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Beetle-wing dress revisited

September 16, 2011

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.

Brooch detail at the neck

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.)

Detail of the belt at the front

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.

25 Comments leave one →
  1. September 16, 2011 6:07 pm

    SOOOOO Incredible!!! Thank you so much for sharing these treasures!! This dress and cloak are incredible masterpieces, and the masterpiece painting too of course! Love the description by Wilde of Ellen arriving in the wet dreary street, so beautiful. What a nice dreamy escape from the 21st C.

  2. September 17, 2011 2:31 am

    I so enjoy reading your blog – thank you for sharing this and I really love reading the vintage pattern posts too!

  3. September 17, 2011 3:06 am

    Absolutely wonderful. Thank you so much for sharing!

  4. September 18, 2011 12:55 am

    What an amazing post, thank you for sharing, loved the last dress, it looks like something strait out of a fairytale

  5. February 2, 2012 10:57 am

    Just…WOW! Came here from a link on Facebook and it was totally worth the journey. Great post and what an awesome dress!

  6. Lan permalink
    July 22, 2012 12:32 pm

    Merveilleux !
    Un grand merci depuis la France pour ce partage.

  7. medievalmuse permalink
    July 23, 2012 9:23 pm

    I also came here via FB and I thank you so much for providing so many views/details of this astonishing gown. I love the other pieces as well – that cloak!!! The last gown reminds me of a Walter Crane illustration come to life. I’d read that Edward Burne-Jones designed some gowns for Ellen, wonder if any of those survived and are packed away in a trunk somewhere?

  8. Doris Nash permalink
    August 27, 2012 8:27 pm

    Thank you so much for sharing this! What an incredible place, with such treasures!

  9. August 28, 2012 12:35 am

    Oh no! Now there’s another blog I have to read on a regular basis…. Great photos, great story, amazing dress. Thanks.

  10. Donna Conrad permalink
    August 28, 2012 3:35 pm

    I saw this dress several years ago before it was restored. The home has a complete photographic record of all Mrs Terry’s costumes that were there when the house became a museum. The site manager took me to her office and let me look at the books that contained them! what a treat! Thanks for posting the pictures of this dress after its restoration!

  11. Jeanie permalink
    August 28, 2012 5:38 pm

    I wish i could fit in those dresses, very beautiful………

  12. Anne Redish permalink
    August 28, 2012 9:52 pm

    Fabulous. Was there any indication why the metal belt items were not restored to the ‘golden’ look of the painting? What is the ‘pouch’ or what-ever hanging on her right side??

    • September 13, 2012 2:56 pm

      No, there was no mention why the metal wasn’t “restored”, or polished up. Perhaps they thought it would look too new. Perhaps on metal patina of age is less destructive or even a decorative embellishment in its own right, whereas the effects of age on textiles are far less desirable?
      I hadn’t really noticed there being a “pouch” when I saw the dress, perhaps because the sleeve mostly obscures it. But I’m intrigued to notice it in the pictures now you point it out. I wonder if it’s almost a scabbard for a knife rather than a pouch, which would make sense given the character of Lady Macbeth and the plot, etc?

  13. August 29, 2012 8:18 am

    I came from FB and this is wonderful, whoever thinks that knitting and crochet only produce mundane garments ought to see this. Wonderful, wonderful!

  14. December 28, 2012 10:15 pm

    Some one asked me today if I could own any work of art, regardless of medium, I said it would be the portrait of Ellen Terry as Lady MacBeth. That sent me on a hunt to find a picture of that portrait to attach to my response (on FB). I found out about the restoration (I am also a costume designer) by doing this search. I had no idea the costume still existed! Thank you for your beautiful pictures and reporting. So thank you. And I’m putting a link to your page in my FB post!

  15. Tandy permalink
    May 6, 2013 9:37 pm

    Thank you so so much for having all of these pictures on your blog! It has helped me immensely in recreating this dress. You truly have some of the best photographs of this dress that I have found, and I can’t thank you enough for sharing them! I will be sure to share pictures someday when the recreation is finished – they will might even be wedding pictures because this is the dress that I want to get married in someday!

  16. November 15, 2013 8:48 am

    Colleen Atwood must have gotten the idea for Ravenna’s gown in the film Snow White and the Huntsman. See pics on this blog post:

    • November 15, 2013 8:49 am

      ^Gotten the idea from Ellen Terry’s Lady MacBeth gown, that is.

  17. Nicole Pietras permalink
    April 18, 2016 10:44 pm


  18. Red Bear42 permalink
    June 19, 2016 7:34 pm



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