Caring for Lady Mary Curzon's Peacock dress

A close look at the bodice of Mary Curzon's peacock dress

The Peacock Dress is currently not on display. A modified case is under construction and the dress will be accessible to visitors between the end of September 2021 and Christmas for a final season of viewing.

Lady Mary Curzon’s Peacock dress is a firm favourite of visitors young and old to Kedleston Hall and it’s easy to see why. Despite its age, the dress still has the same captivating effect on people as it did the first time it was worn to the Delhi Durbar in 1903.

Glittering in the spotlights
Mary Curzon's stunning Peacock dress
Glittering in the spotlights

The history of the Peacock dress

This exquisitely handcrafted dress is over 120 years old. It was worn by Mary, Lady Curzon at the evening ball which followed the Coronation Durbar in Delhi in 1903 – 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.

" You cannot conceive what a dream she looked."
- A guest describing Lady Curzon at the Delhi Durbar in 1903

The making of the dress

Made of 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 embroidery. The fabric itself was made in India and embroidered by professional gold thread 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 and made up into a two-piece dress of a bodice top and skirt. The bodice was embellished with lace and the trained skirt (champagne-coloured silk taffeta, lined with densely woven Indian cotton muslin) was trimmed with white silk flowers. The finished dress was then sent back to India for the Durbar.

Lifting the layers
the peacock dress's delicate underskirt
Lifting the layers

Conserving the dress 

The Peacock Dress has been on show at Kedleston since it first came into our care over 25 years ago. As with all our collection items, it is vitally important that we care for it in a way that ensures it will be around for future generations to enjoy. As the dress is covered in metal thread embroidery, including silver and gold, it is very susceptible to damage if the environment is not controlled appropriately.

Side view of the bodice of the Peacock Dress at Kedleston Hall, Derbyshire
Side view of the bodice of the beautiful Peacock Dress
Side view of the bodice of the Peacock Dress at Kedleston Hall, Derbyshire

Relative humidity is very damaging to both textiles and metal resulting in tarnishing of the silver or mould on the textiles beneath. Frequent monitoring and control of the environment inside its display case has prevented some deterioration of the fabric and delicate metallic embroidered threads. Textile with heavy beading or decorative detail can also be notoriously difficult to display without gravity putting strain on areas of the fabric. The Peacock Dress itself weighs over 4.5kg (10lbs)! 

Due to the ornate metal embroidery, the dress would have been very heavy to wear
the flowing skirt of the peacock dress
Due to the ornate metal embroidery, the dress would have been very heavy to wear

The team at Kedleston have been working with the National Trust’s leading textile specialists to better understand the dress’s current condition and future needs. A specially commissioned report has highlighted that the dress needs to rest horizontally in darkness and requires specialist textile conservation work. The report also pointed out the need for a new mannequin to be purpose-built to support the dress’s specific design and weight when it is eventually returned to be displayed at Kedleston Hall. 

" 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 rest horizontally and for essential conservation work to be carried out."
- Ella Kilgallon, Property Curator

Resting the dress

We have taken the difficult decision that, after its final season of viewing this year, it will be removed from show and rested for several years.

From January 2022, the dress will go to our Textile Conservation Studio (based in Norfolk) where every stitch of thread and each beetle wing will be meticulously repaired. The dress will then take a well-earned rest, laying down for the first time in over 20 years. In doing so it ensures 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.

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