Wednesday, March 23, 2011

beetle-wing dress returns to the spotlight

Fashion icons such as Marilyn Monroe and Madonna have nothing on Victorian actress Ellen Terry, according to an article on the National Trust website:

image source: Incredible Things

A stage costume worn by Ellen Terry, one of the most celebrated and glamorous actresses of the Victorian age, has returned to its home, Smallhythe Place in Kent.

The emerald and sea green gown, covered with the iridescent wings of the jewel beetle (which the beetles shed naturally) was worn by Ellen when she wowed audiences with her portrayal of Lady Macbeth at London’s Lyceum Theatre in 1888.

It was one of the most iconic and celebrated theatre costumes of the time, immortalised by the John Singer Sargent portrait now on display at the Tate Gallery. 
Notable for her roles as Shakespearean heroines, Ellen Terry wore the dress on stage when she portrayed Lady Macbeth in Shakespeare's Macbeth at London's Lyceum Theatre in 1888.

The dress, made of 1,000 beetle wings, took several years to restore to its original 19th century condition:

image source: The Beautiful Necessity
At over 120 years old, the dress had seen many years of wear and tear and was subject to much alteration. It was structurally very weak and a shadow of its original self. Two years ago the intricate process of conserving it began. A successful fundraising campaign raised £50,000 for the work to be completed.
Paul Meredith, House Manager, at Smallhythe Place, said:

'We had collected the beetle wings that had fallen off over the years so that the conservator was able to re-attach many of the originals, plus others that had been donated to us – 1,000 in total.
'The one hundred or so wings that were broken were each carefully repaired by supporting them on small pieces of Japanese tissue adhered with a mixture of wheat starch paste.

'But the majority of the work has involved strengthening the fabric, understanding the many alterations that were made to the dress and ultimately returning it to something that is much closer to the costume worn by Ellen on stage in 1888.'

I am just astounded that a) someone would think to put beetle wings on a dress, and b) that so many of the original wings were able to be repaired and reattached to the dress.  I wonder if the Victorians considered it frivolous, or avant-garde, or picked it apart in another way as a fashion statement much like we do with celebrities' outfits today.  Potential future research, perhaps?

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