A rather extraordinary event is taking place in Paxton House’s Regency Picture Gallery this week, from 3rd to 7th April 2023. In Fashion for the Fashionable, we are recreating a dressmaking studio from the 1770s with the help of two students from the University of Glasgow Dress and Textiles Course. Both Rebecca and Cait are experienced costume and dress makers and will be using their expertise to hand cut, fit and sew a Georgian high fashion dress using traditional techniques while both wearing period costume. In the eighteenth century, they would have been known as mantua makers and it would have taken about 15 hours to complete a gown from scratch. Our twenty-first century mantua makers will be taking a little longer, to give themselves time to talk to visitors and demonstrate their craft and will be in action until Friday 7th April.
A Gown for Penelope
Paxton House was the home in Britain of Penelope Home in the 1770s. Penelope was the daughter of a plantation owner in the West Indies and married to Ninian Home, who bought Paxton House in 1773. From the only portrait we have of Penelope, a tiny figure in the corner of a watercolour, we can already see that she was a follower of fashion. In the collection at Paxton House is a sackback dress from the 1770s which Penelope would have found a style that suited the humid climate of Grenada, where she and her husband owned plantations worked by enslaved labour. The sackback dress, which has loose box pleats falling from the shoulders at the back, allowed air to circulate around the body and was fashionable in Paris and London from the second half of the eighteenth century.
Cool in Cotton
The sackback gown made by Rebecca and Cait at Paxton this April will be authentically fitted and stitched from a hand-blocked printed cotton which was not only fashionable but cool and practical. In Britain, a craze for imported block printed cottons in the late 1600s had resulted in a ban on imports of cloth from India to support home-based wool and silk manufacturers. The imposition of import tariffs helped to spawn the British cotton industry and by the end of the following century, cotton prints were home produced and demand for them was helping to fuel the investment and innovation that characterised Britain’s industrial revolution.
Modelling the Gown
Cait will be the model for the recreated sackback dress and will be showing off the finished garment in the Picture Gallery on Friday 7th April. Later in the summer, it will be on display on a mannequin in the house. Until then, our pair of mantua makers will be delighted if you would like to visit them and explore the craft of Georgian Dressmaking with them. Both Rebecca and Cait are knowledgeable about both fashion and dress making in the Georgian era and also about the social and cultural context in which the mantua makers worked. You can either join a house tour, which will finish in the Regency Picture Gallery, or visit the Gallery directly, for which entry is free, just check in at the shop in advance.
Fashion for the Fashionable is live in the Regency Picture Gallery at Paxton House from 3rd April until 7th April. Entry free or as part of a pre-booked house tour.