When Lady Mary Curzon, the Vicereine of India, planned the event of the year in 1903 – the spectacularly theatrical celebration, Durbar, commemorating the coronation of Edward VII and Queen Alexandra as Emperor and Empress of India – she knew she would need a spectacular gown for the Coronation Ball that was the culmination of the two-week spectacle. And she knew exactly who could make it for her: the House of Worth and India’s talented artisans.
The prestigious House of Worth was the premier haute couture design house of the day that society women aspired to have their dresses made by. Worth made countless beautiful gowns, and many for the American-born Lady Curzon, but perhaps none so dazzling as the regal "peacock dress" for the statuesque beauty who stood six feet tall.
The fabric, a champagne-colored silk taffeta lined with densely woven Indian cotton muslin traditionally used for Mughal court garments, was ornately embroidered by Delhi and Agra artisans. It was then sent to the House of Worth's atelier in Paris, where it was designed by Jean-Philippe Worth, and made into a gown of a trained skirt and separate bodice. Lace net and rhinestones were added to the neckline and white silk roses around the hem. Remarkably, the dress was completed in just a year, from 1901-1902, including the trip to Paris and back.
The crowning achievement of the gown is the zardozi embroidery, a stunning feat of elaborate gold and silver metalwork that showcases a motif of peacock feathers, a symbol of great significance in Indian culture and the Hindu religion. Iridescent green beetle wings were incorporated to represent the eye of each peacock feather to give the glittering appearance of emeralds. The gown is so intricately embroidered with metallic threadwork, it weighs 10 pounds – about the weight of an actual peacock.
“You cannot conceive what a dream she looked,” said a guest at the Durbar.
The gown caused such a sensation that the media in Britain, Europe and the US gushed about its beauty and Lady Curzon's hometown paper, The Chicago Tribune, featured her on the front page. State portraits were also ordered from artist William Logsdail, but Lady Curzon's portrait was completed posthumously in 1909, after her untimely death in 1906 at age 36.
Lady Curzon has long been viewed as the beautiful wife and perfect companion to her husband, George Nathaniel Curzon, who served as Viceroy of India from 1899-1905, but there was much more to her than her glamour and grace. Renowned for her great personal tact and warmth, she was encouraged by Queen Victoria to use her position as Vicereine to support the women of India and she became a champion of women's healthcare.
Efforts continue to reproduce this masterpiece, and recent attempts have proven just how extraordinary it was. Costumer Cathy Hay created a sample in the style of the original and just a small section took her one year to complete. At that rate, she calculated that it would take one skilled person around 30 years to finish. Hay visits the original dress and discusses her attempt to recreate it in the video below:
The original dress is carefully preserved in a glass case at the Curzon family home, Kedleston Hall, in England and in care of the National Trust. It’s still in impressive condition, due to the frequent monitoring and control of the environment inside its display case, which prevents deterioration of the fabric and delicate metallic embroidered threads.
The National Trust says that the dress is a favorite of visitors young and old and it’s easy to see why: despite being nearly 120 years old, it still has the same captivating effect on people as it did the first time it was worn in 1903.