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Let's Talk Sparkle ✨

With party season fast approaching we're taking a closer look at the modern history of sequins! We all love a bit of glitz & glam at this time of year but how did they create that shimmer & sparkle before the mass production of plastic? We've found some pieces from our archive to showcase the different types of sequin used and when they were applied.

1920's silent film star & flapper Constance Talmadge in a sequin. & feather dress.
From ancient tombs to silent films, sequins have been used to adorn clothing for thousands of years.

Transcript: Some of the earliest examples of sequins & spangles were uncovered in the 1920’s in an unexpected location... King Tutankhamen’s tomb! Surrounded by small gold discs, it’s believed they would bring wealth to the afterlife; little did the Ancient Egyptians know it would start a bejewelling boom some 3300 years later.

Metal discs, gold coins, various plastics, seashell, pearl and even gelatine have all been used to add a little glitz to garments. Let’s have quick look at the history of the different sequins we’ve used over the years!

Black sequin & beaded victorian blouse
Morning gowns to evening gowns, sequins were used by wealthy Victorians for every occasion.

Transcript: This late Victorian blouse is very heavily decorated with small beads and sequins, hand stitched onto a fine mesh fabric. The sequins themselves are quite unusual in that they’ve been stitched upright, rather than flat, giving them a 3D floral texture. This likely would have been part of a glamorous black tie evening gown.

Synthetic plastics weren’t really developed for mass use until the 1950’s, so early sequins tend to be made of tiny metal disks like these. Precious stones, metal sequins, ornate jewels and cut glass beads often added a lot of weight to clothing, this tiny blouse is half a kilo alone so imagine wearing a fully embellished dress!

Vintage cream & silver sequin dress in a 1920's flapper style.
A lightweight and mass produced alternative to metal discs, but gelatine sequins were fragile.

Transcript: The flapper dress is synonymous with the roaring 20’s - straight cut, fully sequinned gowns that twinkled with every shimmy & shake, but the sheer weight of so many metal sequins didn’t make for the comfiest of gowns. Gelatine sequins were often the embellishment of choice in the 1920’s, though they’d actually been in use since the 1890’s, developed as a cheaper, easier and considerably lighter alternative to metal.

The only downside being that gelatine isn’t as hard wearing, it can quickly dissolve in rain, and easily distort with a little heat... such as a warm hand upon a waist...The use of gelatine sequins declined after the 1930’s, when Herbert Lieberman developed acetate sequins with Eastman Kodak (think old film reels). They were equally as lightweight and a little more hard wearing, but still fairly brittle.

1940's cream wedding dress with CC41 label, few scattered shoulder sequins.
Sequins and embellishments were scaled back during the war efforts, but a hint of sparkle was permitted.

Transcript: With WWII taking place, there was little room or resources for luxuries in the early 1940’s. The government introduced rationing but it wasn’t just limited to food. Clothing and furniture was manufactured on a smaller scale and with minimal fuss to reduce the raw materials and labour required.

Items made to a scaled back standard had a CC41 utility label sewn in, meaning it met the Gov requirements and could therefore be sold at a lower tax rate with a lower cost to the customer, beating rising inflation.

This early 40’s wedding dress is an example of how limited design was: with no lining, only two metal press fasteners and just a small scattering of sequins permitted across the shoulders. The CC41 label is sewn at the neck.

1950's black evening dress with sequin design, and Princess Margaret in a 1950's Dior embellished gown.
Couture fashion houses created elaborate gowns with acetate sequins.

Transcript: After the war, fashion slowly bounced back. Dior’s New Look was a dramatic change from the minimalist style people had become used to - with huge full skirts, nipped in waists and lavish embellishments. Princess Margaret’s birthday dress is arguably one of the most iconic gowns ever created, with layer upon layer of silk, organza and netting, decorated with rhinestones, beads and sequins.

At this time, acetate sequins had been given a coating of newly developed Mylar film, making them much more durable and even wash proof, bringing more freedom to embellish with the ultimate sparkle.

Fashion didn’t quite return to the head to toe glitz of the 20’s, opting for more intricate patterns and designs.

1970's lurex maxi dress with flared sleeves, and photos of David Bowie in 1973 wearing a sequin jumpsuit and Tiny Turner wearing a sequin Bob Mackie dress.
Sequins, spandex, velour, lurex, tinsel... exciting new fabrics meant Glam Rock could be born.

Transcript: Mylar coated acetate sequins are favoured by many for being ultra reflective, but vinyl plastic quickly became the material of choice, largely due to being very hard wearing and incredibly cheap to manufacture.

The low cost, mass production of vinyl sequins and synthetic materials tied in with the growing party trends of the late 60’s, 70’s & 80’s. Glam Rocks OTT exaggerated outfits in bright metallics, glitter & sequins co-existed alongside the sleeker but equally as bedazzling disco fashions of the time.

Plastic sequins continue to be used to this day, though there is growing concern over their use - as with other small plastics, they’re hard to dispose of sustainably and difficult to re-purpose.

Elissa Brunato's bio sequins, and a picture of Cher in a black sequin Bob Mackie gown.
Are biodegradable sequins made from natural materials the answer?

Transcript: Problem plastics have been pushed into the spotlight in recent years given the worrying effects small particles are having on our eco systems and water supplies. Glitter has been heavily boycotted, for example some retailers have pledged to remove greeting cards and gift wrap that contain it - items which are often quickly discarded but difficult to recycle if they contain these micro plastics.

Biodegradable glitter does exist, often made from natural materials such as cellulose, mica or even metal (just like in the past!)

Sequins are now facing the same scrutiny; the complex garments mean they’re often difficult to repair & the material challenging to reuse, so they tend to be thrown away.

Fully biodegradable, plant based sequins have been developed by designer Elissa Brunato, composed of tree based cellulose. Hard wearing with a natural shine, could the bio-sequin be the answer to sustainable glam?


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