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Beetle Mania

by Nancy DeWitt

We just put one of our most unusual fashion pieces on display. This cloak from around 1925 is decorated with wing cases from beetles! Like fur and feathers, beetles have been used as natural jewels and decorative objects for centuries.

The use of jewel beetles for personal adornment occurred throughout the world in places such as India, Thailand, Australia, Central America, the West Indies and ancient Egypt. Women in Victorian England especially loved to wear dresses, shawls, and fans embellished with glittering touches of the “exotic” from the Empire's far-flung lands. In addition to adorning their hats with beautiful feathers and even whole birds from other countries, many women wore jewelry that incorporated entire beetle bodies. Victorian ladies on the cutting edge of fashion even wore live jewel beetles tethered to their clothing by tiny golden chains, or decorated their hairdos with live fireflies!

A beetle's wing cases protect their fragile flight wings and also provided aerodynamic lift when held open. Called elytra, these were harvested by the millions in the hardwood forests of Burma where the beetles swarmed, mated and then died.

The brilliant metallic coloration you see in the elytra sewn onto the cloak is not from pigment, but instead is caused by the microscopic texture of the exoskeleton. Multiple layers of cuticle in the elytra have minute spacings that allow light waves to reinforce, weaken, or eliminate each other. This phenomenon is called interference. The iridescence of the beetle wings is not easily replicated, and their seemingly magical coloration explains our centuries-old fascination with this most unusual natural jewel.

The most famous beetle-adorned garment is the recently restored dress that was worn by actress Ellen Terry in the 1888 production of Macbeth. Two more examples can be seen here. You can see our cloak on display next to our 1921 Heine-Velox.

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