18th Century, Rate the dress

Rate the Dress: Mantua of Spitalfields silk, 1730s

Last week I presented an early example of athletic wear for women, a red and blue wool gymnastics suit from the 1890s.  Everybody was loving it for ‘sheer exuberance’, though you couldn’t agree if the pom-poms were ‘wonderfully ridiculous’, or just ridiculous. Then Stella & Lynn B had to go rain on the parade and hate it (don’t worry, I still love you two!).  It still managed a very impressive 8.5 out of 10 – pretty good for sportswear as we aren’t really a sporting crowd.

This week I think it’s time to dial the formality up.  Way up.  So I present a mantua of Spitalfield’s silk from the 1730s.  I think the dating for this dress is so fascinating: they know exactly when the fabric was woven (presumably based on dated design cartoons), and that the dress was made up within 5 years of the fabric.

Mantua, England, 1733-1734 (woven) 1735-1740 (made), Brocaded silk, hand-sewn with spun silk and spun threads, lined with linen, brown paper lining for cuffs, brass, canvas and pleated silk, V&A

Mantua, England, 1733-1734 (woven) 1735-1740 (made), Brocaded silk, hand-sewn with spun silk and spun threads, lined with linen, brown paper lining for cuffs, brass, canvas and pleated silk detail, V&A

Mantua, England, 1733-1734 (woven) 1735-1740 (made), Brocaded silk, hand-sewn with spun silk and spun threads, lined with linen, brown paper lining for cuffs, brass, canvas and pleated silk, V&A

Mantua, England, 1733-1734 (woven) 1735-1740 (made), Brocaded silk, hand-sewn with spun silk and spun threads, lined with linen, brown paper lining for cuffs, brass, canvas and pleated silk, V&A

The fabric dates are interesting, because the fabric really makes this dress.  Is this good, or bad?  Does the large print, so characteristic of the 1730s, balance the full silhouette, or dominate the design, making the dress look more like upholstered furniture than draped garment.

Rate the Dress on a Scale of 1 to 10.


  1. I really love the fabric. I think it’s gorgeous, and I wish I had some fabric in that pattern. Overall, I like the shape of the dress too. This is a silhouette that needs a big, bold print, and works with the fabric very well because the design is really quite simple. 9/10

  2. It looks like the sofa set my grandmother bought in the early 1980’s married to the puffy curtains my other grandmother bought in the 1990’s. Despite its affinity to upholstered furnishings, I’d love to wear it. 10/10.

  3. Zach says

    Oh my gosh! I love that! Love it, love it, LOVE IT! I want it NOW!

    I actually don’t mind large prints–it just depends on what the print actually is, you know? I really like this one though. I wouldn’t even mind some drapes made out of the same fabric. 🙂 The sleeves do look a little strange and poofy from the back, but that can be easily gotten over. I do wish they had a picture of the front, though.

    Ten out of ten. (Can’t I give it more?)

    • Elise says

      Daniel, I love Mexican tile (artisenias) which are painted in the exact shades and hues of this dress. My house, in fact, is painted in these dress colors. So I understand why you want some curtains in this exact print!

      I love the early 1700s. I love the print. Time stopped when I saw this dress. 10/10

  4. Kim says

    This print looks great in a mantua, there is just enough dress to carry it off. The colors are so well balanced too, even thought the print is large. Mantuas are rather interesting from a construction point of view too aren’t they?

  5. I like the silhouette (mostly; I don’t care for the bustle-like effect at the back of this one) but the print is a bit *too* large, and dark. A 7–it would have been more had I liked the print better.

  6. This is the sort of dress that makes me WANT to make a dress out of upholstery fabrics, rather than the sort that makes me wonder why someone is wearing a couch. The large print layout is just grand as far as I’m concerned. I am not super fond of the sleeve silhouette, and I wish we had a clear shot of the bodice front. I like it quite a lot, and give it an 8.

  7. Lynne says

    I just love it! 10 out of 10. If I could give it 11, I would. The fabric is wonderfully exuberant and colourful – I have to admit to long having had a fondness for furnishing fabric used as clothing. The style and the fabric work brilliantly together – there is plenty of space for the print to be displayed.

  8. OMG I want it! It’s beautiful, the fabric is perfect with the style and it’s just yum! 10/10 definitely.

  9. Lisa F. says

    I love the print. I think it is perfect for the dress. I rate is 10 out of 10.

  10. Oooh, I love mantuas! I just think they’re so neat. I also think this fabric is gorgeous, so lush, vibrant and exuberant. From what I understand Spitalfields silk tends to be easily identified and dated. There must be some good surviving documentation for it. As well, I love that the most prominent Spitalfields silk designer was a woman: Anna Maria Garthwaite. Her name is synonymous with mid-18th century Spitalfields silk. Finally, there’s just something so joyful about this entire ensemble, I may have to try and make an appt with the V&A just to see it in person!


  11. Thank you for introducing me to the term “mantua”. I really like the dress AND fabric. I give it a 9/10.

    Sue C

  12. I love love love this!!!! I second what Zach said, I’d love some drapes with this fabric. The dress is absolutely lovely. It’s quirky and interesting without being too over the top.

    10/10 easily more though.


  13. I give this dress a 10 out of 10 not just because of the gorgeous fabric and the lovely shapes, but because it is so unusual – wide sleeves from it’s mantua ancestor and a bell skirt from the robe volante in it’s nearer past. I will have to be on the lookout for more of this interesting period.

  14. 10 of course. The fabrics is crazy, but oh so right and I love mantuas period!

  15. I think this is just jaw-droppingly lovely. (Mine dropped!) I’m not usually a huge lover of prints but this one is beautiful, and the lines of the gown are gorgeous. I do wish we had a full view of the front, though. But oh, so pretty! 10 from me 🙂

    (Question – in the description you list “brown paper lining for cuffs” – how does that work? I assume it’s a stiffener, but wouldn’t it crush or wilt with wear?)

  16. Pips says

    Amazing. I fell in love with this dress as soon as I saw it.


  17. Daniel says

    I do love a beautiful silk brocade and I do love mantuas, and this is a perfect case where the dress and the fabric are in affinity and harmony. The only drawback for me, if drawback it can be called, is that the profile view looks a bit off for me, with the sort of suppressed bell-hoop effect in front, which doesn’t quite balance out the draped back. So I would say 9/10.

    Interestingly, I believe this may be the mantua that the V&A wrote a handout for about its construction, and made a replica of in upholstery fabric for researchers to handle themselves and see how it was actually put together, rather than having to look on and not touch while the curator showed them the details of the original garment.

  18. Like Zach, I think the sleeves are weird, unlike Zach, I cannot get over it; I think it would look wrong on a person, making them seem bigger in the shoulders… The fabric seems too stiff to me for that treatment to look really good, and the fabulous print is lost in the detail and the detail is lost in the print.
    It looks great everywhere else. 9/10 from me.

  19. 100 years before my era of interest but the bustle thingy in the back “spoke” to me. As a big girl with big arms, I like those big sleeves. It means I’d be able to move mine if I wore that dress. And skin tight on big arms makes them look bigger not smaller IMHO. I like the sofa print too. I often look in the home decor section for material. 7 out of 10. It got that rating because a 10 means I’d love to be able to make that for myself to wear and I’d likely never make something from the 1700s.

  20. Isn’t it odd that they didn’t give a font view? And isn’t it in incredible condition.The colours still so rich after nearly 300 years.
    I love it. I love the whole mantua thing, love the little sewn down pleats in the back bodice, love the tucked up train thing. I love it up close and from a distance. It is as if it were made just for me to love it. So, of course, it gets a 10/10. Which is really a 1,000,000/10, of course!

  21. I’m not normally a big fan of big prints or the early 1700’s, but this one works for some reason. Maybe because the silhouette is more rotund? I don’t know exactly why I like it… but I give it a 8.5/10

  22. Claire Payne says

    I have to admit that the dress is exquisite but I prefer the styles of the later 1800’s. This design is too fussy for my taste. 5 out of 10.

  23. I give it a 9. my first thought was that it reminded me of an upholstered couch in someones grandmas house (and then i saw the end of the post and your upholstery comment). But couch aside, I do love the print and the cut of the dress. i would definately wear it(although at my current size I probably would look like a couch,lol)

    Lynn Brooks

  24. Eek. On the right Miss or Mrs., in 1730s rooms, in which the colors and furniture were spare, this dress would be elegant. Any time after that? Ouch, get off, you oaf! You are not sitting on a chair…


  25. I gave this a 10/10 as soon as skimmed over the post on my iPhone, and now that I am looking at it more thoroughly I just wish I could give it a higher rating!
    I love the print, and the cut, and the volumes. This is magnificent and so magnificently unapologetic! I love it. I love bold prints and my favourite me-made garments were produced from curtains (cue in Scarlet O’Hara and Maria Von Trapp references).

    Also, may thanks for introducing me to the word Mantua! At first I thought it had something to do with the Italian city but I have been there a few times and studied extensively in History class and they never mention silk much! I have just learned it comes from manteuil instead, thanks! Learning something always makes my day better.

  26. Well, I would never wear this dress or probably even buy the fabric. But I still really like it – bold prints just don’t work for me. I prefer the rounder skirt shape of the 1730’s to the jutting side hoops of the 40’s and 50’s. 7.5/10 (because the sleeves are a bit manly)

  27. Black Tulip says

    Love it. The fabric is just sumptuous, and marries perfectly with the dress.


  28. Cornelia Moore says

    don’t know why, but of late I’ve been getting 1 out of 10 “rate the dresses”. the pattern is too bold (for someone who likes Gemini colors, that says something) but I like the cut and period. but the pattern got an instant YIKES from me. it’s beat you over the head with a Maori club intense. the lighting subdues it, which in this instance isn’t a positive thing, it takes away from the colors and mutes them. mutes everything. this one needs bright light for the photo, subdued light for preservation. still, an 8.5, I actually kind of like the close up of the fabric-kind of. and I do really like the cut.

  29. Geoffwah says

    I love the shape we get from this era. I’m also a huge fan of brocade silk and all of the tiny details that go into that. Because the fabric repeats in exactly the same way horizontally (which looks to have been what this lady was going for) there’s nothing to break up the boldness of the pattern and so it gives a kind of…ordered look to it which makes me feel like I’m looking at Wonka’s lickable wallpaper. When I look at any garment I want to see the dress, rather than the fabric. The way this is put together, I feel like I’m seeing the bolt of silk, rather than the dress.

    HOWEVER! The shape and silhouette are just delicious and, close-up, the work is incredible so if I saw this lady at a party, I’d likely get real close for a couple of minutes, you know, to flatter her on the fabric and cut, and then immediately excuse myself for a breather in the library.

    8/10 for too many snozberries in a row.

  30. Carolyn says

    Definitely 10 out of 10. The shape of the dress is elegant (I love the back details), and the rich fabric design complements that perfectly. I wish you had included the name of the fabric designer–looks like the work of Maria Garthwaite to me.

    • I included as much information as was given by the museum. I doubt this is Anna Maria Garthwaite’s work – she tended to do much lighter, more open florals or stylized brocades, not the florid tulips we see here. Unfortunately we know the names of few 18th century fabric designers; Garthwaite is a bit unusual in that we do.

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