The eye of each peacock feather is made from a tiny section cut from a beetle elytra (wing cover). This seems strange and unusual to us today, but beetle wings were, in fact, a common feature in Victorian embroidery, including embroidery on clothes.
Some claim that the wings are replacements, and that the embroidery was originally embellished with emeralds. This story may have been passed down from eyewitness accounts on the night of the Coronation Ball, on which Lady Curzon’s dress is said to have looked as though it was dripping with precious jewels. Thrifty businessman’s daughter Mary, who once wrote to her father boasting about her fake jewels, would surely have been amused by the illusion!
Examples of historic beetle wing embroidery: One ~ Two ~ Three
I’m watching this fascinating 2014 video on YouTube from Cathy Hay about the reconstruction of the Peacock Dress. My question, if you do get this, do you have any idea if the beetles were killed just to create this gown or were the beetles already dead prior and collected for the gown?
It depends on where you are getting them from! I order from Elizabeth Emerson (Liz Emerson Designs). Her beetlewings are food industry castoffs – the bodies are fried and eaten like peanuts, and the wings are sold wholesale. She sells them in a facebook group called “Historical Costumers Bulk Destash – Fabric, Trims, Ribbon Etc Buy Sell Trade”.
This seems to be the case for many modern sellers, but who knows how things were done in the past – we may never know.