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The ReMaking of the Peacock Dress - Uncovering a Dark History


The Dollar Princesses were fabulously wealthy American heiresses who came in droves, especially during the Gilded Age, to find and marry European nobility who had titles and estates but not the money to maintain them.  

Some were notable.  Jennie Jerome married Lord Randolph Churchill - their eldest son was Sir Winston Churchill.  Nancy Langhorne became the Viscountess Astor and the first female Member of Parliament to take her seat. Consuelo Vanderbilt's story was sad. She cried on her wedding day, not for joy but because her domineering mother forced her to marry the Duke of Marlborough.  The marriages were advantageous on both sides but were, not surprisingly, mostly loveless and many failed.

One exception was Mary Leiter (1870-1906), the Chicago heiress who fell deeply in love with Lord Curzon (1859-1925).  Her dowry notwithstanding, their marriage turned out to be happy and a very loving one, cut short by her untimely death at the age of 36. (See my past mini-bio about this charming lady and their love story - The Vicereine's Jewels

Lord Curzon served as the Viceroy of India (1899-1905) - Queen Victoria's representative during the time of the British Raj. As Vicereine, Lady Mary Curzon took part in the Delhi Durbar of 1903, an "Indian Imperial-style celebration" to mark the succession of King Edward VII following the death of Queen Victoria.  

During her time in India, Lady Mary Curzon employed many Delhi craftsmen - the professional Zardozi bead and metal thread embroiderers were all male - to help make her court dresses. She collaborated with them to come up the fabric for her heavily gold and silver thread embroidered Peacock Dress for the Delhi Durbar ball.  Real jewel beetle wings were used for the center of the peacock feather motifs. Small crystals were also stitched on. The embroidered fabric was then sent to Worth in Paris to be made into her glittering gown. 

peacock dress

It bedazzled all those who saw her at the ball. One guest remarked in the National Trust article about the Peacock Dress, "You cannot conceive what a dream she looked."

The Peacock Dress is now carefully kept in a special climate controlled glass display case in Kedleston Hall, the ancestral home of Lord Curzon, now run by the National Trust. Both the 1909 William Logsdail portrait painted posthumously (shown at the top) and the dress today look much darkened due to  age. The silver threads in the dress have completely tarnished.  

But the dress still captures visitor attention including that of a remarkable British historical costume maker, Cathy Hay.  She is the creator of Foundations Revealed, an award winning sewing community to help "aspiring costumers, historybounders, corsetieres and dressmakers around the world to live their best creative lives." Her sewing skills as well as those in that community are incredible. 

Several years ago, she hatched up her idea to remake the Peacock Dress so all could see what it must have been like when it was first worn.  It is the most challenging project she could ever embark on as she explains in this video : The Most Ambitious Reconstruction Project of All Time: Cathy Hay and the Peacock Dress.

The video is on her fellow historical costume maker and popular New York based vlogger, Bernadette Banner's Youtube channel.  (My favorite Bernadette Banner video so far is the one where she makes a "pirate" shirt using 18th century sewing methods).

  

The Peacock dress embroidery was done on silk taffeta (not silk chiffon) which had to be backed with densely woven Indian cotton to strengthen and stabilize the silk.

A couple of months ago, Cathy came to another crossroads and wondered if she could go on.Watch her next video : Peacock Dress 2 : Unpacking a Dark History, as she explains how this year's reckonings of ongoing racism in many parts of the world sparked her introspection and her own family's role in the story of cotton.

She said, "As the world changes and commits to creating a more inclusive, equitable world, some historical clothing makers have been asking hard questions specific to what we do. How on earth do we go on admiring and happily sewing clothes from a history that's laced with racism and injustice?"
 
It is the dark history of cotton and also the deliberate and unfair destruction of the Indian cotton textile industry by the British, which made her pause. This local disappearance meant the Indians in the colonial era were forced to buy more expensive fabric made in British mills for their clothing. 

She, like many British people today, are not proud of the British Empire of the past.  

 

The path to Britain's economic dominance in past centuries was one where the powerless and the poor paid a terrible price. Many of the consequences of those merciless past exploitations linger on to this day, with descendants still living under this shadow.

British mill owners in the Georgian era (1714-1837) could purchase young children for £2 each from the workhouses to work as "mule scavengers". They had to dart in and out underneath the unstoppable heavy rolling textile machines called spinning mules to sweep out loose cotton.  The children worked 12 hour days on meagre rations. The slightest inattention resulted in injuries and death. 

In his book, Cotton and Race in the Making of America :  The Human Cost of Economic Power, the author Gene Dattel said, “Britain, the most powerful nation in the world, relied on slave-produced American cotton for over 80 per cent of its essential industrial raw material. English textile mills accounted for 40 percent of Britain’s exports. One-fifth of Britain’s twenty-two million people were directly or indirectly involved with cotton textiles.”

Starting with the naval commander John Hawkins (1532- 1595) who first captured and traded 300 African slaves for pearls, hides and sugar, tens of thousands of British upper class families went on to become very wealthy using forced labor in the Americas and the Caribbean to produce many commodities including cotton, sugar, mahogany, indigo etc. 

Indeed, much of what we consume and use have dark histories - even the spices in our Thanksgiving pumpkin pies. The British and Dutch fought bitterly over control of the Banda spice islands in what is now Indonesia. They ended the Nutmeg Wars with a trade - the British gave up one crucial spice island called Rhun in exchange for New Amsterdam (now Manhattan). Less well known is what happened afterwards. The Dutch went on a torture filled genocidal rampage on the local island population to ensure their dominance. The survivors were enslaved and most were taken away from their home islands.

During the 19th century, the British got tired of paying Imperial Chinese traders with silver for tea, silk and porcelain. So they began using Indian grown opium instead of silver. Alarmed by the growing numbers of opium addicts, the weak Imperial Chinese administration tried to stop the trade and that lead to the Opium Wars which Britain won easily with "gunboat diplomacy". In 1898, the British signed a 99 year lease with Imperial China for the New Territories to add to the Hong Kong they won in the first Opium War. When the lease expired in 1997, the British departed. This left the descendants of those local inhabitants to face a very different China. 
 
In the early years of the pearling industry in Broome, Western Australia, Aboriginal men, women and children were brutally forced to dive for pearls and shells - with no equipment or protection against the dangerous box jellyfish. That slavery practice was called blackbirding. They were often beaten and many drowned. Terry Hunter, a mixed race descendant of one of the most notorious blackbirders as well as the Aboriginal people, acknowledged: "It was a very brutal time, because if the younger ones didn't come up with mother-of-pearl shell, he would knock them on the head and send them back down again."

In 2010, a poignant statue of a pregnant Aboriginal woman was unveiled in Broome. She is shown rising from the waves with a pearl shell in her hands.  Women were forced to dive to great depths even while pregnant.



The sculptors, Joan and Charlie Smith, said in this article, "It's an act of remembering ... of making people aware of the real stories underlying the official histories. And to make sure these sorts of things never happen again." History, as it has been often said, is written by the victors.

Cathy Hay is right - the way forward is to educate and to acknowledge.  Uncovering the darker side of history is never easy but it is necessary for us to know the past so that we can understand the present.  Remember too, even in our own time, many people continue to be exploited and abused. Slavery still exists in the 21st Century

In a recent video : Peacock Dress 3: Creating a Sample and Naming the Embroiderers, Cathy explained more about her project.  For many years, scant credit was given to those Indian embroiderers. Even today, the big name designers garner all the credit but the craftspeople behind the creations are nameless.  So it is gratifying to see names and possible faces to men who embroidered the fabric - a wonderful bit of sleuthing considering how old this historical dress is.


I look forward to hearing more about this marvelous project where we get to see how the dress was actually made, admire the skillful craftsmanship and learn its full history.  

We can't change the past but we can open our eyes in the present and hopefully change the future for the better. 

References


Before You Go:
 This blog may contain affiliate links. I do receive a small fee for any products purchased through affiliate links. This goes towards the support of this blog and to provide resource information to readers. The opinions expressed are solely my own. They would be the same whether or not I receive any compensation. 
 ______________________________ 
Original Post by THE BEADING GEM 

12 comments:

  1. This is a very interesting story, and combines many things that are of interest to me, namely beading and genealogy. Thank you so much for the time it took to write and source such a wonderful article!

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    1. Thanks! Be sure to read the previous story I wrote about Mary Curzon. https://www.beadinggem.com/2009/11/vicereines-jewels.html

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  2. Well, the only thing I can say about a dress like that. Is given the weight of the dress I guess you always know you have it on and there is no way someone is going to be stealing that dress out from under anyone's nose!!!

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    1. LOL! That is true. I cannot fathom how she could put up with such a heavy gown for hours on end.

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  3. Fascinating. I've seen other videos about Indian beading and embroidery and their talent is unmatchable. Thanks for sharing both the pictures and the history. And the links lead to an afternoon of interesting and educational viewing. Let's see, surely there was something else that I needed to do this afternoon, but watching the videos have completely made those things disappear.

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    1. You are so welcome.

      Ah yes, I know all about rabbit holes. I am also a huge fan of Bernadette Banner. Her Youtube channel is fabulous.

      The two historical documentary series in the reference section are highly recommended if you enjoy learning about history as much as I do.

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  4. Whitewashing history always goes to the victors. Their bragging leaves a bad taste in the mouth - especially when the true history is revealed.

    I don't know if people are aware of Alberta wanting to change the K-4grade curriculum to teach them history without referring to residential schools in Canada due to the 'traumatic nature of the topic and lessons on equity are politically charged and should be avoided.' Now if this isn't whitewashing on the Alberta government's part I don't know what is.

    Most people have preferred to look the other way when it comes to the history behind what we consume. These days we shouldn't be doing that. Every movement to reveal and resolve these issues so that the world can move forward in some kind of fashion and live with this guilt is worth pursuing.

    On this incredible dress. I'm wondering how they would ever clean all that silver thread. I love working with silver and wearing silver. It's one of my favourite metals. But keeping up with the tarnish is always something that takes a lot of work but done with love of the metal. Now if we look into how silver workers are exploited...oh boy....I'm sure there's tons of history here as well. In fact there's tons of history for every single piece of that dress. That being said - I'd still wear it simply because it's so gorgeous. I don't know how we reconcile all the abuses with our consumption of the materials besides just not thinking about it. Almost shameful. What would we wear otherwise though?

    Great research done here Pearl. We need to keep puting these facts forward no matter how painful. I don't think the world will learn and change from it but there are a few who will think very seriously about this.


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    1. No, I didn't know about the Alberta change. Sweeping things under the carpet doesn't do anything. It is time we did talk about the unpleasant past so people are educated.

      It would be difficult to clean the silver threads without causing damage to the rest of the fragile fabric.

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  5. Wow, Pearl - what a wealth of info and resources. I'll be spending some time watching those videos and I think that BBC series, too! Thanks for your work on this. 🙏

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    1. So pleased you enjoyed it. It wasn’t a hardship to write this as I have been a history buff for decades.

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  6. Fascinating and shameful at the same time. we must understand history, also, so we don't repeat it. thanks for sharing!

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  7. I agree with Cally Ross above - fascinating and shameful at the same time! This dress is a piece of art that should be admired by future generations but they should also know the story behind it.

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You're AWESOME! Thanks for the comment and feedback. You do make a difference on my blog!

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