Ellen Terry’s Beetle Dress

sargent ellen terry

And here we are again, back at one of my favourite places, the Tate Gallery (or Tate Britain as I really must remember to call it) because another of my favourite paintings, Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth by John Singer Sargent, calls the Tate its home. It’s actually the dress that interests me more, although the painting is beautifully stylized and it’s unusual to see portraits of actresses in character. The reason is because it features insect carapaces in the fabric.

This gown was designed by Alice Comyns-Carr for Henry Irving’s production of Macbeth at the Lyceum Theatre in London in late 1888. It was crocheted with soft green wool and blue tinsel yarn from Bohemia to create a base that resembled chain mail, to which 1,000 iridescent wings from the green jewel beetle were affixed alongside extensive gold embroidery. There is a narrow border of Celtic design in red and white stones along the hems. It was inspired by a gown originally worn by Lady Randolph Churchill that also featured the wing cases of the jewel beetle. I expect it must have been extremely heavy to wear.

Terry herself adored the gown and described it’s “rich stained glass effects” in a letter to her daughter. When first made it must have been fantastic, literally glinting and sparkling in the limelight as she moved across the stage. Unfortunately, time has taken its toll and the gown has recently undergone hundreds of thousands of pounds’ worth of restoration work before going on display at Terry’s former home in Kent.

beetle dress

It’s not the first time that insects have been responsible for unexpected fashion choices. Jean Paul Gaultier once famously used insects as inspiration for a couture collection, and his cicada dress is shown below, alongside the insect itself.

cicada frock

Next time you swat a brightly coloured beetle from your picnic lunch, spare a thought for those poor creatures who sacrificed themselves to make an actress look dazzling on stage.


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