Mary Wortley Montagu: Fashion Psychic

12:13 PM

I recently stumbled upon this fabulous portrait of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762), painted in 1717.


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Detail of portrait of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu by Jean Baptiste Vanmour


Lady Mary is a fascinating historic character, she traveled through and wrote extensively on Turkey, helped bring the smallpox vaccination to England, and was at one point engaged to a man with the greatest name in the history of the world- Clotworthy Skeffington (who looks exactly how his name sounds). She also seems to be a fashion psychic.

When Lady Mary's husband was appointed ambassador to Istanbul, she took the opportunity to absorb as much of this new culture as possible. When she did return to England, she brought a Turkish fashion sense with her which caused orientalist trends throughout Europe. Several of her portraits show her dressed in a Turkish or Turkish-esque style, attesting to her love for the exotic.

I find this particular portrait interesting due to it's contrast to the fashions of the day, which featured a natural waistline and a full skirt. This painting is from 1730, but gives you the general idea of the silhouette of the early 18th century.


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Detail of A Tea Party at Lord Harrington's by C. Phillips from 1730.


Other portraits of Lady Mary in her Turkish garb show some nod to the fashionable silhouette of the day. The below portrait, for example, shows the full skirt and natural waistline featured in the fashions of the western world.


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But Vanmour's portrait of Lady Mary shows her wearing a narrow dress with a waistline under the bust. I could not help but think of fashions from the Regency period, which would come about almost a century later.


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Evening gown from 1814 featured in Ackerman's Repository of Arts


Lady Mary was a woman ahead of her time in many respects, but it also appears she was quite ahead of the trends in fashion!

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6 comments

  1. The garment she is wearing in the first photo reminds me of an item my belly dancing friends would wear before they performed, but for the life of me I can't recall the name of the garment. It was not worn while dancing...the under details in the first photo suggest that she may have been wearing revealing attire as well.

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  2. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu has been a bit of a historical heroine of mine for ages, but not because of her fashion sense. Thanks for that... I love the comfortable and exotic look.

    When the Balles Russes shocked Paris to the core just before WW1, extreme trendoids started wearing harem pants and fez-like hats in Paris' cocktail parties. Similar to Lady Mary Wortley Montagu.

    But there was a difference. There was no Ballets Russes in Britain or France in Montagu's time, so she was setting a trend (or not) alone.

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  3. Aside from all else I love the way she is grasping her child by the elbow. "Just relax, Jr.; we're having our portrait painted!" Mommy needs to look good, after all.

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  4. The first portrait of Lady Mary is one I've seen many, many times, but am always struck by the beauty of it. The eighteenth century saw a surge in interest surrounding the mysterious east, largely brought about by the ever-expanding British Empire. A racy oriental costume was a really popular choice for a masquerade ball!

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  5. Honestly, the first time I saw that portrait elsewhere I thought it was a typo which meant "1817" rather than "1717" !!! I've seen long-sleeve fur-trimmed coats in the Regency era just like that, also those shoes and turbans! :D
    -Julia

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  6. There's a whole essay her fabulous outfit in Thomas Gainsborough and the Modern Woman which is incredibly interesting. I can't remember the author (she's up and coming) but I found it a fascinating read!
    http://amzn.to/eg5kS1

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