V119: Are Sequins Period Accurate?

Apr 28, 2012 21 comments
The Met: toque (hat), 1915
The short answer is YES!

I've heard this question come up a couple of times, in regard to using sequins on our Titanic gowns.  Sequins are not only period accurate for 1912, but they have a long history well back into ancient times.

It turns out sequins have been used in cultures the world over, from Ancient Egypt, India, the Far East, and even Peru.  Arab cultures made extensive use of sequins in their costume, and the word "sequin" even comes from the Arabic word "sikka," which means "coin."

Sequins these days are made of plastic, often punched with a faceted design.  In the past, they were punched from metal, and were most commonly smooth, but could have designs as well, to catch the light.  Spangles could also be made from mother-of-pearl and precious stones.

We start to see sequins show up on extant garments in Europe in the 16th century, though they were used before this date.  One of the most striking examples is the early 17th century "Plimoth Jacket,"  the re-creation of which has over 10,000 metal spangles applied by hand.
V&A: Jacket, 1610-15
The replica "Plimoth Jacket,"  via
V&A: Ladies' jacket, 1630, drawn thread work on linen, with silver spangles
The use of spangles, or sequins, continued through the Baroque period - of course! - and well into the 18th century.  We have many examples of sequins being used on men's waistcoats and frock coats, such as these examples from the V&A:

V&A: Court Suit, 1765-70
V&A: Suit, 1790s, uses both metal spangles in varying sizes, an what appear to be shell/mother of pearl
There are many more examples of men's suits using spangles in Seventeenth and Eighteenth-Century Fashion in Detail.  Sequins were in use on women's clothing too, and can be seen on many examples, from stomachers of the earlier 18th century, through to the Empire period.
V&A: Stomacher, 1740-50, made of silver thread bobbin lace, and spangles.
V&A: Gown, 1810, with bullion embroidery and gold spangles.
The use of metal spangles continued well into the 19th century, peppering mostly women's clothing rather than men's, which became more austere in comparison to that of the 18th century.  With over-the-top decoration booming in the late Victorian period, spangles accompanied embroidery, beading, lace, and frills, like never before.  This example from V&A says it all:
V&A: Bodice, 1895.  Everything but the kitchen sink.
So now we have arrived at our time period in question, the Edwardian Era, and their use of sequins.  Some of the most extravagant and luxurious use of spangles came about in this period, particularly on the gowns of Callot Soeurs, the French couturier opened in 1895.

The Met: Callot Soeurs evening gown, 1910-14, using metal flat spangles as well as punched.
The Met: Callot Soeurs evening gown, 1913. Can you just imagine what this would look like when worn?
When gold sequins were discovered in King Tut's tomb in 1922, spangles came flying into fashion with a vengeance.  Many evening gowns of the 1920s are absolutely caked in sequins and other beads.

The Met: Evening dress, 1926
Around this time, the history of the sequin changes course.  Sequins needed to be more affordable to the general public, thus mass produced, and so began to be made of gelatin, a substance that melted from both heat and water.  Some sources say that gelatin sequins came about in the 1940s, while others say earlier.  Following gelatin, a man named Herbert Lieberman developed acetate sequins, an improvement over gelatin, but still susceptible to heat and water damage.  Finally in the 1950s, Lieberman began sandwiching his acetate sequins in mylar, a new material developed by Dupont, and created the first washable, non-melting, non-metal sequin.  His legacy lives on: these days sequins are made from pvc, polyester, and vinyl.

Lucky us, though, we can still buy metal sequins, like these from Tinsel Trading. Or if you're really clever, make your own, maybe with a version of Leonardo DaVinci's sequin-punching machine?

Leonardo DaVinci, Codex Atlanticus, a design for a sequin-making machine.  No  kidding!


  1. That is so cool! I had no idea that they dated back to ancient times. The pictures make me want to sew something with sequins now, except for that 1895 bodice, it looks like an overdone Halloween costume.
    It is good to know that you can still buy metal spangles.
    plastic sequins are easy to get but the fact that they were plastic would bug me if I used them on something that was made of natural fibers.

    1. Haha, I thought that too about that 1890s bodice. YIKES!

  2. Berlin Embroidery has very good quality metal spangles in silver and gold. Lots of sizes too! Way better than plasticky ones.


    1. I will definitely check them out. Thanks for the referral.

  3. it's all about being sure the sequins you use are flat! Then they'll look period, just avoid the irridescent, ones with ridges and you'll be fine!

    MORE IMPORTNTLY!!!! THAT JACKET!! My mum does embroidery to that quality, and I can't wait to show her the link! Thanks so much for drawing my attention to this!

    1. Yes, definitely, although Callot Soeurs uses some that are punches in a spoked wheel kind of pattern, but I think those were pretty uncommon.

  4. This is such a thorough, informative and beautifully illustrated post. Thank-you so much!

  5. What a cool post. Sequins are so old that one of the earliest evidence we have of garments in prehistoric grave sites is actually sequin decoration where the fabric has rotted away - sequins may even predate woven cloth. As Lizzie says though, it's all about them being flat!

    1. So even OLDER than ancient times! Absolutely fascinating!

  6. I love sequins but so much work and likely the metal ones cost way more than the plastic ones. Authentisity always dies for me at the hand of the all mighty dollar.

    1. Yes, definitely more costly, hence the reason for the manufacturing in the early 20th century. I can see how for something truly special, like a wedding gown, splurging on the authentic, expensive ones would be very justified (I'm looking at you, Sam)

  7. Thank you for shedding light on this topic! It's important to remember that just because an embellishment is in common use today does not mean it's automatically a contradiction to historical fashion. : ) Of course the sequins of bygone days may not have looked quite as "cheap" as ours do today, but it is wonderful to know that they were indeed used in olden days.

    Happy sewing!


  8. Very neat overview!

    I guess people have always been drawn to things that sparkle. :)

  9. Awesome history lesson! Thank you so much for blogging about this. I had no idea!

  10. Melissa (above) pointed me in the direction of this post, and I'm so glad she did! I'm going to link to it in my Bead Embroidery Resources post because it's the most detailed history of sequins I've found to date.


    -- Sarah of Saturday Sequins.

  11. Great post - thanks Lauren. This is very informative.

  12. I know this is an older post, but when I tried researching sequins for historical costuming google pointed me towards it. So I thought I could share the tidbit I found today.
    "Les sequins sont plus nouveaux que les paillettes et font littéralement fureur. Ils sont en gélatine, par conséquents très légers, et se font en toutes couleurs avec reflets changeants." La Mode Illustrée, 25 mars 1894
    "Sequins are newer than spangles and are litterally all the rage. They are made of gelatin, thus very light, and are made in all colors with a slight iridescence." [quick trnaslation, not very good wording for the end of the sentence] This is from the 25th of March, 1894.
    Thank you for the supplier links !

  13. I recently bought an antique Edwardian 1910-13 era dress which threw me for a bit of a loop because it's trimmed in gelatin sequins, and there are many sites, including an article on the Smithsonian website, that say gelatin sequins weren't around until the late 30s/ early 40s. After searching through old book archives, I finally found verifiable evidence that this isn't true!

    I haven't yet found the exact date they were invented, but I found mention of them in a 1915 and 1916 book for the Womens' Institute of Domestic Arts & Sciences, as well as an 1899 US Treasury document which proves they were around well before 1940. If you'll allow me to share the links, here they are:



  14. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  15. Dieser Blog erklärt die Kleidung der Männer. Wir bieten beste Anzugqualität zu günstigen Kosten. Weitere Informationen finden Sie auf unserer Website anzug herren


Post a Comment

Costuming Blogs: