The Lady Macbeth beetlewing dress

The project in detail

This iconic stage costume was designed for Ellen Terry for the famous 1888 production of Macbeth in which she starred opposite Henry Irving. Worn, repaired and altered on numerous occasions and since much displayed at her home Smallhythe, the dress was now structurally weak and a sad reflection of costume immortalised in the famous Singer Sargent portrait of the actress.

The conservation of the dress first involved a detective-like investigation of the previous repairs and alterations to establish the original construction. Once we understood that the current dress was in fact an amalgamation of least two other costumes the repair could begin. The conservation involved not only stabilising the unusual crocheted and knitted construction of the dress trimmed with real beetle wings but also restoring the dress to more closely reflect that seen in the painting.

The damaged areas were repaired and strengthened using re-crochet and knitting techniques. Some of the fragments retained with the dress by the National Trust were re-instated in their correct positions and a new underskirt was made following the evidence of the original found inside the bodice. Many of the fragile beetle wings were repaired and re-sewn to the dress which was mounted for display with some of the original accessories such as the belt, scabbard and jewellery.

A purpose designed conservation mannequin echoing the pose of Ellen Terry in the Lady Macbeth Singer Sargent portrait was commissioned and the conserved dress was mounted over supportive underpinnings.

The dress is now the centrepiece of a wonderful new display at Smallhythe, Kent, now owned by the National Trust where it can be seen alongside many of the actress’s other costumes, stage props and personal memorabilia.