1780s · Costumes · Eighteenth Century

1780s Tartan Gown: Part 1

Part 1: Inspiration and Research
Part 2: Pattern, Mock Up and Underpinnings
Part 3: Construction.

Inspiration and Research

On display at the Inverness Museum & Art Gallery is a tartan wedding dress from the late eighteenth century: the Isabella MacTavish Fraser wedding dress. The dress was probably made shortly before January 1785 for the wedding of Isabella MacTavish to Malcolm Fraser, who were both from Stratherrick, near Loch Ness, in the Scottish Highlands. It is significant, not only for its beauty but because it is one of the only known tartan dresses from this date.

As can be seen below, there are examples of tartan gowns in portraits from the early- to mid-eighteenth century; however, these have not survived.

Last year, the dress was subject of the Isabella MacTavish Fraser Project organised by Timesmith Dressmaking in which the gown was recreated over a weekend alongside the ‘Wild and Majestic’: Romantic visions of Scotland’ at the National Museum of Scotland, at which the original gown was on display (26 June to 10 November 2019). I followed the Isabella Project avidly and would have loved to have travelled to see it. I pored over the free pattern and construction notes by American Duchess when it came out but despaired of making my own version until I had saved enough money to afford the fabric. That was, until I found some for an excellent price on eBay.

American Duchess, Sewing an 18th Century Gown – Recreating the Isabella MacTavish Fraser Wedding Dress (2019).

The Tartan

After the Jacobite Rebellion, there had been a ban on the use of male Highland Dress under the Act of Proscription of 1746. The gown was originally believed to be made from an older tartan from this date; however, dye analysis has shown that it can be no earlier than 1775 and possibly dates to after the ban was lifted in 1778 and when there was a revival.

Ledgers of tartan samples formed by the Highland Society of London, c. 1820

The tartan I found is called Ancient Hunting McCrae. Despite being called “ancient” the pattern probably dates from the twentieth century.

It is a beautiful very fine worsted wool tartan fabric, made in Huddersfield. It is a spring weight 8 oz per metre. 
It is 62 inches wide and the pattern repeat is 6″ on the width and 6.5″ on the length.

The concept of a clan having specific tartan probably dates from George IV’s visit to Scotland in 1822. However, the colours in this tartan: blue, red, green, white and black would have been possible in the eighteenth century and they echo the red, blue and green in the Isabella Fraser dress.

The tartan I bought is very fine and feels beautifully soft. It is much lighter than the original Isabella dress, which is described as a “hard tartan”. However, the dress and its recreation suffers from the weight of heavy wool, pulling the bodice and making it pucker. It is posited that the original eighteenth-century mantua-maker tried to counteract this effect of the weight of the pleats pulling the back of the dress by adding the lacing strips to the inside of the bodice. Having a lighter fabric would reduce this problem and it is still period appropriate.

In Part Two, I will look at the pattern and my mock up.

Sources and References


  • Unknown artist, Helen Murrary of Ochtertyre, oil on canvas, c. 1750. Private Collection.
  • William Robertson, Portrait of Flora Macdonald, oil on canvas, 1750. 655. Glasgow Museums.
  • Richard Wilson, Portrait of Flora Macdonald, oil on canvas, 1747. PG 1162. National Galleries Scotland.

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