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.
When I was in elementary school, there was a memorable occasion when the school hosted an exhibit of rare and exotic insects; they were displayed in glass cases in our cafeteria and each class of students got to go in and look at all of the interesting species. Personally, I was fascinated by the shiny/iridescent ones– the blue morpho butterflies and the gorgeously green beetles. I thought it would be so neat to have jewelry or something made out of them, but didn’t think it would actually be possible. It wasn’t until much later that I learned that the beetle carapaces, at least, were historically used to decorate clothing!
Perhaps one of the most famous examples of a gown decorated with beetle wings (not really the wings, but the wing casings) is the Lady Macbeth costume designed by Alice Comyns Carr and worn by actress Ellen Terry in 1888. It made such a splash that it was immortalized by John Singer Sargent the following year:
The original costume was recently restored by the Zenzie Tinker Conservation with funds donated to the National Trust, which means there are tons of closeup photos of the costume itself. It doesn’t look quite as fabulous as it does in the painting, or even as it looked over a hundred years ago, but then what does?
Anyway, the reason for all this background is that I’m going to make my own version of the Lady Macbeth dress for Costume College this year. (a friend of mine has dubbed it “the Scottish Bug Dress” and now I can’t stop thinking of it that way) The event theme is “What’s That Fabric?” and as the original dress was actually crocheted out of sparkling blue and green yarn, then decorated with beetlewings (both rather unconventional choices), I thought it would work perfectly. Add to that the fact that a group of us is getting together to wear dresses inspired by famous paintings, and it was obvious that this dress had to be made!
Edited to add: There’s a great article written by the lead conservator on the restoration process that has some wonderful details, here!
So I got the chance to wear the entire Bar Suit outfit at CostumeCon 37– I figured that my fellow costumers, if no one else, would immediately get the reference to the original suit and appreciate the joke. And I was right!
Here are some of the fun photos we got of the outfit– I love costumes I can have a good time with!
Okay, so clearly I needed a bit more attitude in my hip position to really mimic the model’s pose, but otherwise I think it’s a pretty decent shot!
Next up was the hat. The original hat (or a least one of the original hats shown in photos– there appear to be a few) was an almost lampshade-shaped straw hat:
Tough to find, particularly in winter, and hats can be expensive in vintage shops. Luckily, I found something very similar in the costume section on Ebay! It’s called a “coolie” hat (which I find kind of racist, for what it’s worth) and the photo was pretty close in terms of shape.
Of course, when it arrived it was a lot flimsier than the original hat looked to be, plus being more conical with a less defined crown. I decided to add some wire around the brim to stiffen it up– I unpicked the stitches holding the straw edge binding, then cut off about 3/4″ all around the edge (it was just a bit too big for my taste) before stitching some thick brass wire around the underside and reattaching the binding with hot glue.
To go with the “Bar” suit, I needed some bar-themed accessories that were in keeping with the overall look (so no shot-glass necklaces or coaster epaulettes).
I started with the handbag, which began life as an acrylic purse shaped like a perfume bottle.
It’s also shaped almost exactly like a bottle of Disaronno liqueur, so I decided to replace the “Paris” label with a faux Disaronno label to keep with the “bar” theme.
I took an image of the label and tweaked it to the proper dimensions (2.5″ wide x 2″ tall, in case you wanted to know), then printed it out onto ivory cardstock before filling in a few bits of color with a red pen.
With the skirt done it was time to start the jacket. I’d originally intended to modify a modern jacket by adding curvier seams, but then I found a vintage jacket on eBay that looked perfect:
It had a nice hourglassy shape, what looked like generous hips (insert ominous music here), and it was the right color. Hoping that it would fit better or at least be easier to modify than a modern, boxier jacket, I bought it.
However, when it arrived it didn’t fit me very well– the torso was too long, making the bust section buckle unattractively, and the sleeves were too wide, which also made the armscye too low to allow for much arm movement. Overall I think it was probably made for a taller, larger-framed person (except the waist– I guess this means I don’t have the correct proportions for the look), so it needed some alteration. Spoiler: It ended up needing A LOT of alteration!
I started with the skirt, since I can’t get to work on the jacket until I know what I’ll be wearing it over.
Like I said, I’m using this fabric, and purchased three yards of it to ensure I had plenty to work with:
I did a little measuring and determined that I could cut three panels of the fabric (44″ wide from selvedge to selvedge) for a total skirt width of 132″– nice and full so it’ll have plenty of volume. Before doing that I cut off a piece about 1/2 yard wide to make my waistband and pockets (pockets are great!) out of. For the record, I’m 5’6″ and this made for a nice skirt length with a 2 1/2″ hem.