Frock Flicks note: This is a guest post by our friend J. Leia Lima Baum, @jleialimabaum. She’s a fashion historian and archivist based out of New York City, where she got her MA in Fashion and Textile Studies at FIT. In addition to working in the fashion industry, Leia also runs a consulting business helping museums with exhibition mounting and costume reproductions. She travels around the world for costume events, academic conferences, and vintage hunting. Ask her about normcore!
If there’s a material that gets costumers All The Points for incorporating a material that is a) unusual, b) visually striking, and c) misunderstood in the annals of fashion history, it’s beetle wings.
Season 3, Episode 3, of Harlots (2019) features a dress with a bodice embroidered with beetle wings, worn by Liv Tyler as Lady Isabella Fitzwilliam. The dress is made of a luscious emerald-colored fabric, with the stomacher and neckline embellished with gold embroidery and elytra. The costume is regal, powerful, striking, and exotic, all fitting for Lady Fitz.
Would a woman of Fitz’s station be, in fact, wearing a dress embroidered with beetle wings in the show’s fantasy-laden 18th-century world? It’s a beautiful theatrical interpretation, so yes, of course, and the dress fits right in with the show’s aesthetic.
But what about historical accuracy in the real world? Let’s examine Western fashion’s relationship with beetle wings and see what would, or could, have been worn in the real 18th century England.
Beetles, clearly, are nothing new. For centuries, the iridescent wings of beetles have been used as adornment, from the ancient Egyptian veneration of the scarab beetle, to the Amazonian tribes that used colorful elytra and feathers to create ceremonial jewelry, to the “singing shawls” of the Pwo Karen tribes of Thailand and Burma (the wings are strung together like tassels and make a delightful tinkling sound with the wearer’s movements). The brilliance of beetle wings do not fade over time, perhaps adding to the mystical connotation of these insects. The wings are made of chitin built up in thin layers. This causes a phenomenon called interference, in which light rays superpose each other in the minute spacings between the chitin layers, giving the wings a brilliant spectrum of color that changes depending on the viewer’s angle. Yay science!
So why would a lady of means in the 18th century consider beetle-wing embroidery a fashionable feature? Well, that had everything to do with the colonization of India.
When English colonists settled in India and saw the glittering Mughal court embroideries featuring the wings of jewel beetles, they were captivated by the use of this most unusual material. They were, however, homesick for England, and so they continued to dress in the Western style, although they pragmatically had their clothing made out of lighter Indian cotton that was more suited to the warm climate.
Gradually, Indian taste began to find its way into fashionable dress. There is a bit of surviving correspondence between two English women in India from 1784, in where one was interested in commissioning “several pieces of the thickest muslin to be worked in some small pattern in the fly’s wing, and gold, a leaf or something of that kind.” Eventually the letter writer did not end up commissioning the beetle-wing embroidered dress, but opted for silk embroidery instead.
In traditional Indian embroidery techniques, beetle wings appear to be universally embroidered along with rich metals, and are considered a feature of metalwork embroidery; in surviving examples of Indian beetle-wing embroidery, they are without fail accompanied by goldwork — beetle wings by themselves aren’t really a thing. Harvesting beetle wings is as easy as sweeping the forest ground — beetles swarm when they mate, then they die, and their bodies decompose quickly. Loosen your grip on your pearls; no beetles are harmed in beetle-wing embroidery.
Aside from the above shoes, we don’t have any known extant Western garments from the 18th century that feature beetle-wing embroidery — the earliest surviving examples are from the 1820s. Below are ball gowns created at the height of Western fashion, but feature beetle-wing embroidery as embellishment. These dresses are made on Indian muslin with traditional embroidery.
Deviation from metalwork + beetle wings + white muslin ground didn’t really start to come into play for a few more decades. The earliest example I can find is from the Great Exhibition of 1851, in which Miss Mary West exhibited a black lace dress that featured the “novel application of the beautiful beetle-wing … so much used in Indian embroidery, but seldom seen in any executed in England.”
Eventually, more and more commerce grew around exported beetle-wing embroidered textiles. It was common to be able to purchase pre-embroidered panels and sew fashionable dresses. Eventually the DIY craze hit, and actual beetle wings themselves were imported into England, and women took to embroidering their own pieces.
So back to Harlots. Is it possible that in the 1770s there was a woman in India who was taken by the glittering local embroidery customs and wanted to inject that “otherness” into her wardrobe, so she commissioned an embroidered stomacher and neckline trim for her dark green dress? Well, anything’s possible, much like how the same woman could discover that by carving metal into long strips of “teeth” she could easily zip her way into and out of her clothing. In reality, the first Anglo-Indian beetle-wing dresses, presuming there were others lost to time, were probably more like Jane Fortnum’s goldwork dress — a striking embellishment on the fabric from which the dress was made, not an application onto an existing dress.
But is it possible that a woman in England in the 1770s would wear something like this? Probably not. After months of sea travel, letters, textiles, and other goods were subject to mold, shipwrecks, theft, destruction, and any number of other disasters. And even when imported textiles and goods did make their way to England from India, there has to be a certain adoption by many people in order to make something fashionable. Otherwise, you’re just the solo kook who likes gross bugs. Fashionable dialogue was frustratingly slow between England and her Indian colony.
Chances are infinitesimal that an aristocrat in England would be so ahead of the fashion game that she would know that bug parts could be effectively applied to her stomacher and neckline and bring out the It Girl she always knew was inside.
Not very fashionable, dear.
Did you notice the beetle-wing embroidery on Liv Tyler’s gown in Harlots?
I bought a bunch of elytra for a project, and they arrived smelling very strongly of mothballs, so I have been vaguely wondering if the insects were “ranched” and then killed using mothballs, so knowing they can be swept up from the ground is interesting. Thanks!
ooh, really interesting! the shimmer is incredible so I can see the appeal, but I don’t think I’d want to sew them on myself. also, must’ve been terrible to replace.. but then if you’re in the beetle wing embellishment crowd I suppose you can probably afford it?
The National Trust here in the UK has a fabulous beetle wing Lady Macbeth costume worn by the actress Ellen Terry in 1888. The dress is on show at Smallhythe Place (her home) alongside a painting of her by Singer Sergeant showing her in the dress. It is wonderful!
Very interesting and entertaining as well as learning about beetle wing embroidery. I’d seen the Victorian dresses and Ms Terry’s dress as well as the Sargent portrait. But there’s a green 1890s Russian Court Gown inspired beetle wing gown.