English and French Women's Court Dress

What I really want to do is a post just on the mantua, but I know that if I do that I'm going to have to explain court dress first to feel like it's complete.  But court dress is interesting on its own merits, anyway!

In the later seventeenth century, court dress was basically the same in France and England.  It was based on ordinary clothing: a boned bodice (requiring no stays beneath) with puffed sleeves and an extremely long point in the front, and a matching petticoat.  This would all be heavily decorated, of course, with gold and silver embroidery and lace, and with ropes of pearls and precious stones.

Catherine of Braganza, Queen of England, Sir Peter Lely (1618-1680), 1665

Seventeenth century court dress, from the Fashion Museum in Bath, picture by Scrapiana

In France, the bodice of the robe de cour was similar.  However, there was an important difference in the sleeves: they were covered in rows of lace.  Louis XIV and his minister Colbert intended to improve the economy by increasing the production of luxury goods; they created schools of design, bribed foreign artisans to teach there, and sent the best students to the established schools in Italy in order to return with heightened skills.  To increase their spending, Louis exempt the aristocracy from taxation and encouraged extreme opulence.  Part of this was the requirement that ladies of the court must wear French-made lace on the sleeves of their chemises.

Maria Theresa Rafaela, Louis Tocqué (1696-1772), 1745

These court costumes fossilized in form (apart from the addition of hoops, once they came into fashion) and remained the only proper "full dress" even as the courtiers wore more informal mantuas at every opportunity when not attending court functions.  As can be seen in this portrait, the court dress fastened in the back, rather than closing over a stomacher as other forms of dress did at the time.

 Posthumous Portrait of  Maria Anna of Bavaria, La Grande Dauphine, Jean-François de Troy (1679–1752), post-1690

Marie-Adelaïde de Savoy, Dauphine of France, ca. 1710

Portrait of Caroline Wilhelmina of Brandenburg-Ansbach, Jacopo Amigoni (1682-1752), 1735

Augusta of Saxe-Gotha, Princess of Wales, Charles Phillips (d. 1747), 1736

 Marie Leszczyńska, Queen of France, ca. 1740

It was around this time that the French and English court dress seriously diverged.  The French court retained the old robe de cour, but in England the mantua, with its front opening, was adopted in a stylized form: the split overskirt was pulled entirely to the back, and therefore it was unnecessary to make it large enough to cover the petticoat.  There were also no cuffs on the sleeves.

British court dress, 1740-1745; V&A T.227&A-1970

British court dress (back view), 1740-1745; V&A T.260&A-1969

British court dress, ca. 1750; MMA C.I.65.13.1a–c

 Marie-Josèphe de Saxe, Dauphine de France, Jean-Marc Nattier (1685–1766), ca. 1750

British court dress, 1755-1760; V&A T.592:1 to 7-1993

Gallerie des Modes, 1778
Habit de Cour de Satin Cerise, le ruban de tête de même, le coin de gaze qui se voit au côte droit est noir, les diamants, perles et ruban du tour de gorge blancs, ainsi que les glands du manteau troussé, les dentelles tirent un peu dans certaine partie sur la teinte du fond, le fond du fauteuil violet, et les armes selon leurs émaux, tout le reste or; le tapis de pied de toutes couleurs.
[French] court ensemble in cerise satin, the ribbon on the head is the same, the corner of gauze which one sees on the right side is black, the diamonds, pearls, and ribbon around the throat are white, as are the tassels of the pulled-back overskirt, the laces show through a little of the background color in certain parts, the bottom of the chair is violet, and the arms colored according to their enamel, all the rest is gold; the carpet is of all colors.

Robe de Cour sur le grand panier, cette robe est de gros de Naples et garnie de dentelle entrelassée de rubans noués de distance en distance.
Court gown with a large hoop, this gown is made of gros de Naples and trimmed in lace and ribbons, interlaced at intervals.

This form of French court dress was extinguished in the French Revolution, but the English court mantua continued in use for some time.


  1. Hi,
    Do You remember where did You find this information about french sleeves made of lace, because of Louis XIV's disposition? I'm currently writeing some text about court fashion, and I need bibliography to substantiate this knowledge. If You can help me, I will be really grateful.

    1. I have to admit that I learned it in a fashion history lecture, and don't have a book source. Sorry!

  2. This is a great post! I'm referencing it in an upcoming post myself, as part of my informal research on the 1690s court dress I'm planning.

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