The Peacock dress was commissioned and worn by the American-born Vicereine of India, Lady Mary Curzon.
Born in Chicago in 1870, Mary was the daughter of Levi Leiter, partner in the Marshall Field retail empire. As a debutante she was a resounding success, and after relocating to Washington DC, she was introduced to George Curzon in London, and they married in 1895. Curzon’s success as a politician was said by some to have been due more to the winning smiles and irresistible charm of his wife than to his own speeches, but whoever deserved the credit, in 1898 Curzon was appointed Viceroy of India, and became one of the most controversial figures in the story of British rule – or rather, the British occupation – of India.
It was in Delhi in 1902 that Curzon arranged the spectacularly theatrical celebration Durbar commemorating the coronation of Edward VII and Queen Alexandra. The two week spectacle culminated in a grand Coronation Ball, for which Mary commissioned the extraordinary Peacock Dress.
Although it is a beautiful creation of extraordinary skill, the dress cannot be separated from its symbolism. The peacock is a symbol of royalty in Indian culture, making the dress a deliberate and powerful political statement of the supremacy that Britain claimed over a country that it was occupying at the time.