Sunday, November 11, 2012

Jewel Beetles in 19th Century Fashion

Evening Dress, 1850, India? Source: The Kyoto Costume Institute
What a beautiful dress! Mid-19th century white mull with silk satin bodice, a floral pattern and a matching shawl. So elegant!

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 beetles or buprestidae have iridescent blue-green elytra (the hard case covering the wings) that reflect light very much like sequins and have been traditionally used for beetle wing jewelry and decorations. The elytra are lightweight and very durable. They retain color for a very long time and often remain intact when the surrounding fabric has practically disappeared.  

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
Though the technique came from India, Europeans often used the wing cases of South American jewel beetles. They must have looked quite dazzling in candlelight. This style of embroidery was not only fashionable, it was also considered a suitable pastime for ladies of leisure, who were advised to use Walker's number 8 needle and green thread.

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
The gorgeous emerald and sea green gown is crocheted and composed of 1,000 jewel beetle wings. It has recently been restored and it took artists 1,300 hours to return the tattered dress to its former glory. It is currently on display at Smallhythe Place.

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
The dress is from Russell's Animals & Minerals collection and uses jewel beetle wing cases and human hair to create that slightly surreal effect.

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 
The dress was designed for Charlize Theron's Evil Queen by Colleen Atwood. It is made of turquoise and gold chiffon with jewel beetle detailing.

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.    

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