Caring for Lady Mary Curzon's Peacock dress

Gold and silver peacock dress

A firm favourite of visitors young and old, the Peacock Dress still has the same captivating effect as it did the first time it was worn at the Delhi Durbar in 1903. (The dress is no longer on display and is undergoing essential conservation.) 

History of the Peacock Dress

In 1903, Lady Mary Curzon captivated the room at the Delhi Durbar ball, wearing the exquisitely handcrafted Peacock Dress. This evening ball followed the Coronation Durbar in Delhi – the highpoint of Lord Curzon’s term as Viceroy of India (1899-1905). This lavish event was full of pageantry and royal ceremony, to entertain and impress Indian princes and dignitaries. The dress caught the attention of the world press. It marked Lady Curzon as a leader of style in the same way as celebrities in the media do today. 

Lady Curzon wearing the Peacock Dress in a posthumous portrait by William Logsdail, 1909
Portrait of Lady Mary Curzon
Lady Curzon wearing the Peacock Dress in a posthumous portrait by William Logsdail, 1909

The dress had been on show at Kedleston since it first came into our care in 1997 when the dress was gifted to HM Government by Lady Alexandra Metcalfe (Mary’s daughter) in lieu of inheritance tax.  

The making of the dress

Made of zardozi embroidered fabric traditionally worn by Mughal court rulers, it appropriated the motif of a peacock feather - an important Hindu symbol, particularly associated with Lord Krishna and the goddess Saraswati.

The distinctive peacock feather pattern is created by intricate hand-stitched metalwork embroidery. The fabric itself was made in India and embroidered by professional embroiderers from the Workshop of Kishan Chand (Cathy Hay, an independent Dress Historian and Maker, discovered the name of the embroidery firm in a feature in the Illustrated London News, 17 January 1903). The ‘eye’ of each plume is set with iridescent green beetle-wing cases, giving the glittering appearance of emeralds.

Green beetle shells shimmer like emeralds
a close up of the peacock dress delicate embroidery
Green beetle shells shimmer like emeralds

The fabric was then sent to House of Worth in Paris (who designed the dress) where it was made into a two-piece dress of a bodice top and skirt. The bodice was embellished with lace and the trained skirt (champagne-coloured silk satin, lined with densely woven cotton muslin) was trimmed with white silk flowers. The finished dress was then sent back to India for the Durbar.

Protecting the Peacock Dress 

As the dress is covered in metal thread embroidery, including silver and silver gilt, it is very susceptible to damage if the environment is not controlled appropriately. Relative humidity is damaging to both textiles and metal, resulting in tarnishing of the silver and risk of mould on the textiles beneath. Frequent monitoring and control of the environment when it was on display has prevented major deterioration of the fabric and delicate metallic embroidered threads. 

Detail of the bodice of Mary Curzon's Peacock dress / Kedleston Hall NT 107881
A close look at the bodice of Mary Curzon's peacock dress
Detail of the bodice of Mary Curzon's Peacock dress / Kedleston Hall NT 107881

Highly decorated with metal thread, the Peacock Dress is surprisingly heavy. Weighing over 4.5kg (or 10lbs) the dress is difficult to display without gravity putting strain on areas of the fabric. 

New discoveries

The recent removal of the dress from its mannequin provided an opportunity to learn more about its design. New fascinating discoveries were made including a pocket at the back of the skirt as well as an appreciation of the variation in colour of the embroidery work and the fabric underneath.  

There is evidence that the dress was more vibrant when it was originally made due to the presence of unfaded colours within the embroidered design, for example there are coloured threads which hold the metal embroidery in place (called couching stitching.) These have faded over time as a consequence of the harmful effects of UV light. 

A pocket was discovered in the back of the skirt
Pocket revealed in the peacock dress
A pocket was discovered in the back of the skirt

Conserving the Peacock Dress 

The team at Kedleston have been working with the National Trust’s Textile Conservators to better understand the dress’s current condition and future needs.

In January 2022, the dress was removed from display and assessed by our conservators. Their assessment has highlighted some necessary remedial work to stabilise the dress. Once this work has been carried out the dress will also lie flat, enabling the fibres of the fabric to relax. When it is ready to be displayed again the conservation studio have recommended a new mannequin to be purpose-built to support the dress’s specific design and weight. 

" The extraordinary nature of the dress, made with Zardozi embroidery using beetle wings and metal thread, is also what makes it vulnerable to light and humidity damage. To care for the dress properly we need to allow it to lie horizontally and for essential conservation work to be carried out."
- Ella Kilgallon, Property Curator

All of these various treatments will ensure this remarkable dress will be able to go back on display for future generations to see, once again demanding the limelight as it did in Delhi in 1903. 

The peacock dress takes a well-earned rest
Dress packaged in a box
The peacock dress takes a well-earned rest

The dress will go back on display in the Hall at Kedleston along with its bespoke sculpted mannequin in the coming years.