Dunollie's Beetle Wing Dress
In 1822, one of the MacDougall’s most famous characters, Admiral John, and his sister, Mary-Jane MacDougall, met King George IV during his famous Scottish visit. In keeping with the writings at the time of Sir Walter Scott, who was stirring the spirit of the Highland Revival, John would have looked every bit the Highland chief in his iconic 5-piece tartan suit, made in around 1819 at the peak of the High Revival. Mary-Jane, beside him, would have looked just as striking wearing one of the prized pieces in our collection: the beetle wing dress.
This cream dress – featuring a classic high Regency waistline - is embellished with green iridescent beetle wings, which have been embroidered onto a strip of cotton which was then attached to the dress. An extra strip of embroidered cotton remains inside the dress, likely kept in case a replacement was needed, or potentially for another garment, though another was never made.
Almost all known examples of surviving beetle wing dresses in Britain have had the elytra (beetle wing) embroidery wedded to a fully cotton garment – Mary Jane’s dress of silk-satin being the exception. These dresses were almost certainly all constructed in India until the middle of the nineteenth century, if not even later. The cotton used for most of them was incredibly high-quality Indian muslin, impossible for the English textile industry to rival, even with cotton grown and imported from elsewhere.
Using the wings of jewel beetles to embellish clothes and jewellery was not a new craze. The process was common across Asia for centuries before Western women took a shine to it, with some literature suggesting that it may have had symbolic meaning in historic practice. The adult ‘Sternocera aequisignata’ – the jewel beetle most commonly used for embroidery – have an average life span of two to three weeks. During this time, they shed the hard, iridescent outer layer of their wings naturally. After they die, their wings are collected and sometimes trimmed before being used for embroidery. Using small, trimmed piece of the wings for embroidery – seen along the neckline of Mary-Jane’s dress – was the traditional way to use them.
Using the whole wing, as shown around the bottom of the dress, was a very Western way to display beetle wings.
Elytra embroidery was a way to signify one’s material wealth and fashionable excess, and this dress would have been right at home beside John’s Highland chief costume of the iconic 5-piece suit. Whilst men were being encouraged, however, by the likes of Sir Walter Scott to really lean into the tartan revival, women were still expected to be in more demure dresses. Mary-Jane subtly had the sleeves of her gown tipped with tartan to match her slippers. A tartan sash was found in the MacDougall house, after the dress had been recovered, and stitching on it matched marks on the dress, suggesting they were worn together.
Photographs: LJF Photography | https://www.ljfphotography.co.uk
This article was written by our Curatorial Apprentice, Shannen Calderwood.
Today, Dunollie's Beetle Wing Dress is carefully stored away to help conserve it for future generations.