Unlike that of their male contemporaries, in the mid-1700s women’s clothing in the Highlands did not differ much from what was being worn in the Lowlands, England or the rest of western Europe.
The distinctive arasaid (Gaelic: earrasaid or earasaid), a large piece of plain, striped or tartan fabric that covered the head and wrapped around the body, had been worn often at the beginning of the century; as the years passed, it gradually became less and less popular, until eventually it was mainly worn just by women of the Western Isles. The Royal Dress Act of 1746, which restricted the use of tartan, did not apply to women, and so tartan was sometimes included in a woman’s outfit, often as the print for a modesty cloth or scarf. The general items worn at the time are detailed below, but as is the case today, factors such as the woman’s wealth, age and occupation, as well as personal preference, varied things significantly.
The first thing put on would have been a shift. A shift was a long white garment, which often doubled as a nightgown, and it was worn to separate the body from the clothes that were to be put on top; in an age when daily bathing was not common, this was considered necessary in order to preserve the other items of clothing. Next, the woman would have put on stays, a tight linen garment heavily reinforced with whalebone on the top, and structured with whalebone or cane at the bottom. Stays were worn to help obtain the fashionable hourglass shape, to provide a rigid structure over which the outer clothes could be arranged, and prevent curvature of the spine in cases of rickets and similar conditions.
Following this base, she would have worn a dress, which could be plain, striped or printed, or a petticoat, skirt and some sort of fitted sleeved garment on top, such as a day jacket, casaquin, bed gown or short gown (which reached mid-thigh). Rich women would also have had ball gowns and riding habits, and would have chosen costly imported fabrics and dyes for their clothes; those with more limited means used local plants for homemade dyes. Some examples are brambles, which were used for a burnt orange colour, braken for yellow, elderberries for blue and sundew for purple.
Finally she might have worn an apron, depending on her rank and occupation, and pockets (cloth bags) which were connected with a string, tied around the waist under the petticoat or apron, and accessed through slits. Bits and pieces, such as money, thimbles and keys, would be kept in these pockets, hidden from view. A modesty cloth would have been tied about the neck, and, unless young and unmarried, a woman covered her head with a scarf or a cotton cap.
Shoes varied a lot from class to class. Women who did not need to work would have softer, flimsier shoes, purchased for how fashionable they were rather than their sturdiness; a working woman would have had plainer shoes, made of leather or wood, sometimes with a buckle of ties. Many woman had only one pair of shoes, and so apart from in winter, they were worn only at church in an effort to maintain them.
We hope you enjoyed this little insight in women’s fashion. As always please like, share, tweet, comment and if you visit Culloden you may see one of our volunteers dressed in outfits like those described.
All the best, The Culloden Team