The dressed body of Lady Mary Curzon

Letters open up questions; travel diaries take us on imagined journeys; clothes reveal global connections, and photographs challenge established understandings. These materials are used by historians to open up alternative ways of making sense of past lives. Analysing the clothes people wore in colonial contexts has become a way of understanding more about the culture of colonialism. What does colonial dress reveal about power relations? What does dress used to protect the body tell us about attitudes to health and disease?

In this article we look at the dressed body of Mary, Lady Curzon, Vicereine of India (1899-1905) to explore how she used clothes as a display of colonial authority.

Mary was the daughter of Levi Leiter, the entrepreneurial Chicago merchant and urban land developer. The Leiter family moved to Washington in the early 1890’s and Mary circulated at the heart of American society. The family’s international mobility enabled her marriage in 1895 to the Honorable George Curzon, heir to Kedleston Hall, Derbyshire. When George was appointed Viceroy of India, Mary accompanied him bearing the courtesy title of Vicereine in 1899. For six years, Mary’s letters and diaries chart the political and social rhythm of the Raj.

Some of the most enduring and continuously circulated images connected to the British presence in the Indian subcontinent are linked to displays of pomp and ceremony. The social and cultural worlds of the British Raj often revolved around displays of power where the authority of the Raj was cemented through hierarchical social relations that had gendered and racialised norms. Although a ball, garden party, parade, or children’s picnic might, on first glance, seem trivial, these events were an important means by which colonial power was demonstrated. Pomp, ceremony and the associated regalia were also part of the labour of colonial rule, and maintaining the public face of the Raj was an exercise that took time, money and physical fortitude. Mary’s own accounts of her role provide an insight into the sometimes profound personal costs associated with staging displays of colonial order. They give us a unique insight into the emotional and physical rigours of her life, her concerns for her family, her own health and fertility, and the months of illness that led to her early death, aged 36. Her life and death were public events charted through newspaper column inches, advertising, and the picture press.

At all times Mary Curzon was aware of her public role as Vicereine of India, and she was extremely careful to act and dress in a way that was appropriate to her position. Her gender defined her position; in public she was the Raj’s hostess. The Coronation Durbar of 1903 that celebrated King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra as the new Emperor and Empress of India, was the ultimate event for display of her gendered position within the Raj. At this two week event the display of colonial power was pushed to the extreme, with a global audience absorbing vivid celebratory accounts infused with lavish descriptions of ‘Oriental splendour’.

On the night of the Coronation Durbar Ball, Mary Curzon wore a dress that has become iconic and which marked her as an extraordinary leader of style. The ‘Peacock Dress’ reveals her role as a key actor in the spectacle of the Durbar events, wearing a costume carefully designed to work within the setting of display, and to carry messages both to the audience who viewed it first hand in India as well as to a secondary audience who accessed it through the international media.

You can view the Peacock Dress in the National Trust collection at Kedleston Hall (Derbyshire).

The dress was designed by Jean-Phillippe Worth and was made in his workshops in Paris. The cloth was embroidered in India, with a motif of a peacock feather picked out in hand stitched, coiled metal thread embroidery. The peacock feathers were graded in size, and copper, gold and silver thread embroidery was used to create the textures of the individual peacock feathers. An applied iridescent blue/green beetle wing marked the eye of each of the feathers. Diamanté strings threaded across the bodice and upper arms, lace draped across the décolleté bodice, and glitter strewn rosettes covered the base of the skirt. This was a dress designed to shimmer under electric lights, with the movement of the body.

It is no coincidence that Mary’s celebrated ‘Peacock Dress’ was the most elaborate synthesis possible of ‘western’ and ‘eastern’ design. The exact location where the State Ball took place was in the Red Fort, an audience chamber that had originally housed a peacock throne made for the Shah Jahan in the 17th century, and which, subsequently, was taken from Delhi by Nadir Shah during his invasion of the Mughal Empire in 1739. Mary’s ball dress symbolically replaced the peacock throne on the evening of the ball. In doing so, the legitimacy of the British Raj as the rightful inheritor of the Mughul Empire was stated. By referencing the peacock, Mary embodied religious iconography associated with two of the sub-continent’s great religions: Hinduism and Islam. By wearing the dress, Mary added her own element to the invented tradition of the Durbar, adopting her own symbolic motifs and aesthetic design within an event which, in turn, attempted to incorporate the Indian princes into the Raj by borrowing from the Mughul ceremonial framework.

You can watch contemporary coverage of the 1903 Delhi Durbar on the Colonial Film: Moving Images of the British Empire website (please note that you may not able to view this film on mobile devices).

Share this article:

This article is from the free online course:

Empire: the Controversies of British Imperialism

University of Exeter