|Evening Dress, 1850, India? Source: The Kyoto Costume Institute|
But look closer. Can you see it? The floral embroidery on the skirt and shawl is made of thousands of beetle wings!
|Evening Dress, detail, 1850, India? Source: The Kyoto Costume Institute|
Jewel beetle embroidery came to England from India, where Madras and Clacutta were the centers of beetle wing art. The exquisitely beautiful elytra had been used since the beginning of the Mughal Empire to decorate turbans, wedding dresses and ceremonial robes as well as for jewelry and even paintings.
|Dress piece, muslin, Madras (Chennai), India, about 1880. Source: V&A Museum|
Once the vogue for beetle wings on ball gowns had passed, they were often altered for fancy dress parties and masquerades. Beetle wings also found a home on the stage. Probably one of the most famous instance of jewel beetles in fashion is the stunning green dress worn by Ellen Terry in the role of Lady Macbeth at the London Lyceum Theater in 1888.
|Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth by John Singer Sargent, 1888|
|Ellen Terry's Lady Macbeth dress © Zenzie Tinker Conservation Ltd|
While using bugs for decoration may seem like a strange Victorian caprice, some modern designers still use jewel beetles for dresses and jewelry.
Take for instance the young designer Holly Russell who created this sheer fantasy in 2009.
|The Blue Jewel Beetle dress by Holly Russell, 2009|
And if you have seen the recent Snow White and the Huntsman (2012), you may recognize this gorgeous gown worn by Queen Ravenna.
|Evil Queen dress by Colleen Atwood, 2012|
Jewel beetle embroidery is truly beautiful and it is a shame that it has been relegated to the world of high fashion and film costumes. I suppose people are just too squeamish about wearing insects; but maybe we should consider adding some nature's own iridescence to our everyday style.