Ramsay & Edinburgh Fashion exhibition

This exhibition brings together Allan Ramsay’s portraits of women from the National Trust for Scotland’s collection.

It will run between Friday 7 June–Tuesday 26 November 2024. Entry to the exhibition is included in the admission to the Georgian House (free for National Trust for Scotland members).

The display explores how vital it was for a painter in the 1700s to be familiar with dress styles, materials and accessories because fashion was a key signifier of good taste. New research lays out the trades involved in fashion – from the milliners to the mantua-makers – along Edinburgh’s High Street, and sets this against the fashion for portraiture in the mid-18th century.

Meet Katherine Anne Mure. She was painted by Allan Ramsay in the 1760s wearing the height of French fashion. Katherine lived in Abbeyhill and is pictured here wearing a fine laced kerchief over her shoulders, sleeves fitted at the upper arm and trimmed with tiered lace, flowers at her bust, and a stomacher [front bodice] decorated with buttons and ruched strips of expensive blue silk.

Ramsay understood that being well-versed in the language of fashion was one of the keys to social mobility. Being aware of the latest trends was becoming easier for customers in cities like Edinburgh, which was filled with a world of goods and a diverse cross-section of retailers. Fabrics mostly came into the city from textile manufacturing centres, like London, Manchester and Norwich, then they were sold by auction or directly purchased by consumers, merchants, drapers and milliners.

Foreign textiles were hugely popular. So much so that legislation was introduced throughout the 1700s to protect and encourage domestic production. The encouragement to buy well and buy local fostered a trade in second-hand goods. Wealthier women sold on outdated dresses, in pursuit of the newest trends, while less affluent women searched for the ideal gown that would last and which they could adapt with small alterations.

An oil portrait of a young woman wearing a blue silk dress.
Portrait of Mrs Mure, Allan Ramsay | Hill of Tarvit Collection

Short film: An imagined journey

Take a look at our short film of a woman’s shopping trip, based on new research into Edinburgh’s fashion trade in the mid-1700s. From her house in the Canongate, she buys cloth for her sister who lives in the Highlands as well as accessories to alter one of her own gowns.


Ramsay & Edinburgh Fashion

Canongate, Edinburgh 1758
A sister in the Highlands writes asking for the latest fabrics for a new gown.
Fabric samples from her sister will inform her purchases.
A good excuse to buy some accessories and re-imagine a favourite gown.

Alexander Mason – Silk merchant
Old Bank Close

James Baillie – Tartan merchant and milliner
Sign of the Archer, Lawnmarket

Mr James and Mrs Paterson
Stay-maker and mantua-maker
Mary King’s Close

John Fyfe – Merchant
Bell’s Wynd

Obrian Maitland – Shoemaker
Parliament Close

Eleonora Robertson
Cloth merchant and milliner

A new woollen cloak purchased on account.
Ribbons and Brussels lace purchased with coin will update her gown.
Alterations will refresh a favourite dress before a new season.

Ramsay & Edinburgh Fashion

With thanks to those who have supported the making of this film and the Ramsay and Edinburgh Fashion exhibition:

  • The American Friends of British Art
  • NTS Foundation USA
  • The Real Mary King’s Close
  • Edinburgh NTS Members’ Centre
  • Donors in memory of the Duchess of Buccleuch


A number of events will run from June until November, including our popular Wednesday evening lecture series.

Stories to be discovered include:

  • The lives of dressmakers and fashion retailers in mid-1700s Edinburgh
  • How silk made its way into Edinburgh
  • The significant role Allan Ramsay’s father played in his son’s career
  • Mapping Edinburgh streets during Ramsay’s lifetime

Find out more about exhibition events

Highlight event: From Canvas to Silk

Saturday 8 June–Thursday 13 June

A group of volunteers, led by dress historian Rebecca Olds, will be making a dress in the drawing room at the Georgian House.

They have taken inspiration from a 1766–69 painting in the exhibition. Come and watch, ask questions and see how fabrics are cut to fit the wearer.

A dress-making workshop