Victorian beetle-wing dress restored wing by wing

A Victorian stage costume made in 1888 using 1,000 iridescent jewel beetle wings is back on display after two years of meticulous restoration. The dress was created for famed Shakespearean actress Ellen Terry’s portrayal of Lady Macbeth and was immortalized by American painter John Singer Sargent in an 1889 portrait now in London’s Tate Gallery.

Terry loved the dress and it was so iconic a look that she wore it throughout her lifetime at personal appearances and performances even after her retirement. After she died in 1928, the Beetle Wing dress was put on display at the Ellen Terry Memorial Museum, a museum founded by her heirs at Terry’s beloved Smallhythe Place, a 16th century half-timber house she had purchased in 1899 and lived in until her death. Her daughter Edith Craig donated the house and Terry’s collection of theatrical memorabilia to the National Trust in 1939 who kept the Beetle Wing dress as the centerpiece of the home’s costume exhibition.

After 120 years of near-continuous use and display, the hand-crocheted fabric with its individually sewn-on beetle wings was in extremely precarious condition.

The conservation team conducted a thorough scientific investigation, which included microscopic analysis of 70 tiny thread samples taken from the repaired seams. The results were then combined with evidence of deterioration and wear which were compared alongside the Sargent painting and contemporary photographs of Terry in the unaltered dress.

The conservators then went on to separate, repair and reunite pieces of the original dress from what is believed to be an amalgamation of two costumes, probably originally very similar in construction. This second costume was possibly a spare costume for the understudy or just a slightly different version for another scene in the play.

Conservation was complicated by the unusual construction of the dress which is hand crocheted and knitted from Bohemian yarn, described by the designer Alice Comyns-Carr as being, “a twist of soft green silk and blue tinsel”. Conservators supported the now weak and stretching dress on a custom dyed nylon net after painstakingly repairing all the holes in the crochet using a re-crochet technique. They also focussed [sic] on restoring the original length and fullness to the elaborate sleeves.

The Smallhythe Place curators had collected the original beetle wings as they fell off the dress over the decades. The conservators were thus able to re-attach many of the original wings as well as replacing any broken ones that could not be repaired. (Yes, they actually repaired individual beetle wings by pasting them to tiny pieces of tissue.)

The dress is now on display, posed with arms raised as in John Singer Sargent’s portrait. The pose was not one she actually struck in the performance. It was Sargent’s idea, and its dramatic posture reveals the sweeping sleeves and draping of the dress itself.

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