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: 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!