Unmissable Castle Couture collection on show at Blair Castle in Perthshire, Scotland

Beautifully preserved collection, which includes a rare Jacobite-era dress and one adorned with beetle-wings provides an unrivalled insight to historic clothing

A rare eighteenth-century dress, worn during Scotland’s Jacobite times is one of many historically significant outfits on display for the first time within the Castle Couture exhibition at Perthshire’s spectacular 13th century Blair Castle. 

Castle Couture, the only Scottish exhibition to be currently shortlisted for a national Historic Houses award, is a veritable showcase of authentic, historic clothing, which date from the 18th and 19th centuries from the Jacobites through to the Victoria era. 

The exhibition is located within Blair Castle - recently crowned Visitor Attraction of the Year at the 2022 Scottish Hospitality Awards - the ancestral home of the Stewarts and Murrays of Atholl, which was built in 1269 and sits within the 145,000-acre Atholl Estates. 

Providing a fascinating insight to historic fashions, Castle Couture features beautifully preserved Victorian ballgowns, waistcoats, sacque dresses and children’s outfits. Many of the pieces on display exemplify the extravagance and flamboyance of clothing through the generations with fabrics ranging from a Chinese painted silk dress to heavy brocade from Lyon, France, highlighting the distances travelled during those times.

One particularly stunning 260-year-old gown, made of hand painted ivory Chinese silk edged with gold thread brocade, ruffles and pleats, lay undiscovered in an old trunk that was simply listed as ‘with clothes’ in the Castle archives until plans for the Castle Couture exhibition were first hatched two years ago. What makes the discovery so remarkable is that the dress is complete with stomacher, the V-shaped front panel, and is virtually unaltered since the eighteenth century.  It was worn by Jean, 2nd Duchess of Atholl when she attended Balls at Court, which were extravagant affairs. 

Castle Couture also includes a ballgown worn to entertain Queen Victoria and a ‘tea’ dress that would have graced British high society, men’s frock coats, fashion-conscious waistcoats and ornate military style children’s clothes.

One gown worn for the Eglinton Tournament, a re-enactment of a medieval joust, in 1839 is even made from fabric that can be traced back to 17th century France.

Made from silk taffeta, silk brocade, satin, velvet and tulle and richly decorated with embroidery, ribbons and gold and silver thread, the outfits on show reveal the fashions worn at the Castle during turbulent times. 

The fabric of the ballgowns is typically patterned with images from nature and include floral designs and garlands of leaves, with the silk brocade of a court dress worn by Lady Charlotte, the wife of John, 3rd Duke of Atholl, believed to have been designed by the 18th century’s most prominent textile designer, Anna Maria Garthwaite. Garthwaite’s work is now on display at the V&A. Another dress is decorated with thousands of shimmering beetle-wings (or elytra) to catch the light in much the same way that sequins do on modern clothing.

The styles represent the extravagance and flamboyance of George II’s court, often copied from the French through to Victorian opulence. They also reveal what many women would suffer in the name of fashion, when tiny, pinched waists were de rigueur, achieved with V-shaped bodices with boned seams above full skirts.

Keren Guthrie, archivist at Blair Castle, said:

“It’s fantastic to see our Castle Couture exhibition recognised as a finalist in the Historic Houses’ inaugural awards. It’s been a fascinating journey to curate this exhibition: we uncovered long forgotten trunks containing treasures such as a rare dress from the Jacobite era that’s some 250 years old to one that’s adorned with beetle-wings and a beautiful ivory silk taffeta shot with silver and gold threads. 

“All of these heritage pieces on display are from the family’s treasure troves, they’re embedded in the history of Blair Castle and give a glimpse into the life and times of the family through the generations.

“Aristocratic families showed their wealth and status by following the fashions of royalty and the Dukes and Duchess of Atholl in the 18th and 19th centuries were no different. The exhibition gives a fascinating insight into how they presented themselves in society through the fashions of the day.”  

Sally Tuckett, Senior Lecturer in Dress and Textile at the University of Glasgow, who advised on the project, added:

“Historical clothing gives us an immediate and physical gateway to the past. They let us think about the person who wore it, what their daily life was like, and the places they might have been. Surviving garments allow us to consider the past from the perspective of the people that lived it.

“The clothes and textiles at Blair Castle are particularly special because they are intimately linked to the history of the castle itself, and to the dukes and duchesses of Atholl and their families. The elaborate and sumptuous gowns, jackets, waistcoats and children’s clothing, give a glimpse into the life of this family – from what they wore on special occasions to how clothing was handed down and adapted through the years. 

“A stand-out garment in the collection is the painted silk gown which dates from the mid- to late eighteenth century, an item which was a joy to unpack from its box! Such dresses don’t always survive intact, the fabric of the petticoat, for example might get remade into something else, or the stomacher is often lost.  This dress, however, still has its original pieces and although it does have some signs of wear, it is in great condition! 

“The fabric of the dress also allows us to make wider connections – the painted silk was possibly made in China for the European market and so to think of this fabric travelling thousands of miles to end up in Blair Castle is quite special.  Whether it survived accidentally or was kept on purpose, it offers a perfect snapshot into a particular time and place.”