Welcome to the clothing press where we give the clothes on your back a narrative. Each week, we focus on a different garment or textile and look into its history, how its made and where to find it.
By: Sam Powers
Sequins today conjure up images of Michael Jackson, New Year’s Eve parties and color-changing pencil cases, but the adorning clothing with shiny discs goes all the way back to the B.C. era. The history of sequins demonstrates a common trend in clothing: the past manifesting itself in the present.
Today, sequins are just used to add flash — but they once had a function. The playful fabric is rooted in the tradition of attaching precious metals or coins to clothing. The name sequin derives from the Arabic “sikka” and Italian “zecchino,” both of which mean “coin.”
Obviously this practice exhibited one’s wealth, but it also served to protect that wealth. When your coins are attached to your clothing, pickpockets are rather inhibited. The coins did not just ward away pickpockets, but they were said to also ward away evil spirits.
However, by the 17th century, sequins were purely decorative and for the most part relegated to the dress of noblewomen. Sequins broke free of their noble status when a long-dead noble was discovered in them.
In 1922, King Tut’s sarcophagus was discovered, and inside were gold sequin-like discs sewn into his garments. The discovery of King Tut, who had been dead for more than 3,000 years at this time, influenced the sequins craze of the ‘20s.
The design, film and fashion industries became obsessed with ancient Egyptian culture, and sequins were just one example of that fixation. Unfortunately for many flappers, their sequin dresses were still made of metal, weighing them down on the dance floor.
This was somewhat improved in the 1930s with the creation of sequins made from electroplated gelatin. The material was lightweight but would melt when wet or warm. Sweaty dance partners and rain storms had to be avoided entirely. Another improvement was needed, and it came in the form of acetate, which replaced the gelatin.
Though acetate sequins were lightweight and bright, they cracked too easily. 1952 saw the solution of Mylar-acetate sequins, which were again replaced by vinyl plastic, proving to be the most durable and cost-effective. Vinyl sequins are what were finally fastened to Michael Jackson’s iconic black jacket, which he wore when he premiered the moonwalk in 1983.
Sequins are all about they way they manipulate and reflect light, turning the wearer into their very own disco ball. Sequins can take the Michael Jackson route — entire outfits fashioned of sequins — or a more reserved route, using sequins as accents echoing their 17th-century use.
Contemporary designer Ashish Gupta champions sequins, saying they “are, in a way, a protest against gloom, against wearing beige, against blandness.” Sequins attack normcore, demanding attention and individuality.
Challenge your stylistic expression by adding sequins to some of your basic looks. You can buy loose sequins at Michaels, JOANN Fabrics and Crafts or even order some off Amazon.com and hot glue them to your clothes. There’s also some lovely sequin pieces at most thrift stores if you want a more vintage look.