Thursday, February 25, 2016

From the Archives: More About Sultanas, c.1770

Thursday, February 25, 2016
Isabella reporting,

Since I'm visiting Colonial Williamsburg this week, I thought I'd share one of my favorite posts from a past trip. 

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 Turquebelow 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.

Above left: Photograph © Susan Holloway Scott.
Right: detail, Catherine Fleming, Lady Leicester, by Francis Cotes, c.1775. Tabley House Collection.
Lower left: detail, Mrs. Trecothick, by Sir Joshua Reynolds, c. 1772. Christie's.


William Savage said...

It was common in England in Georgian times for the famous portrait painter to paint only the heads and hands of his subjects. That's all they would model for too. Bodies and clothes, often idealised, might well be completed by apprentices afterwards. It's possible the two portraits you mention are the result of this practice: the same 'stock' dress set on a manequin, not two ladies wearing something supplied at the studio. In a grand house where I am a volunteer, you can see twp portraits by Lely in the same room, painted some time apart, in which the bodies and clothes are nearly identical.

Mary Jean Adams said...

The description of how the sultanas were worn seems more English than Colonial America. Yet, the input came from someone at Colonial Williamsburg. Were they common here?

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