18th-century dress is renowned for its opulence. The period saw fashions for elaborate wigs, rich embroidery and full skirts. In addition to men’s and women’s daywear, the V&A has in its collections a number of mantuas, the remarkably wide gowns worn for formal court occasions.
Interactive: Pale Blue Silk 'Mantua' Gown, by Unknown Maker, 1710-20
By the early 18th century, the mantua was worn by women as formal day wear. The pale blue silk of this hand-sewn example is brocaded in silver in a large-scale pattern of fantastic fruits and leaves, a typical design for the 1720s.
Interactive: Woman's Wool Riding Jacket, by Unknown Maker, 1750s
Women’s riding habits of the 18th century adapted elements of men’s dress. This hand-sewn brown wool jacket of the 1750s is styled after a man’s coat, although it has been modified with a waist seam to fit over stays and a wide petticoat.
Interactive: Side Hoop Underskirt and Linen Shift, 18th Century
Women’s underwear served two purposes in the 18th century. The first function, carried out by the shift or smock, was to protect the clothing from the body. The second function was to shape the body according to the fashion of the day.
Spanning four centuries, the V&A’s Fashion collection is the largest and most comprehensive collection of dress in the world. Key items in the collection include rare 17th-century gowns, 18th-century ‘mantua’ dresses, 1930s eveningwear, 1960s daywear and post-war couture. Plus a growing number of pieces from 21st-century designers.