18 century fashion history
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.
Introduction to 18th-Century Fashion
The fashionable silhouette for men and women in the 18th century.
Interactive: Man's Formal Wool Coat, by Unknown Maker, 1700-5
This ensemble, made of wool with silk twill, lined with cotton twill, embroidered with silver thread, illustrates the fashionable style of male clothing by the period 1700–5.
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 Silk Jacket and Petticoat, by Unknown Maker, 1720-30
This hand-sewn silk jacket and quilted petticoat lined with linen illustrate the type of informal ensemble worn by women early in the day in the privacy of home.
Interactive: Brocaded Silk Gown, by Unknown Maker, about 1735
By the 1730s the open robe was beginning to replace the mantua as formal day wear. The beautifully patterned Spitalfields silk of this hand-sewn gown indicates a degree of luxury.
Interactive: Man's Formal Silk Daywear, by Unknown Maker, about 1745
This hand-sewn coat and waistcoat, made of silk and lined with silk and buckram, illustrate formal daywear for men in the 1740s.
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: Silk 'Mantua' Gown, by Unknown Maker, 1760-70
This mantua, made of patterned Spitalfields silk, is typical in style and construction of the 1760s. By this time, it was worn only by aristocratic ladies for ceremonies at court.
Interactive: Man's French Silk Formal Suit, by Unknown Maker, 1765 - 70
This hand-sewn formal man’s suit is probably made of French silk, patterned in cerise and cream. Such a luxurious material would have been worn for the most formal evening occasions, such as theatre or the opera.
Interactive: Woman's Red Wool Riding Habit, by Unknown Maker, 1770-75
In the 18th century, women needed practical clothes for riding, travelling and walking outdoors. This hand-sewn example illustrates how the styles of women’s riding habits were adapted from a man’s coat and waistcoat.
Interactive: Man's Silk Coat, by Unknown Maker, 1775-85
The pale, salmon colour and simple decoration of this hand-sewn silk coat are a new development in fashion, in contrast to the rich palette and ornate embroidery of the 1750s and 1760s.
Interactive: Man's Beige Wool Suit, by Unknown Maker, 1775-85
This hand-sewn wool ensemble illustrates fashionable formal dress for men in the late 1770s or early 1780s. It was probably worn during the day - for visiting friends for tea, walking in a park or shopping.
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.
Interactive: Ivory Silk Gown & Petticoat, by Unknown Maker, 1780-85
This French hand-sewn silk gown demonstrates the fashionable styles in women’s formal dress of the 1780s.
Interactive: Cotton Gown & Petticoat, by Unknown Maker, about 1785
In the 1770s and 1780s printed cotton fabrics began to replace silk in popularity for women’s gowns. The material of this hand-sewn gown has a dotted ground and is printed in a repeating pattern of floral sprays.
Interactive: Gown Made from a Shawl, by Unknown Maker, about 1797
Not only were cashmere shawls imported from India worn with the newly fashionable neo-classical gowns, they were also made into gowns.
Designs for Embroidered Fashion: Lady Middleton's Pattern
Most of these designs were bequeathed to the Museum as a group in 1973. Nothing is known of their origin and provenance, but they appear to have come from the archive of an 18th-century retailer based in London.