Beetle-wing dress revisited
Back in 2009 I blogged about the “Beetlewing dress” worn by Victorian actress Ellen Terry to play Lady Macbeth- and the National Trust’s project to restore it. Well, the restored dress is now on display at Ellen’s former home, Smallhythe Place, and last weekend we paid a visit…
What can I say that could possibly do this amazing conservation project justice?
I could tell you that apparently it took over 1,500 hours to restore the dress, and that bits of the crocheted fabric had to be re-crocheted. I could tell you that the damaged beetle-wings were reinforced with Japanese tissue and wheat starch paste…
Detail of the belt at the back
But, really, when you’re up close with this dress, you don’t consider the hours of painstaking restoration; the stunning design of the dress is all you see. As soon as you walk into the tiny room where it’s displayed, the gown demands your attention- its iridescent scales wink and beckon in the half-light.
Although essentially a Victorian take on a medieval costume, there is something timeless about the dress- it’s the kind of gown that probably wouldn’t look out of place at a Paris couture show today. You can just imagine the gasps that must have gone up in the audience in 1888, as Ellen walked out on stage. And what makes it so ageless and arresting is the texture- the crocheted tinsel yarn embellished with real beetle-wings. (Beetles are not killed to harvest their wings- they shed the wings as part of their lifecycle. More on the beetles and materials of the dress in my original post.)
The dress is behind glass, but it’s displayed on a cunning revolving pedestal- at the touch of the button you can view it from all angles. (How many times did I push the button? Let’s just say: quite a few…)
Small wonder that John Singer Sargent wanted to paint Ellen wearing the gown:
Oscar Wilde, who saw Ellen’s arrival at Sargent’s Chelsea studio, apparently said: “The street that on a wet and dreary morning has vouchsafed the vision of Lady Macbeth in full regalia magnificently seated in a four-wheeler can never again be as other streets: it must always be full of wonderful possibilities.”
Ah, Oscar, no one tells it like you do!
Here’s the cloak originally worn with the dress (you can just about see it in Sargent’s painting):
Detail of the sleeves:
The lovely outside of Smallhythe Place:
Also on display are a few other stage costumes worn by Ellen:
Now that’s what I call a dressing-up box.