Staying in Fashion at the Milliner’s

By Brooke Baerman, WPAMC Class of 2019

 

The milliner’s was a mercantile shop full of fashionable goods, from birdcages and baby shoes to silk ribbons and luxurious fabrics. It was a gathering space for young men and women and a place to collect the latest gossip. It was also the professional home of mantua-makers, skilled dressmakers who formed elegant and stylish gowns to the bodies of their wearers. During our class trip to Colonial Williamsburg, I learned first-hand that the craft of mantua-making is a fully embodied one for both the maker and the recipient of the garment.

Bandboxes, caps, children’s shoes, and a child’s garment hang from drawers and sit on shelves in a shop display.

A selection of fashionable goods at the milliner’s shop! Photo by Emily Whitted, WPAMC 2020.

Mantua-making in the eighteenth century was about more than creating a stylish garment – it was about keeping the body itself in fashion. For a woman, there were no ideal measurements, but rather ideal shapes and ratios to be accomplished through a garment. As I was “fitted” for a gown, the proportions of my body were integral to the shaping of the garment. I wore “bums,” or padded pillowy sacks of fabric that, with petticoats, created volume in the back of the dress. I also wore stays to help my posture and shape my torso.

A woman stands with her back to the camera. Beige fabric has been pinned to hug the shape of her back.

The garment was fitted to my body, following the curve of my back, which was augmented by period-appropriate stays and “bums.” Photo by Emily Whitted, WPAMC Class of 2020.

The design of the dress itself was even tailored to my body. The mantua-maker recommended that the bottom of my dress’s bodice be rounded, rather than pointed. Because my frame is naturally tall and lean, the curve in the dress accentuated a desirable roundness and did not accentuate my already long lines. Her knowledge of period fashion and human bodies helped us work together to design a dress that would have made me, eighteenth-century Brooke, the envy of all. In mantua-making, the particularities of the body, and shaping the body into proper period proportions, are areas of knowledge and skill. They are areas of craftspersonship.

Two women stand in a mercantile shop. One is being fitted for a gown with beige fabric, and the other is pinning the fabric into place.

The fitting required surprising (to me) physical closeness between client and mantua-maker. Here, I repeatedly placed my arm across her shoulder to allow her access to my waist. Photo by Emily Whitted, WPAMC Class of 2020.

The physical nature of the craft also surprised me. It was different from some of the other crafts we saw at Colonial Williamsburg, because there was an intimacy between client and craftsperson that a cooper or blacksmith may not have had with their customers. I placed my hand on the mantua-maker’s shoulder; she fitted the fabric to my body.

 

My time as a model for a mantua-maker made me think differently about the relationship between craftsperson and client. It made me consider the physical proximity and the sense of touch involved in creating a garment, and it prompted me to keep in mind the way that women viewed their own bodies during the eighteenth century. The milliner’s shop was many things, from a social space to a commercial one, and understanding its many identities is vital to understanding the experience of historic consumers and craftspeople.



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