Costume Society Ambassadors, Costume Society  |  June 8, 2020

All That is Gold: Recreating The Peacock Dress

by Grace Bentley

For seven thousand years gold has been a symbol of sanctity, status, affluence and power. The warm glow it exudes, as well as its imperviousness to tarnishing, has made it the metal of kings and gods. Gold thread has been used to adorn textiles for at least two thousand years; an extravagance only royals, churches and nobility could afford .

The ‘Peacock Dress’ was worn by Lady Mary Curzon (figure 1) on January 6th in 1903 to the coronation ball of King Edward VII at the Delhi Durbar. The dress and its embellishment were designed in Paris, but the Goldwork (fugure 2) was then completed by highly skilled Zardozi embroiderers in India. Upon completion, the pieces of the bodice and skirt were sent back to be assembled at the House of Worth, where the lace and white silk roses were added (figure 3). Worth’s magnificent gown, with its rich honeyed tones and intricate detail, was a spectacle of pure opulence and splendour. So sumptuous and so dense was the embroidery, that the overall weight of the gown was in excess of four and a half kilograms.

The gown currently resides at Kedleston Hall, Derbyshire where historical dress maker, and founder of the historical dress making community Foundations Revealed, Cathy Hay has been studying it. In 2011 Cathy began fundraising for a charity to build an orphanage in Haiti, following the devastating earthquake. She made the bold announcement that she would be recreating Charles Worth’s most lavish gown in exchange for donations. Double the target funding was achieved and the orphanage built. Cathy drafted a pattern from analyzing a similar Worth gown, closely observing the original dress and researching the time period. The fabric required for her first toile (figure 4) was five square meters. She also painstakingly recreated a sample of the goldwork, working alone and using the Western technique of needle and thread, but calculated it would take her thirty years to complete! Realising the original Zardozi would not have been done by one person alone, she decided to contact an Indian embroidery company. From the company’s sample done in silver and gilt plate (figure 5), the work was estimated to take three weeks at a cost of £6,800.

The term ‘Zardozi’ comes from the Persian words; ‘zar’ meaning gold, and ‘dozi’ meaning embroidery. The base fabric is a champagne silk taffeta lined with an Indian cotton muslin to help bear the enormous weight. From research and conversations with Cathy, I believe that ‘check’ purl wires have been used as the barbs of the feathers; cut into workable lengths. The ‘smooth’ purl wires around the eye are slightly raised, so padding may have been used. There is a continuous line of couched ‘passing’ thread which outlines the ‘check’ wires. A twisted cord runs down the rachis of the feathers and beetle wing cases (elytra) have been used as little iridescent gems to highlight the emerald peacock eyes (figure 6). The feathers grow in size as they trail towards the floor. What you now see in the museum is a far cry from what the courtiers and crowds at the Durbar would have witnessed; time and humidity is very damaging to natural fibres and silver wires. The modern Zardozi sample illustrate this plainly.

It has been a long, arduous journey for Cathy, but often our most trying projects are the ones really worth pursuing; the ones where we prove our true potential. So, if you’re tentatively envisioning something you didn’t dare dream you could achieve, she has some advice, “Throw your heart over the fence, and the rest will follow!”

With special thanks to Cathy Hay and Kedleston Hall.

  • Lady Curzon in her Delhi Durbar dress, oil on canvas, 1903 by William Logsdail
  • Close up of Dress
  • Skirt Feathers and Silk Roses
  • Toile One
  • Indian Recreation Embroidery
  • Original Embroidery