This portrait by John Singer Sargent depicts Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth standing erect, white faced, holding King Duncan's crown above her head. Long plaits of red hair bound with gold hang down to Terry's knees, over a heather-coloured embroidered velvet cloak.
The spectacular gown immortalized in the portrait was worn by actress Ellen Terry in the role of Lady Macbeth at London’s Lyceum Theatre in 1888. The dress was one of the most celebrated costumes of the era.
Designed by Alice Comyns-Carr and made in crochet by Ada Nettleship, using a soft green wool and blue tinsel yarn from Bohemia to create an effect similar to chain mail. It was embroidered with gold and decorated with 1,000 iridescent beetle wings.
The dress has a narrow border of Celtic designs worked out in red and white stones, is hemmed on all the edges. The design was inspired by a dress worn by Lady Randolph Churchill that was also trimmed with green beetle wings. It was designed to "look as much like soft chain armour... and yet have something that would give the appearance of the scales of a serpent".
Terry wrote to her daughter, "I wish you could see my dresses. They are superb, especially the first one: green beetles on it, and such a cloak! The photographs give no idea of it at all, for it is in colour that it is so splendid".
Beetle wings have an iridescence that is fascinating. Seen in candle or gas light they could be mistaken for emeralds or sapphires. The wing cases are hard and shell like, they are tough yet break under direct pressure.
The beetle-wings used in embroidery are a naturally shed byproduct, the fore-wings mostly come from members of the family Buprestidae, often know as Jewel Beetles.
Beetle-wings have been used for centuries by Indian civilisations, cut into tiny spangle shapes to adorn a range of objects from garments and turban cloths, to canopies and book covers, their reflective properties admired as a means to ward off evil spirits. In the 19th century beetlewing embroidery became a luxury export to Britain for ladies’ ball gowns and other textiles.
In Victorian England and Europe, the desire for examples of expertly worked curiosities from foreign lands using unusual flora and fauna such as iridescent feathers, hummingbirds, and beetle wings created a large market for the production and export of such goods. India and South American provided many of these “exotic” things.
The book Victorian Jewellery by Nancy Armstrong mentions an 1865 French tulle ball gown with thirty-seven yards of fabric strewn with beetles, butterflies, spangles, mother-of-pearl and so forth. Artisans in numerous cities in Europe as well as India produced these often excessive textiles and ornaments.
There is an Indian beetle wing tea cosy from the Victorian era in the collection of The Hampshire Museums Service. The constrasting colour of green beetle wings against a ruby wine coloured silk satin is a treat for the eye.
The couched thread adds to the opulent look of the tea cosy combining an European item with Indian design.
Beetle wings are still used today in haute couture fashion and on the big screen.
This article in the Rushford [NY] Spectator 26 January 1888: p. 2 gave me a good chuckle. Can you imagine it !!!
Consternation reigned in old Dr. Catlin’s home one night when it was found that the chambermaid had gone to a ball with the doctor’s pet collection of butterflies and bugs stuck all over a white Tarleton frock. His entomological treasures, rich and rare, were carefully pinned in cases with locked glass doors on them. The doctor’s wife had worn a dress to some festivity ornamented with beaded butterflies and when the occasion arrived for Miss Honora O’Halleran to attend the ball of the McGinnerty Association with Barney Brannigan it struck her that the bugs would work in beautifully. She detached about half of the collection, valued at some thousands of dollars, and sewed them by their hind legs to the most prominent portions of her costume. Putting on a waterproof she boarded a car and went off to be the belle of the ball............................. A clue was obtained to their fate from the cook, who remembered to have seen Honora with a box of “gold croton bugs” up in her room. Dr. Catlin was up to let the house maid in when at all hours in the morning she waltzed into the basement, her bedraggled tarlatan skirt covered with the broken wings and severed legs of the famous collection. When the storm broke Honora advised the old man not to take on so for a “few ould insects.”
“Shure I’ll catch yez glass cupboards full in the back yard before the grass grows again,” she said reassuringly.
But the doctor is mourning to-day for his specimen of the longotis cinchonita and the only known zoometa angepectalis.
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