Recently I shared a pair of portraits of two 18th c. ladies, both wearing pink costumes called sultanas. It's most likely that both ladies were wearing versions of the stylish costume as provided by the artists. But a conversation this week with Sarah Woodyard, mantua-maker's apprentice in the Historic Trades program of Colonial Williamsburg, made me want to share a bit more about this interesting garment.
Yes, the exotically-named sultana was fashionable attire for a portrait, but ladies were also choosing them for elegant at-home wear, too. Cut in a relaxed T-shape much like a gentleman's wrapping gown, sultanas were usually worn without stays, and must have been wonderfully comfortable in comparison to a closely fitted gown over boned, laced undergarments.
Sultanas could be worn loose and open over another gown or shift, right, or wrapped and tied into place with a sash or belt. The simple shape displayed sumptuous fabrics like silk to best advantage, and the sultanas in portraits are often made more luxurious with fur trimming.
Versions of sultanas and wrapping gowns first appeared in England in the late 17th c., and were both inspired by clothing that had made its way through the trade routes to Turkey, India, and China. Such clothing was not only exotic and fanciful, but carried with it the new sophistication of Orientalism, a tangible symbol of England's growth as a world power.
A gentleman might (and did) wear his wrapping gown over breeches and a shirt as informal daywear away from home, but ladies only wore their sultanas at home, or as part of a fancy-dress costume a la Turque, below left. Despite their richness, the unstructured simplicity of a sultana implied intimacy. A lady could receive guests in her drawing room wearing a sultana, and one would also be considered the perfect, slightly daring dress for the hostess of an intellectual salon.
The Colonial Williamsburg mantua-makers had made a replica sultana c. 1770 of pink changeable silk taffeta, above left. Inspired by the two portraits in my post, Sarah dressed one of the shop's summer interns, Monica Geraffo, as a Georgian lady at home in her sultana, her tatting in her hand and her workbag on the table beside her. True Nerdy History Girl inspiration!
Many thanks to Sarah Woodyard and Monica Geraffo for their assistance with this post.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.