Lady Macbeth Beetlewing Gown, Part XV: Final Thoughts

So after months of working on this costume, I thought I’d gather all the posts in one place and wrap up with some final thoughts.

Part I: Inspiration

Part II: Supplies

Part III: Patterning and Mockup

Part IV: Cutting

Part V: Bodice Construction

Part VI: Beetlewings

Part VII: More Beetlewings

Part VIII: Skirt

Part IX: Sleeves

Part X: Collar and Brooch

Part XI: Belt

Part XII: Wig Styling

Part XIII: Crown

Part XIV: Final Photos

Fabric: The original dress was made out of crocheted tinsel yarn, though I managed to find a decent approximation with what was listed as “crochet lace” (totally not crocheted, you can tell). In retrospect I think my fabric was just a bit heavy, but since my best alternative was much too light it was the best I could get. If you’re looking for something similar, you may want to try Aliexpress.com, where I saw some crochet lace with tiny sequins in it that might mimic the original tinsel better.

I lined the dress with cotton crinkle gauze because I wanted it to have some stretch to allow me to fit the bodice snugly without needing boning. It worked, but the gauze I used ended up feeling kind of thick overall– go for as light a gauze as you can, to avoid being too hot with all of the necessary layers.

Structure: Most of my decisions on structure were based on the desire to avoid the dress sagging/stretching downwards from the sheer weight of the skirt. The princess seams in the bodice were a good call, both to aid in shaping and minimize stretching, and they were hardly noticeable once the beetlewings were sewn on. I also definitely got it right with my idea for skirt structure– the extra support of the separate yoke really reassures me that this dress will not stretch out longer over time (like the My Fair Lady dress did), and on a similar note I’m glad that I underlined the crochet lace with tulle, which kept it from losing its shape as I sewed.

I will note that in the future I may opt to wear a corset under the dress for a properly hourglassy figure, even if Ellen Terry’s contemporaneous letters expressed joy about how she didn’t have to wear one under the dress onstage.

Beetlewings: All the write-ups of the original dress say that it used “1,000 beetlewings,” like that’s some sort of huge number. Don’t listen! I used more like 1700 and I could’ve added more to the skirt without it looking overdone. And since I’m fairly sure that the wings they used in the original dress were smaller than the ones I have now, I’m betting the original used at least that many as well. To save on cost, definitely buy them in bulk on Ebay from Thailand instead of trying to buy them in the U.S. And since you’ll have to drill extra holes in them yourself anyway and trim them to size, you may as well get them undrilled rather than spending the money on predrilled wings.

Sleeves: I know I got the sleeve shape right in terms of the elbow crook being at the underarm seam– it was clearly that way in the original– but honestly, I don’t like it. It makes the sleeves twist weirdly around your arms when you try to bend them, especially when you raise your arms in that iconic right-from-the-portrait pose, and it’s uncomfortable to wear. Really, the only way it works is when your arms are down by your sides. If I were doing this again I would move the curved seam to the top of the sleeve, relying on the crochet lace and beetlewings to disguise the seamline, historical accuracy be damned.

Trim: Despite my belated realization that I’d made my sleeve trim too wide and thereby messed up the proportions, I’m still at least 90% happy with it. If I could go back I might have purchased one more skein of gold cording to double up on the border lines (like in the original), but I don’t know if I’d have bothered to correct the trim width– couching that many gryphon motifs was difficult enough, I don’t even want to think about doing 30% more…

Belt: That being said, I do think I may redo the belt at some point. The links are just too big and they look costume-y, which I was trying to avoid (at least, as much as one can while wearing a giant wig and a dress sewn with shiny green beetlewings). And I’m considering getting some gold foil to glue over the links for a “real metal” look, rather than paint.

Wig: I’m definitely going to restyle the wig the next time I wear it– looking at the painting again, the gold ribbon was too wide and wasn’t wrapped as densely as it was in the picture. And I’ll probably get some diluted glue to smooth over the wig to avoid all the flyaways I ended up with by the end of the night. Or perhaps a bunch of hairnets?

Anyway, all in all this was a really fulfilling project– I was extremely happy with the final product and had a great time wearing it, and learned some new skills along the way!

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Haunted Mansion Tea Outfit

The theme for the Costume College afternoon tea this year is “The Haunted Mansion,” and I wanted something appropriately spooky to wear– but it couldn’t be too involved, since I already had tons of other work to do on my other costumes. After some brainstorming I decided to make a Victorian-ish black outfit with skeleton accents– in this case, a skeleton cameo brooch and a skeleton bodysuit worn under a sheer blouse, so the bones would (subtly) show through.

The brooch, blouse, and bodysuit were easily obtained, but I knew I needed a long, black skirt to complete the look. I considered finding a sheer black skirt to complete the “ghost” concept, but ultimately discarded that idea in favor of something more versatile– a black moiré skirt that I could re-use for other Victorian/early Edwardian ensembles.

I already had the perfect pattern in my stash– Truly Victorian 297, an 1898 flared skirt. I’d used it once before to make a tweed skirt for a steampunk outfit, so knew it was easy to put together.

TV297 - 1898 Flared Skirt
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Lady Macbeth Beetlewing Dress, Part VII: More Beetlewings…

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Not a real progress post, just a brief update to let you know that I’m still plugging away at attaching the beetlewings to the Lady Macbeth dress. The skirt is taking forever– there’s just so much fabric to cover in the half-circle back panel alone, that even though the wings are spaced about 2″ apart it’s a serious undertaking.

So far I’ve been giving each individual piece of the dress a margin of 4″ or more without any wings at all to make it easier to stitch things together during construction, and I’ve done most of the lower sleeves, the entire front skirt panel, and about 80% of the back skirt panel.

I still need to do the bodice and the upper sleeves, which I intend to stitch with wings that have been clipped down to size rather than the full wings– the original dress had this feature as well, which allowed for closer spacing of the wing bits and a more dramatic look on the bodice.

This photo shows how they used partial wings on the bodice– they’ve been clipped to a much blunter shape than the original pointed wing shape:

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And this one (unlike some others where the lighting’s softer) gives a really good look at the spacing of the wings on the bodice vs. the skirt:

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Judging from this photo I’ve actually spaced the wings on my skirt and sleeves a bit more closely than the original, but I really wanted to up the “wow” factor for this costume. I think I’ll probably go through most if not all of my original 1,000 wings in finishing the back skirt panel, so once that’s done I’ll open up the second 1,000 and start clipping them to the smaller size so I can get to work on the bodice. So much to do!

Lady Macbeth Beetlewing Gown, Part IV: Cutting

Once I had my mockup, it was time to cut into my actual fabrics. Unfortunately, this was easier said than done. Due to the differing stretch of the fabrics along the vertical and horizontal axes I had to be careful to cut my pattern pieces in specific directions, which (given the size of some of my pieces) was tough and didn’t always allow me to maximize my use of the fabric’s area. Since my bodice pieces were the smallest of all, I resigned myself to fitting them in around the larger, more oddly-shaped pieces, which I cut out first.

I had 6 yards of my kelly green gauze (42″ wide after shrinking), and 7 yards of my dark green crochet lace (54″ wide). Sadly, while I ended up having just* enough crochet lace to cut out my dress (with judicious piecing of the two center back bodice panels), I did not have enough gauze to make my underskirt. After cutting the gigantic sleeves out there just wasn’t enough fabric to make the skirt flare properly, and since I’d decided in the interim to change my plans for the sleeve trim I needed extra for that as well. I’ve ordered more fabric to re-cut the underskirt and do the sleeve trim (4 yards to be extra safe) and I’ll have to try to dye it to match, which will be incredibly annoying, but not as annoying as if I’d had to match the crochet lace color. At least any slight color difference will be less obvious since it’ll be somewhat hidden by the extra folds of the overskirt.

That being said, I did manage to cut out everything from my crochet lace, and since I’d never worked with a full lace overlay before, much less fabric as weird as this one, I was a bit concerned that things could get ugly. I decided to take some precautions, underlining every single piece with tulle to minimize the lace pulling out of shape, and basting everything together as I went.

I cut my lining pieces first from the cotton gauze, and then laid out my crochet lace face down on the carpeted floor (the carpet really helped keep the fabric from slipping out of alignment), smoothing a layer of pale green tulle over it. Then I set my lining pieces on top of both layers of fabric and pinned them in place through all layers before cutting around them. Once they were cut I hand-basted around each piece to keep things from shifting.

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For the bodice, I basted through all three layers since I’ll be assembling the panels into a bodice before adding the beetlewings– I haven’t decided yet whether I’ll try to stitch the wings just to the top two layers, or go through all three, but either way the pieces are small enough that I can work with the bodice as a single piece without too much trouble. For the sleeves and skirt, however, I’ll be adding the wings before assembly, so I need to keep the lining pieces separate.

* FYI, here’s a photo of all of my scraps from the crochet lace. This is out of a full seven yards of 54″ wide fabric– when I say I had “just enough,” I mean it!

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Lady Macbeth Beetlewing Gown, Part I: Inspiration

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!

evening dresses ornamented with beetle wings White cotton gauze dress embroidered with beetle wings, embroidered in India for export, ca 1865, KSUM 1983.1.98.

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:

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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?

Back in 2009 I blogged about the “Beetlewing dress” worn by Victorian actress Ellen Terry to play Lady Macbeth- and the National Trust’s project to restore it. Well, the restored dress is now on di… Beetle-wing dress revisited | Glass of Fashion

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!

Vermont Regency Weekend

So recently I had the opportunity to spend the weekend at a historic home (now an inn) in Vermont for a Sense and Sensibility-themed event. I’ll be honest, as an event it left something to be desired– there were very few activities and the scheduled sleigh ride was cancelled due to weather– but I did enjoy getting to dress up with all of my gowns and accessories and take photos with some more period-looking furniture than I can find here at home!

Here’s me channeling Mary Bennet while wearing the very first Regency gown I ever made, plus the new day cap.

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Here are the velvet capote and fur-trimmed wrap in action!

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Here’s the red pashmina dress with the ruffled chemisette:

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And just for fun, I finally got photos of my 1882 tea gown in action! (I couldn’t resist putting a painting filter over one of them, though it’s not obvious at first glance)

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I think this one below is my favorite…

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Admittedly, there are a lot of pictures of me reading books (this one is an antique edition of The Lady of the Lake and there’s a handwritten inscription on the flyleaf dated 1899), but I needed a prop so I could do something other than smile at the camera!

1860s Embroidered Ballgown, Part VIII: Finished!

So at last my 1860s ballgown is finished! I got to wear it, hoop skirt and all, to a Victorian ball this summer, and it was a hit! It took a little getting used to, dancing with such a gigantic skirt, but it was just so much fun!

Besides my floral hair wreath, I accessorized with some simple pearl earrings (leverback, so not technically historically accurate, but close enough) and a blue cameo strung on a black velvet ribbon. I also had short white gloves, but had abandoned them by the time these pictures were taken– just as well, they kind of made my hands blend into my skirts, which looked weird.

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All in all I’m very happy with the dress– it’s got just the right silhouette and the embroidery makes it extra-special. Looking forward to wearing it again sometime!