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Milliners and Mantua Makers: Making Women's Clothing and Accessories

During the 17th century, milliners and mantua makers were increasingly recognized as important fashion professionals. Milliners make hats and other accessories for women, and mantua makers made dresses. And increasingly, these professions were dominated by women in England. These craftwomen were often given titles that made clear that work was specifically for women, but it gave them an opportunity to break into the professional trade world in Early Modern England.

Tailors had dominated the sewing professions prior to the 17th century, even though most sewing in the home was done by women. Tailors were overwhelmingly men, and they often excluded women from guilds (the trade groups that controlled each craft). But increasingly, tailors were allowing women to apprentice in their shops, especially if they wanted to focus on making clothing and accessories for women. For example, the records of Merchant Taylors’ Company list 500 apprentices who were women between 1600 and 1799. And during this time period, over 170 women were admitted to the guild. Also, women who could afford to have dresses made for them would sometimes feel more comfortable with a woman mantua maker, considering the measurements that were needed for a bespoke dress!

Milliners made and sold a wide variety of hats and accessories. Records from the time give us an idea about some of the items they would deal in. For example, the probate record of Anthony Lacon, who with his wife Dorothy had four female apprentices, lists the following items: “..84 doz & 9 P of gloves of severall sorts for men [and] women... 44 muffs... 155 yards of Gartering and 16 payre of Garters... Fans Pendents & necklaces... broad & narrow black lace & laced hoods." We’ll take a closer look at some examples of these in other posts.

Many of these craftspeople worked in cities, but as roads became safer, many of these items would make it to smaller markets, like those in the towns near Agecroft Hall.

Source: Women, Guilds and the Tailoring Trades: The Occupational Training of Merchant Taylors’ Company Apprentices in Early Modern London.Sarah Birt. Published online: 02 Sep 2020





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