Wearing Insects, Dead and Alive: 1857-1883

Dresses Trimmed with Beetle Wings.

Beetle-winged trimmings.

Fashion has strange vagaries. It has descended in the scale of fancies from pigs to spiders, and now one has to record the eccentricity, or taste, which has adopted the beetle! At the Midlothian County ball a few days since, two sisters, who during last season were voted the prettiest dressers of the day, were again remarked for the striking style of their ball dresses, which were white tulle over white silk, gathered into diamond shapes, at the points of which, instead of the generally used pearl, were glistening beetles—not the wings simply, but they were fastened on bodily, creepy, crawly legs and all, intact. The beautiful coloring (one young lady had the emerald green, the other the rich copper hue) was bright and fantastic, and certainly attractive for those who could get over the intense dislike to such adornments, and it is said that on the order being given to the naturalist for these he had imported some thousands of the glowing insects, anticipating a great demand in carrying out this peculiar fashion.  Jackson [MI] Citizen Patriot 22 November 1883: p. 2 

Insect Brilliants.—Bugs are an important article in the trade of Rio Janeiro. Their wings are made into artificial flowers, and some of the brilliant varieties are worn as ornaments in ladies’ hair. One man manages to earn his living by selling insects and other specimens, to the strangers who visit the port. He keeps twelve slaves constantly employed in finding the bugs, serpents, and shells which are most in demand. The nearest approach to this is the trade of fire flies in Havana. The insect, being caught and carefully fed on the sugarcane, is used as an ornament in ladies’ dresses. Being twice the size of the American fire-fly, it is very brilliant at night. The Creoles catch them on the plantations, and sell them to the city belles; some of them carrying them in silver cages attached to their bracelets. They make a fine display by lamplight.  The Medical World Vol. 2, 1857: p. 530

 Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Mrs Daffodil’s experience of Things with Legs has been confined to dusting them with insecticidal powders and making sure that foodstuffs are kept in tightly sealed containers. One can excuse much to the votaries of fashion, but the novelty of living insects must surely contravene the wearers’ comfort. And, of course, the servants will want to ape their betters, even in the matter of unsuitable fashions, as this cautionary tale shows: 

            Consternation reigned in old Dr. Catlin’s home one night when it was found that the chambermaid had gone to a ball with the doctor’s pet collection of butterflies and bugs stuck all over a white Tarleton frock. His entomological treasures, rich and rare, were carefully pinned in cases with locked glass doors on them. The doctor’s wife had worn a dress to some festivity ornamented with beaded butterflies and when the occasion arrived for Miss Honora O’Halleran to attend the ball of the McGinnerty Association with Barney Brannigan it struck her that the bugs would work in beautifully. She detached about half of the collection, valued at some thousands of dollars, and sewed them by their hind legs to the most prominent portions of her costume. Putting on a waterproof she boarded a car and went off to be the belle of the ball. [portion cut out] night in his house. A clue was obtained to their fate from the cook, who remembered to have seen Honora with a box of “gold croton bugs” up in her room. Dr. Catlin was up to let the house maid in when at all hours in the morning she waltzed into the basement, her bedraggled tarlatan skirt covered with the broken wings and severed legs of the famous collection. When the storm broke Honora advised the old man not to take on so for a “few ould insects.”

            “Shure I’ll catch yez glass cupboards full in the back yard before the grass grows again,” she said reassuringly.

            But the doctor is mourning to-day for his specimen of the longotis cinchonita and the only known zoometa angepectalis.

Rushford [NY] Spectator 26 January 1888: p. 2 

For a report on mystery insects of the past: the Kissing Bug and the Death Bug of Chicago, for example, please see this post over at Haunted Ohio.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.


1 thought on “Wearing Insects, Dead and Alive: 1857-1883

  1. Pingback: Bug-Woven Veils a Menace to Nerves and Eyesight: 1911 | Mrs Daffodil Digresses

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