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Our work caring for Lady Mary Curzon's peacock dress

A close-up view of the bodice of Lady Mary Curzon's peacock dress
The bodice of the peacock dress | © National Trust Images/Gavin Repton

A firm favourite of visitors to Kedleston Hall, the peacock dress still has the same captivating effect as it did the first time it was worn by Lady Mary Curzon at the Delhi Durbar ball in 1903. Learn the unique history of the peacock dress, one of National Trust’s most unique and treasured items, and find out how we’re working to ensure it is conserved for future generations to enjoy. (The dress is no longer on display and is undergoing essential conservation.)

History of the peacock dress

The Delhi Durbar ball

In 1903, Lady Mary Curzon captivated the room at the Delhi Durbar ball, wearing an 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.

A National Trust treasure

The dress has 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.

A close-up of the embroidery of the peacock dress at Kedleston Hall, showing green beetle shells
Green beetle shells were used on the peacock dress | © National Trust Images/India Black

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.

Creating the peacock feathers

The distinctive peacock feather pattern is created by intricate hand-stitched embroidery.

The fabric 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.

Finishing touches in Paris

The fabric was then sent to House of Worth in Paris and 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 gold, it is very susceptible to damage if the environment is not controlled appropriately.

The effect of humidity

Relative humidity is 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 when it was inside its display case has prevented some deterioration of the fabric and delicate metallic embroidered threads.

The effect of gravity

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).

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 textile conservation worker lays down the peacock dress at Kedleston Hall.
The peacock dress takes a well-earned rest | © National Trust Images/Gavin Repton

Conserving the peacock dress

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.

Removing the dress from display

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 rest 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.

Thank you

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