On the Wings of Beetles: An ode to one of the most beautiful trends in Victorian Fashion.

Victorian Dress embellished with the wings of Jewel Beetles.

The Victorian Era was not an overtly ostentatious time for fashion, with its ankle-length skirts, poke bonnets and full-sleeved dresses. The monarch, whom the era took its name from, dressed very modestly and didn’t wear makeup – a far cry from her predecessors (looking at you Queen Elizabeth I). Women were expected to follow her lead to achieve the perfect picture of grace, beauty and maternity – as well as to protect themselves from lustful men, in case they became too beautiful and attracted unwanted advances.

It was restrictive, uncomfortable and often dismal dressing in the 1800’s, and while a modest life was the ideal, exotic tastes were common at the time and often seen as romantic, whimsical even. Take for example one of my favourite trends from this period, adapted from Asian fashion that had been practiced in places like Myanmar and Thailand for centuries before the Victorians stumbled across it; Beetlewing.

Victorian society was obsessed with the idea of exotic treasures and heritages from far flung regions, and worked this into elegant items of clothing. A trendy applique used to give gowns, capes and jewelry an iridescent shine was the Jewel Beetle; a glittering emerald green and blue critter commonly found in India and South East Asia.

Their wings were collected in their hundreds and thousands, dried and then applied carefully to clothing by gently poking a few holes in the side of each wing; these tiny shell-like jewels were really fragile, as you can imagine, and delicate hands were a must to avoid any breakages. The work was insanely time consuming, which made the value of Beetlewing clothing pretty high – but of course it was worth it to own a masterpiece.

A stunning beetlewing dress circa 1860’s, courtesy of Whitaker Auctions., featuring 550 pairs of beetle wings.

For a moment, picture delicate muslin gowns flowing around an elegant ballroom – the green and blue wings sparkling against the flickering lights as a romantic waltz plays in the background. Sigh, how gorgeous…

Modern-day designers are still working with this unusual material in the name of sustainable fashion, and their pieces are stunning! If any of these become easily available, and you see me shimmering like a beautiful beetle disco-ball – mind ya business

A bejeweled piece from V&A’s “Fashioned from Nature” Collection

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haggistalks

A twenty-something preschool teacher / professional hokey pokey dancer, collecting stories about women's history, historical fashion and beauty, and self care of the past.

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