Caring for Lady Mary Curzon's Peacock dress
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.
Unbelievably, the dress is over 115 years old and given its age, is still in a remarkably stable condition. Much of the work that the Trust does behind the scenes is preventive conservation, rather than remedial restoration.
Frequent monitoring and control of the environment inside its display case prevents deterioration of the fabric and delicate metallic embroidered threads. This stable environment means that damage is less likely to occur and minimises the need to handle and interfere with the dress.
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. Relative humidity is very damaging to both textiles and metal resulting in tarnishing of the silver or mould on the textiles beneath.
Over time, the display case has developed its own micro-climate. The slightest shift in external environment, such as moving the case and the dress to a different room, may cause the relative humidity inside to peak or trough.
The case has its own data-logger who records the temperature and relative humidity 24 hours a day, 365 days a year and allows the team to keep an eye on the dress's environment.
Textile with heavy beading or decorative detail can be notoriously difficult to display without gravity putting strain on areas of the fabric. The Peacock Dress itself weighs over 4.5kg (10lbs)!
The dress has its own custom made silk-covered mannequin designed to fit an Edwardian lady’s figure which supports the shape of the dress better. It plays a key role in preserving it, offering the hidden support required to protect the dress from damage.
A specialist consultant on displaying historic costume has been advising the House and Collections team on how we can better customise the mannequin. Hopefully we will be able to improve support and remove tension from the waistband, caused by the weight of the skirt, and improve the general appearance around the shoulders and hips.
The dress was created by the House of Worth in Paris between 1901 and 1902 using fabric made in India and embroidered by unknown Indian craftsmen. It was designed not only as a real eye-catcher but a political and cultural statement in itself. It definitely caught the attention of the world press, marking 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."
The skirt is made of champagne-coloured silk taffeta and is lined with densely woven Indian cotton muslin. The distinctive peacock feather pattern is created by intricate hand stitched embroidery. The ‘eye’ of each plume is set with iridescent green beetle wings, giving the glittering appearance of emeralds.
The embroidery of the fabric was carried out in India by professional gold thread embroiderers. The fabric was then sent to 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 was trimmed with white silk flowers. The finished dress was then sent back to India for the Durbar.
Even after all these years the dress still has the power to captivate the room and for this reason it has been moved to its very own exhibition space in Kedleston Hall. It can now be the centre of attention as people enter the room, demanding the limelight as it did in Delhi in 1903.