Monday, 23 May 2011

Matrilineal Monday: Eliza ELLIOTT, the mantua maker

Eliza ELLIOTT (1818-1908) was my great-great-grandmother from South Pool, Devon.  A dressmaker on some censuses, on the 1841 census she is described as a "mantua maker".  Intrigued, I looked up a description of mantuas and their makers...

Mantuas were loose gowns worn over a petticoat and open down the front (what a relief, after all those stays!).  They were usually made of damask or brocade and were worn when an occasion required something a bit special.  Although they were loose and open, they were slightly fitted - they just didn't have the dreaded stays.  From

"[T]he mantua was constructed from a single length of material, with few if any cuts. Our image of dressmaking is cutting out a variety of pieces from the fabric, some small, then sewing those pieces together. Mantua-making was not at all like this.

One of the things that identifies a true mantua is that it did not have a separate skirt and top. The material was one continuous piece from shoulder to floor. Mantuas fit the figure, yet had a very full skirt. This was accomplished by shaping the material to the body with a series of deep, outward-facing stitched-down pleats that flared gracefully below the waistline.

This single-piece construction with few unreversable actions meant that gowns could be altered for changes in fashion, weight, and ownership. A skilled mantua maker could, literally, disassemble a mantua and remake it into a new garment, saving the beautiful material.

Depending on the current style and the mantua-maker's construction, the rich fabric might be longer in back, almost forming a train. The mantua was not closed at the front (usually just caught at the waist, sometimes belted), exposing the shirt of the lightweight petticoat (you will recall from the earlier article that this could refer to a dress-length garment), which was often of silk. As you can imagine, this allowed interesting and attractive contrast in color and fabric. It also permitted more freedom of movement. I can practically hear the swishing sounds as mantua-wearing women made their social calls.

A stomacher was often worn with a mantua. This was an elaborate, decorated, ornamental piece, shaped in a V to help create the illusion of a slim waist."

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