Saturday, November 28, 2020

Fantasy fabric and Mantua Madness

 Last year, I came across the personal "Holy Grail" for which I've been searching for many years. For a long time I've been obsessed with finding a silk that resembles the "Bizarre silk" of the late 17th century and early 18th -- the only problem is that it is SO strange that there's little call for it these days! Many patterns look like a strange mishmash between medieval illuminations, acid-trip geometry, and sinuous Art Nouveau-looking plants. 

Annnnnnd then there's the eyeball panel.

I guess it's maybe supposed to be peacock feathers? But it's totally eyeballs. You're not going to talk me out of it. Can you imagine having your bed-hangings made out of that? 

So you can see why it's called "Bizarre silk"! Nowadays, there are very few patterns that even get close. Scalamandre has had a few designs that would be passable, but all are off-market and I've never been lucky enough to find a remnant. Tassinari & Chatel have a lovely design called "Persienne" that suitably mimics the influences of the East but it is prohibitively expensive, unless you’re a millionaire. I have read several plausible theories now that textiles from Japan and the Turkish empire may have greatly contributed to the rage for this nonetheless European-made fabric at the end of the 17thc. And indeed, rugs with Middle Eastern patterns and 'Chinoiserie' in wallpaper, china, fabric and furniture rapidly became de rigueur among the European upper classes (and aspiring middle!) as the 18thc went on. 

The fabric I stumbled upon certainly borrows from this tradition as well: metallic threads create the interesting geometric zigzags common in Bizarre silk, as well as fantastical bamboo stems: 

 (It came to my workplace, so of course I tore into the packaging immediately...Sharpie for scale 😂)

I took a chance on it from a tiny picture on a little-known remnant website...there was no description, only a few lines of information. It's called "Genghis Khan" and came from a now-defunct fabric designer called Font Hill (bought by Stark, then bought by Scalamandre), and is not even pure silk: it's blended with something called Cupro, which on researching is a wood fiber like Rayon, but at least it's not synthetic! 

Because it's unlike anything I've ever seen and I have found no more yardage either before or since, I was kind of terrified to cut into it! I sat on it for months, researching different extant gowns made of bizarre silk. There are a number out there, from Robes a la Anglaise (often remade from earlier dresses) to Robes Volante (my favorite style, but sadly not enough fabric for one of those!) to court gowns. Mantuas, though rare in example, are most often made of bizarre silk since the gown style ran concurrent to the height of this textile pattern's popularity.

Once I had settled on making a Mantua from my precious 5.5 yards of fabric, I had to decide on what to do for the petticoat, since I didn't have enough to match if I wanted a train on the gown! Back to Pinterest I went for fashion plates around the turn of the 18th century. One thing I noticed frequently was the color combination of red and blue:

Red solid taffeta would have been the easy choice, but I actually wanted a semi-metallic red patterned silk to provide that richness of contrast. Finally I settled upon a pineapple red-gold pattern (also fittingly exotic!) and applied several gold trims: 

Eventually I would like to add a few more rows of gold fringe and lace, but it gives the effect I was going for! 

The next thing to decide on was a pattern for the Mantua. There are no good commercial patterns...I understand that Reconstructing History has one out but it was not recommended to me by anyone. Since I find drafting from patterns in books quite easy with any style that relies on folding for the main method of fitting to the body (as opposed to lots of pieces with lots of seams...too many places to go wrong haha), I looked at Patterns of Fashion 1 by Janet Arnold, The Cut of Women's Clothes by Norah Waugh, and a little-known (in the States) book called Moden i 1700-årene by Ellen Andersen (in Danish, which I got through Interlibrary loan).  Out of the three, I found Norah Waugh's pattern the most helpful as the layout is so clean and simple.

(Not my picture, found on Pinterest)

To spare my beloved fabric, I first cut up a bedsheet in the approximate shape...I took a few basic measurements of myself in my stays, but didn't get too picky about the mockup, which I cut larger than I thought I needed since excess can always be folded out of sight with this style of gown. And it was shockingly easy! I felt like my mockup was almost spot-on for the style of mantua I was going for, right at 1700-1705, and had my actual fabric cut, folded and pinned onto my duct tape dummy within an hour (sorry if this isn’t a step-by-step tutorial, lol, all I can say is make a mockup and GO FOR IT, do the thing, it's a hard pattern/gown style to screw up!).

Some early fidgeting, without proper supports. That funny strip bumped out at and below the waist is a facing that folds back so that when you pull the skirts back to fasten into the Mantua's unmistakeable drape, you get to see a strip of the right side of the fabric.

A train! EEK!

The front folds are folded and stitched down, but I may eventually go back and unpick some of the stitches to make them nice and loose, held down only by the belt. 

The sheeeeeeeeen! Definitely looking like a Mantua now even without its cuffs and belt yet. My dummy is now significantly smaller than I am, so garments always look a bit lumpy and underwhelming on it so I didn’t take a ton of in-progress pictures. If you have made a Robe a la Anglaise, good portions of the folding and pinning will feel strangely familiar. 

We went down to the local French-built fort to take some photos and I'm so pleased with how they turned out. I'll have to take more eventually where *I* do the folding-back of the skirts because my poor husband really struggled to get them arranged just right. I wore my chemise with extra lacy engageantes sewn in, and a frelange (which I gather is the specific name for the cap see it referred to as a fontange sometimes but that may be the name of the whole ensemble on the head, curls and lappets and all). I whipped up the frelange out of a reproduction 18thc cap for the back and some lace-edged INCREDIBLY stiff organza surreptitiously held up by white pipecleaners for the weird double-frill, but I can write about that separately if anyone's interested. I find most people hate that ugly baby cap and I think it's probably why most people don't tackle this era, lolol. I don’t love the cap either but it certainly unmistakeably dates an outfit to late 17th/early 18thc!

And now...the finished Mantua! 

At this point I had my husband pull the skirts back and pin them to the belt...a little messier than I would have liked but oh well, he did his best. Next time I'm dressing at the location, I'll pre-pin it to the belt on the mannequin just the way I want, and then only have to fasten the belt, lol.

I just love this shot in the chapel for showing the beauty of the folded skirts. Many of these gowns apparently were lined with a contrasting fabric, but since I liked the backside almost as much as the front, I left it single-layered.

My hair never ever holds a curl, so my front curls are...wait for boiled Regency side-curl set, clipped onto the top of my head instead 😂 Easiest historical style I’ve ever done, since the rest of my hair is just jammed into the cap, haha. 

And that's it from me for now! There sadly won't be many opportunities for me to wear this gown as nobody in my area is interested in this era, but some day I'll get out and take some even better photos of it.

Next first foray into Late Victorian daywear! And then I’m almost caught up with documenting my costumes for the year, so I better get to making more! 


  1. soooo beautiful! i dream of making a garment like this (i even have the material, a 70cm wide striped silk) just because of that silly cap!!!!!

    1. Thank you so much! I'm glad *someone* likes the cap aspect of this era, haha! They certainly are fascinating things!

  2. Ahhhh, I love this so much! You did such an amazing job and have me reallllllly wanting to make one of my own!

    1. Thank youuu! It's MUCH easier than pictures make it look, in my opinion!

  3. Wow, that is a gorgeous outfit. The fabric is dead on, and it's glorious when it's all folded. The style is really wonderful, actually. I bet folks get used to the fontange -- we got used to 1830s hairstyle pretty quickly!

    Very best,

    1. Thank you very much! I think it's a fascinating era. And really, the fontange is quite weightless (if funny looking) so I quite forgot it was up there. 1830s hair is hilarious at first but I really love the soft rolls and loops and ringlets of it now that I've looked at so many costumers' photos and extant sketches and portraits.

  4. It is fun to see this period of clothing made. And your fabrics and finished garments are wonderful! I agree that the headwear is, perhaps, silly looking but also wonderfully wacky, as with the 1830s. Pipe cleaners is a great cheat to make it stand up! I do hope you're able to find somewhere wonderful to wear this ensemble!


    1. Thank you Quinn! Yikes I got behind on checking comments. It's true, I didn't like 1830s hair/headwear at first either but now I'm obsessed and can't wait to do my own, so maybe the Queen Anne-era silliness will grow on me too, haha! It was actually significantly easier than what I usually have to do for 18thc hair, so that's a bonus.