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21 May 2018

‘Dress to impress’ – Lady Ailsa’s dressing case

Written by Rachel Sayers
Detail of Lady Ailsa’s dressing case
Detail of Lady Ailsa’s dressing case
Lady Evelyn Kennedy’s dressing case is one of the most interesting items at Culzean Castle. Here we find out how ladies would get dressed with the aid of this wonderful case.

Lady Evelyn Blantyre married Archibald Kennedy, 3rd Marquess of Ailsa, on 7 March 1871. Together, they had five children, including the 4th, 5th and 6th Marquesses of Ailsa. Lady Evelyn enjoyed the lavish lifestyle that accompanied the title of Marchioness of Ailsa, and the constant travel, parties and functions that entailed. With such a busy social life, Lady Evelyn would require several changes of clothing a day and was helped to dress by a lady’s maid.

A lady’s maid’s tasks, according to the famous Victorian Mrs Beeton, were ‘more numerous, and perhaps more onerous, than those of the valet’. She was not only responsible for dressing her mistress and styling her hair, but also had to make sure her mistress’s clothes, accessories and bedroom were clean. A lady’s maid would have used something similar to this elaborate gold-plated travel set, which was given to Lady Evelyn as a wedding present by the 3rd Marquess.

Fine horse hair and enamel brushes were used for brushing hair and brushing down soiled clothes.
Fine horse hair and enamel brushes were used for brushing hair and brushing down soiled clothes.

The dressing case folds out in different layers and has several make-up and scent bottles, brushes, scissors, glove stretchers, button hooks and combs that would help to make Lady Evelyn look her best at home and when travelling. Essentially, this is the ultimate travel beauty case! The exquisite work on the handles of the glove stretchers and button hooks show how much care was taken over the making and cleaning of the travelling case – it still looks brand new.

Lady Evelyn Kennedy’s dressing case
Close-up of gold-plated and enamel button hooks, mirrors, needles and nail files

The dressing case is made from silver gilt, glass, coral, wood, ivory, gold, paper and brass. The bottles have gold tops with either ivory or ceramic bodies. Most of the small accoutrements are made from a combination of gold, pearl or silver gilt. Unusually, it also contains a ship’s compass, as the Kennedy family enjoyed regular sailing trips on their various yachts.

Lady Evelyn Kennedy
Lady Evelyn Kennedy

Lady Evelyn would have sat at her dressing table while her lady’s maid washed and dressed her hair, applied creams and make-up, and generally helped her get into the cumbersome dresses of the 1870s and 1880s. We mustn’t forget that Lady Evelyn would change her clothes several times a day: in the morning; for a ride or a walk; for lunch; for tea; and finally for dinner. In between these times the lady’s maid would have used the needles, scissors and other sewing equipment to make sure Lady Evelyn’s clothes were mended and ready for wear.

The life of a lady’s maid could be tiring, as her day started when her mistress got up and didn’t end until her mistress went to bed – sometimes in the early hours of the morning after a ball or dance. Lady Evelyn’s dressing case is a reminder of a long-gone age when ladies were dressed in all their finery by a succession of loyal, friendly and courteous lady’s maids.

Lady Ailsa’s dressing case is a gift from Lady Kilmaine.

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