Edinburgh’s high society fashion icons brought back to life

They were the best dressed in town during the 1700s, but now the fashion of Edinburgh’s high society is being brought back to life. 

Portraits of these well-heeled figures from the Georgian New Town by Allan Ramsay have been brought together for the first time in an exhibition. 

The display at the Georgian House in Edinburgh, will explore fashion from more than 300 years ago and the role it played for Edinburgh’s high society women.

Dr Antonia Laurence Allen from NTS, who curated the exhibition said much like many shoppers today, sustainable fashion was important to 18th century consumers.

Merchants often sold cloth, ribbons and lace to upcycle old ensembles, and dresses were made to measure and designed to be altered as fashions and a woman’s body changed. 

One of the finest 18th-century painters of female portraits, Ramsay was renowned for capturing the trends of the time.

Covering a 30-year period of Ramsay’s career, the exhibition examines both the naturalistic style and imaginary elements found in his paintings.

‘The exhibition was designed to highlight the National Trust for Scotland’s magnificent Ramsay collection, which has never been brought together before,’ said Dr Laurence Allen.

‘At the same time, we commissioned new research to map the trades dealing in textiles, clothing and accessories in Edinburgh. 

‘This has provided a rich picture of what it was like for a woman to leave her town home and engage with shopkeepers up and down the high street. 

‘We have plotted these locations on a 1742 map, collated adverts that detail how traders promoted their wares, and created a short film that imagines a lady’s journey buying cloth and accessories.

‘Today’s shoppers are concerned with sustainable fashion and will find in this exhibition similar themes that were central to consumers in the 18th century.  

‘While milliners and tailors were busy altering gowns and jackets, drapers and merchants sold cloth, ribbons and lace to upcycle old ensembles. 

‘As well as showing the content in the exhibition, we wanted to demonstrate how dresses were made to measure and designed to be altered as fashions and a woman’s body changed. 

‘There was no ideal figure, but there was an ideal silhouette.’

Alongside the portraits on display will be a rare 18th-century dress, from Newhailes House near Musselburgh, cared for by the National Trust for Scotland (NTS).

‘Fashion and clothing played an important role in communicating subtle signs of one’s status during the mid-1700s,’ she continued. 

‘Being well dressed in silks, satins and linens elevated women in polite society and helped portray wealth and social standing. 

‘By capturing popular styles of dress, Ramsay promoted a sitter’s cultural sophistication and their progressive ideals of taste. 

‘This meant their portrait could help them confidently present a contemporary vision of themselves to their peers.

Ramsay and Edinburgh Fashion runs at Georgian House in Edinburgh until 24 November 2024. 


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