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Beetle wing dress

The archaeology of a dress

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A Victorian dress decorated with 1,000 real beetle wings is set to go back on display following 1,300 hours of painstaking conservation work carried out by a team led by Zenzie Tinker.

A stage costume worn by Ellen Terry, one of the most celebrated and glamorous actresses of the Victorian age, has now returned  home to Smallhythe Place in Kent – now a National Trust property.

The emerald and sea green gown, covered with the iridescent wings of the jewel beetle (which they shed naturally), was worn by Ellen when she thrilled audiences with her portrayal of Lady Macbeth at London’s Lyceum Theatre in 1888.

 Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth in 1888, by John Singer Sargent Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth in 1888, by John Singer Sargent

It was one of the most iconic and celebrated theatre costumes of the time, immortalised by the John Singer Sargent portrait now on display at the Tate Gallery.

Known as the Queen of the Theatre, Ellen was mobbed by fans wherever she went. She played opposite Sir Henry Irving at the Lyceum Theatre for over 20 years and was famed for her portrayal of Shakespearean heroines.

As one of the most important items in the collection, the Beetle Wing dress was on the priority list to be conserved.

At over 120 years old, the dress had seen many years of wear and tear and was subject to much alteration. It was structurally very weak and a shadow of its original self. Two years ago the intricate process of conserving it began.

For Zenzie and her team, the challenges of repairing and conserving the dress were considerable as it had already withstood enormous strain even within Terry’s lifetime as she even continued using it for appearances at village fetes and theatrical extravaganzas long after she retired.

The conservation team conducted a thorough scientific investigation, which included microscopic analysis of 70 tiny thread samples taken from the repaired seams

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.

The conservation process

Images copyright: Zenzie Tinker Conservation Ltd, with kind permission of the National Trust and Smallhythe Place.

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 on restoring the original length and fullness to the elaborate sleeves.

We had collected the beetle wings that had fallen off over the years so that the conservator was able to re-attach many of the originals

The full effect of the sleeves and the delicate draping of the dress can once more be appreciated as it is now displayed with the mannequin’s arms raised, turning on a revolving pedestal. The pose echoes that used in the Singer Sargent portrait.

Beetle wings sewn back onto the dress © Zenzie Tinker Beetle wings restitched onto the sleeve © Zenzie Tinker Conservation Ltd.

Paul Meredith, House Manager, at Smallhythe Place, added: ‘We had collected the beetle wings that had fallen off over the years so that the conservator was able to re-attach many of the originals, plus others that had been donated to us – 1,000 in total.  ‘The one hundred or so wings that were broken were each carefully repaired by supporting them on small pieces of Japanese tissue adhered with a mixture of wheat starch paste.’

After conservation and re-mounting. © Zenzie Tinker Conservation Ltd After conservation and re-mounting. © Zenzie Tinker Conservation Ltd

Zenzie said:  ‘We have restored the original shape of the elaborate sleeves and the long, trailing hem line that Ellen so admired. If she were alive today, I’m sure she’d be delighted.  She really valued her costumes because she kept and reused them time and again. I’d like to think she’d see our contribution as part of the on-going history of the dress.’

The dress is now in a new display space which also features items from Ellen’s dressing room that have never been shown in public before.

More information

Zenzie Tinker (Conservation)


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One Response to “The archaeology of a dress”
  1. Tomas Ljung says:

    Wonderful! One statement is false anyway. You say that: “the iridescent wings of the jewel beetle (which they shed naturally)” is not correct. The imago of the jewel beetles only lives for one summer season, after which it dies. Consequently it never “sheds” the elytra during its short lifetime. The larvae lives for many years as wood-borers in different hardwood trees.

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