edinburgh

Wardrobe Secrets: 6 Facts about 18th Century Female Fashion

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The only known portrait of Agnes McLehose Alexander Banks, Artist; John Miers, Artist
The only known portrait of Agnes McLehose
Alexander Banks, Artist; John Miers, Artist

While many women in Robert Burns’s life came from the same poor and rural background as he did, one lady he fell in love with came from a much higher social strata. This lady was Agnes McLehose, (or Clarinda, as Burns called her). Agnes was part of the capital’s wealthy society and, through this; she met our bard in 1887. But what did the high class ladies of Burn’s lifetime look like? Here we have 6 unusual facts that lie behind 18th century female fashions!

1) No pants.

In the 18th century ladies might wear a long chemise, a corset, and then layers of petticoats, but no pants would feature in this ensemble of undergarments. Pants for women do not come in until the early 19th century, and even then they are split at the crotch, and tied at the waist: hence why we say ‘pair of pants.’

2) Mouse skin eyebrows.

Timorous beasties! It was fashionable for ladies to glue eyebrows made of mouse skin to their forehead. Why? This was largely due to make up practises at the time causing hair loss, which leads to fun fact number three:

3) Lead white paint

Ever wished to have that wonderful contrast between white skin and blushing cheeks? Well ladies would have achieved it by daubing white lead paint onto their faces, followed by red carmine (also containing lead). While this might have given you a temporary beautiful complexion, it would also have slowly poisoned you and perhaps led to hair loss.

4) Dimity Pockets

Pockets sewn into clothing arrive late in history. In the medieval period, people would string their bags and pouches from their belts. By this time in history, however, pockets for ladies were separate, and had ties attached so they could fasten them under their dress and around their waist.

5) Wigs

Powdered wigs became very fashionable in this period, for both men and women. Marie Antoinette would become very famous for her towering ‘pouffe’ (said at one point to have reached a height of 6ft!). For those who could afford these wigs, they had to be treated with care, while particularly huge wigs would involve sleeping upright with two or three pillows.

6) Teeth

Where’er that place be priests ca’ hell,
Where a’ the tones o’ misery yell,
An’ ranked plagues their numbers tell,
In dreadfu’ raw,
Thou, Toothache, surely bear’st the bell,
Amang them a’!
Address to a Toothache

Toothache was an unwanted visitor for rich and poor alike, with figures, such as George Washington, known for their fake teeth! So our ladies of the 18th century would probably hide behind a fan rather than flash their pearly whites. If you could afford it, you could buy Ivory dentures, but those often rotted quickly leaving a bad smell.

Depictions of people in historic portraiture were often idealised as in this Victorian interpretation of  Burns and Highland Mary. 1860   W. H. Midwood
Depictions of people in historic portraiture were often idealised, as in this Victorian interpretation of Burns and Highland Mary.
1860
W. H. Midwood

So behind the silks and embroidered dresses, it is clear that our 18th century ladies have a lot they keep hidden! As to whether Clarinda ever sported a ‘pouffe’ wig, or daubed on white paint for the perfect complexion, we will never really know. Sadly, aside from a silhouette, there are no contemporary paintings, or anything remaining from her wardrobe. Yet, by looking at the secrets on the 18th century wardrobe, we can create a picture of what Edinburgh ladies might have looked like in the time of Robert Burns.

Burns’s Love Story

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Original Manuscript Letter from Robert Burns to Agnes McLehose
Letter from Robert Burns to Agnes McLehose

Robert Burns has written many different love poems, and beautiful songs, but what has been his inspiration for such poems and songs?

Well to start us off on this journey through the extensive love life of our Robert Burns, you should probably know that Robert was no saint when it came to the affairs of the heart, he went from woman to woman and relationship to relationship to find his perfect bonnie lass.

At the beginning of his path through the mysteries of the opposite sex there was Nellie, she was considered to be the first girl he ever fell for and certainly not the last but she started him off on the road of love and romance.  Robert was only fifteen when he met Nell and he wrote a song for her called ‘Handsome Nell’.

O Once I lov’d a bonnie lass,

An’ aye I love her still,

An’ whilst that virtue warms my breast,

I’ll love my handsome Nell.

As bonnie lasses I hae seen,

And mony full as braw;

But for a modest gracefu’ mein,

The like I never saw.

A bonny lass I will confess,

Is pleasant to the e’e,

But without some better qualities

She’s no a lass for me.

But Nelly’s looks are blythe and sweet,

And what is best of a’,

Her reputation is compleat,

And fair without a flaw;

She dresses ay sae clean and neat,

Both decent and genteel;

And then there’s something in her gait

Gars ony dress look weel.

A gaudy dress and gentle air

May slightly touch the heart,

But it’s innocence and modesty

That polishes the dart.

‘Tis this in Nelly pleases me,

‘Tis this enchants my soul;

For absolutely in my breast

She reigns without controul.

This song was believed to have been written in 1774 and speaks of feminine grace and innocence.  This girl was the one that started Robert’s fascination with the opposite sex.

No doubt that Robert had several different women in his life between Nell and his courtships to Jean Armour, however there are only records of the more influential on his romantic radar.  Jean Armour was the lucky lass that Robert eventually settled down with and married, however it was not all happy, as at first it was just a fling together in 1785, but then Jean fell pregnant to Robert.  She was then taken away to Paisley by her father to prevent her from being with Robert but was later called to admit that she bore an illegitimate child to Robert, from that point Robert and Jean began to court.

The story of the Ayrshire rascal does not end here however, he then met ‘Highland Mary’ later in 1785 and Robert fell for her head over heels instantly.  He wrote a song for her called ‘The Highland Lassie’

Nae gentle dames tho’ ne’er sae fair

Shall ever be my Muse’s care;

Their titles a’ are empty show,

Gie me my Highland Lassie, O.

Within the glen sae bushy, O,

Aboon the plain sae rashy, O,

I set me down wi’ right gude will

To sing my Highland Lassie, O.

O were yon hills and vallies mine,

Yon palace and yon gardens fine;

The world then the love should know

I bear my Highland Lassie, O.-

But fickle Fortune frowns on me,

And I maun cross the raging sea;

But while my crimson currents flow,

I love my Highland Lassie, O.-

Altho’ thro’ foreign climes I range,

I know her heart will never change;

For her bosom burns with honor’s glow,

My faithful Highland Lassie, O-

For her I’ll dare the billow’s roar;

For her I’ll trace a distant shore;

That Indian wealth may lustre throw

Around my Highland Lassie, O.-

She has my heart, she has my hand,

By secret Truth and Honor’s band:

Till the mortal stroke shall lay me low,

I’m thine, my Highland Lassie, O.-

Robert loved this woman with his heart and soul, he asked her to elope with him to Jamaica, and she had intended to but alas it was not meant to be, she died in 1786 after falling seriously ill.  However, before she died she and Robert had exchanged Bibles, and it was said that they may also have exchanged vows; however no conclusive evidence exists to prove this is correct.  So Robert returned to his lass Jean Armour to continue courtship.

The next woman I am going to talk about is Agnes McLehose, but before I do I should comment on how Robert was supposed to be courting Jean Armour at the time while he was sending letters and visiting Agnes.   Agnes had previously been married before she met Burns, and although her and her husband were separated, she was technically still married and so she still upheld her vows, and never touched another man.

Robert met Agnes in 1787 while in Edinburgh on publishing business.  He quickly discovered that Agnes was a lover of poems and different writings which interested Robert.  Agnes and Robert started to write to one another, but not long after Robert was involved in a carriage accident and was bed ridden for a short time.   They exchanged many letters which became more intense and intimate as time progressed.  Robert would talk of Jean Armour behind her back saying that he could not stand her, and he found her disgusting compared to Agnes, and Agnes would talk of her situation in being a married woman but wanting to be with Robert (some of these letters are in our museum http://www.burnsmuseum.org.uk/collections). After a while they began to exchange visits, this is where their relationship turned sour as Robert wanted to be with Agnes completely but Agnes could not forget her vows which tied her. Not too long after, Robert looked to other woman around him, one such being a servant girl of Agnes’ who bore a child for Robert.  From that point on it was over, Robert left her, and she went to seek her husband, whom she found in Jamaica with another woman, who had given him children.  So she returned to be with Robert but was too late and he had married Jean Armour.

After Robert’s affair with Highland Mary and Agnes McLehose Robert returned to Jean Armour ready finally to commit himself and in 1788 he married her and was with her until the day he died.  Jean Armour gave Robert nine children in total although most of them did not survive very long and died in infancy.  He did truly love Jean Armour in the end and was happy with her as a wife.

And so the tale of Roberts’s love life seemed like a never ending story of tragedy and romance, not to mention a lot of beautiful young ladies but in the end he never could live without his Jean that stole his heart.

By Fiona Jones

Volunteer Learning Assistant

Burns in Edinburgh 1787

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Image

This nineteenth century engraving shows Robert Burns reading ‘a Winter Night’ at the Duchess of Gordon’s house in Edinburgh, in 1787. The Duchess of Gordon was described as ‘the empress of fashion’, and this image is a snapshot of Burns’ ‘big break’ in polite Edinburgh society.

In the audience you can spot leading philosophers such as Dugald Stewart (lounging with a hankie) and Adam Ferguson (direct left of Burns). Burns’ aristocratic patron the Duchess of Gordon is sitting in the foreground. One of Burns’ literary heroes, Henry Mackenzie is standing with his back to the door. You can find William Creech, Burns’ publisher, peeking out next to Henry Mackenzie. The butler with his back to the group, on the far right of the image, is Willie Marshall, a well-known composer of strathspeys and reels.

Using the caption at the bottom of this picture (and a magnifying glass!) you can use your detective skills to identify several other people in this picture who supported Robert Burns in various ways. Some of Burns’ appeal in this high society context – which this picture illustrates – must have been due to the novelty value of the ‘heaven-taught ploughman’. Certainly the harsh rural winter in the poem Burns is pictured reciting would have seemed far away from this comfortable salon.

‘List’ning the doors an’ winnocks rattle,
I thought me on the ourie cattle,
Or silly sheep, wha bide this brattle
O’ winter war,
And thro’ the drift, deep-lairing, sprattle
Beneath a scar.’

– A Winter Night