The late 1670s saw a new development in the style of women's dress that would have a far-reaching effect throughout the following century. The stiff constricting boned bodice-and-skirt style previously worn by women was now replaced with the mantua, a more loosely draped style of gown.
The mantua was thought to display silk designs to their best advantage, as they were draped rather than cut; as such, it is believed the garment was named after Mantua in Italy, where expensive silks were produced. However, it has also been suggested that the name derives from manteau, the French term for a coat.
The mantua was a coatlike construction, with sleeves cut in one piece with the back and front.
It was pleated at the shoulders and fell to the waist, where it was held in place by a sash.
From there it was folded back into a bustle shape and worn over a matching petticoat.
As the style evolved, the pleats at the front were reduced in number and the bodice was opened, with the torso now covered by a stiffened piece of fabric in the form of an inverted triangle, tapering into a narrow waist. This piece of fabric was known as a stomacher. Early examples are often intricately embroidered.
While these gowns appear quite substantial, they were actually precariously fastened with pins to hold the stomacher in place.
Originally an informal style, and banned for its informality from the French court by Louis XIV, the mantua gradually became acceptable as formal dress and remained a popular choice for court dress in England until the mid-century. Its popularity was such that dressmakers were referred to as mantua-makers.
From about 1710, it became customary to pin up the train. The construction of the mantua was altered so that once the train was pinned up, the exposed reverse of the train showed the proper face of the fabric or embroidery. One of the earliest extant examples of this, dated to 1710–1720, is in the Victoria and Albert Museum's collections.
By the mid-18th century, the mantua had evolved into a formal version principally worn for court dress. The draping of the overskirt became increasingly stylized, with the back panel of the train almost entirely concealed.
The final version of the mantua, circa 1780, bore little resemblance to the original mantuas of nearly a century earlier. Instead of earlier elaborate draperies and folds, the train had evolved into a length of fabric attached to the back of the bodice, as illustrated in an example in the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Extant examples of the 17th century mantua are extremely scarce. Perhaps the only known extant adult-size example is an embroidered wool mantua and petticoat in the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute. A pattern taken from this mantua has been published by Norah Waugh.
The Victoria and Albert Museum owns an extremely rare late 17th century fashion doll dressed in a pink silk mantua and petticoat.
Also in the Costume Institute is a mantua and petticoat in salmon pink bizarre silk dated to 1708.
Another early mantua, the silk dated to c. 1708–9 belongs to the Clive House Museum, Shrewsbury, a pattern for this mantua has been taken by Janet Arnold. Most mantuas preserved in museum collections are formal versions from the mid-18th century, intended for court dress.