So the most important part of this gown is clearly the beetlewings (technically elytra, or wing casings, but “beetlewings” is easier to understand). Luckily for me, elytra from sternocera aequisignata (the species of jewel beetle most commonly used for decoration) are readily available for sale on eBay at very reasonable prices. The original gown is said to have had 1,000 wings on it, but just to be safe I ordered 2,000– it wouldn’t do to run out and have to order more from Thailand, after all! I thought about purchasing them pre-drilled with holes at the top, but decided that if I was going to have to clip them to size and put additional holes in for sewing anyway, I might as well save a little money and get them undrilled.
For the undergown, I thought I’d go with something that had just a little bit of stretch so I could get a nice fit without having to worry about being uncomfortable. The problem was trying to find just the right shade of avocado-y, grassy green that you can see in the portrait.
After vacillating forever and failing to find anything I liked either online or in the New York Fabric District despite endless searching and swatching, I picked up 6 yards of white cotton crinkle gauze from Fabric.com and dyed it green. I used two packets of iDye in Kelly Green (I will note that my fabric dyed unevenly due to not having quite enough space to move around in my 5-gallon dye pot, but since it’s going to be an undergown it really won’t matter that much). I will note that the photo was taken in direct sunlight and so looks a bit brighter than it does in real life. The cotton itself has just enough texture in it to stretch width-wise, but doesn’t stretch length-wise, which is important to keep the weight of the skirt from stretching out the bodice (like the My Fair Lady dress).
Next, I went looking for fabric for the overgown. According to my museum source the original was actually crocheted out of blue and green tinsel yarn (interestingly, closeup photos seem to imply that the bodice may have been knitted while the skirt was crocheted), but while I do know how to crochet I didn’t feel like spending the time to actually crochet a whole dress! Instead I found this “spiderweb crochet” lace fabric and decided to dye it. This began a round of dyeing, cursing, and more dyeing that just reinforced the fact that I hate dyeing things and should never do it.
After a ton of dyeing and overdyeing with iDye Poly I got an acceptable shade of green. However, I then determined that the threads of the crochet lace were too thin, which allowed the brighter green of the undergown fabric to show through too much. So I started ALL. OVER. AGAIN with this fabric (which I hadn’t seen in my original search), which went through several more dye baths to get the final color. Here’s a photo of some of the test swatches I did, showing the different layers of dye I put on:
Of course, the swatches weren’t the end of things, because while my test swatches looked one color the actual fabric turned out a different color due to its volume– there just weren’t enough dye particles in the bath to give as concentrated a color as the swatches– so I ended up doing even MORE rounds of dyeing to achieve my desired color. For the record, I did one layer of Green (too light), then another layer of 1 packet each of Green and Blue (better but not dark enough), then another layer that only used about 1/4 packet of Blue (almost no effect despite my swatches saying otherwise), then another layer using 1/2 packet of Blue (still very little effect) and then another one using the other 1/2 packet (I saved my extra dye this time!), and finally one more layer using another whole packet of Blue. I can only assume that doing this in layers somehow dilutes the effect of the dye, because I can’t imagine what would’ve happened if I’d tossed five packets of dye into the bath originally!
Did I mention I hate dyeing? Especially polyester fabrics, because they need to boil to really set the color and the fumes are horrific. But at least I now have the right shade– I was going for a spruce-y green with blue undertones. It’s not the same as the color of the gown in its current state– as you can see below, the original looks to be almost a mossy green– but I decided to aim for the shade of the overgown in Sargent’s contemporaneous portrait, which was a lot more turquoise-y than the crochet fabric looks today. I can’t tell if the difference is due to fading or whether it’s that Sargent took some artistic license, but either way I thought the blue-er version looked prettier so I went for it. (Edited to add: this article from the lead conservator mentions that the dress suffered from light damage, which I’m going to assume affected the color to at least some extent; so it’s entirely possible that the green was more vibrant back then!)
Just in case I needed it to reduce stretching and/or reinforce the crochet lace, I bought 7 yards of pale green tulle to underline it with. I thought I might need it to support the sewn-on beetlewings. Based on the museum photos it does appear that the original gown also had a tulle backing.
Finally, the gown has long, hanging sleeves, with what appears to be embroidered trim along the edges. While it looks pretty elaborate and shiny in the painting, the photos of the extant gown make it look a bit less so. Again, I went with the painting because I liked it better– but rather than try to embroider things by hand I bought four yards of pre-embroidered vintage sari border in green. The design isn’t the same as the original but I think it looks nice, and while the shade of green isn’t right either I figure that I can always adjust it with some Dye-Na-Flow later on.
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