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A few years ago, in the middle of a particularly depressing New York winter, I instituted Sequin Sundays. I’d run errands in a three-pound sea-foam sequined mini skirt that made me feel like a magic fish; I’d meet friends at the shitty dive bar for 5 p.m. whiskey sodas in an ’80s wiggle dress festooned (festooned, very good sequin-y vocabulary) with gold snakeskin-patterned sequins. It worked, for a while, this aggressive retort to New York in January. It’s hard to be sad when you’re wearing sequins. Tutankhamun knew this, as did flappers, Cher, and any girl who has ever attended any New Year's Eve party. And the history of sequins, like the objets themselves, is multifaceted, wild, and a hat-tip to the glories of excess.
Ancient sequins have been unearthed in archeological sites from Pakistan to Egypt. The earliest versions were gold nuggets, hammered into thin circles and pierced through the center. Heaps of them were found scattered across Tutankhamun’s tomb, some deeply colored by iron deposits in shades of red and purple, or sewn in shapes of flowers along his ceremonial robe, both to indicate his importance and keep the king tricked out in the afterlife. Like the sun god himself, King Tut literally beamed.
That’s one of the reasons sequins are so popular in folk art: their bounce of light echoes the divine. As Nancy Josephson writes of Haitian sequin artists in Bomb magazine, “The tireless sewing of sequins and beads to fabric constitutes an exuberant display of devotion and a dynamic invitation to any one of hundreds of Iwa (spirits of the Vodou pantheon).”
Since early sequins were made of gold, they quickly became synonymous with money: The word “sequin” comes from the Arabic word for coin, sikka; in 13th-century Venice, gold coins were called zecchino. Not only did the display of these coins on clothing denote wealth, but sewing them onto clothes also had a practical application as a way to create a kind of portable piggy-bank. To prevent theft, travelers would simply sew coins directly on their person. The Roma became notorious for this practice, the ring of coins on their belts and skirts announcing arrivals and departures.
With economic divisions becoming more woven into the fabric of society, wearing sequins became the equivalent of a diamond-encrusted Birkin or the perpetually sold-out Supreme hoodie — a demonstration of prosperity; a way to embrace the conspicuous. During the Renaissance, nobility sewed precious gems and gold sequins to their clothing in intricate patterns as a neon status symbol. Sequins were so popular that in the 1480s, Leonardo da Vinci sketched plans for a sequin machine that could punch sheets of metal into small, thin disks.
According to Fashion: The Whole Story, it was after the discovery of Tutankhamen's tomb in 1922 and the ensuing fad for the “exotic East” that Art Deco designers popularized the sequin, especially in performance. Leon Bakst, costume designer for Ballets Russes, created sensual and energetic designs, weaving Indian embroidery with ancient Greek lines and liberally painting his creations with sequins. His decadent costume for Anna Pavlova in “Swan Lake” was a nest of sequins and goose feathers. Not that using sequins in performance was anything new: In 14th-century South America, chiefs wore gold sequins on their battle gear to make their impressive war maneuvers sparkle, turning the battlefield into a great gleam of light.
The way that sequins could manipulate light became a signature of the flappers. Women in the ’20s could dance, vote, drive, smoke, wear their promiscuity and intellect on their very bodies, and needed clothes to prove it: loosely structured shapes that freed their limbs, emboldened by embellishment. The Turkey Trot and Charleston were all jerky kicks and flips, and the heavily sequined dresses of the era gave women the look of a moving column of light. A sequined dress is a portable disco ball, your own personal strobe light. Sequins turn the body in motion into something ethereal, god-like: it’s why sequins have been adopted by circus animals, figure skaters, strippers.
And thankfully, those modern sequins were no longer being made from metal: A new process was discovered in the early 1920s that could heat and press gelatin into small, clear discs. They became mass-producible, and sequin factories appeared in Eastern Europe, churning out millions of colorful gelatin sequins. These were painstakingly applied in the ateliers of Europe by the thousands of petits mains, expert seamstresses still today employed by the couture houses to individually attach each sequin to their creations (like this YSL sequined bomber, a piece of modern armor I’d literally do battle for).
But gelatin is unstable. Introduce heat or moisture and it melts, so the dresses couldn’t be cleaned. They couldn’t be caught in the street during a rainstorm. They couldn’t stand the warmth of a hand pressed too firmly for too long on the lower back. The author of Vintage Fashion writes of dresses from the period that still bear these scarlet letters: the ghost of a handprint pressed somewhere it shouldn’t be, the equivalent of today’s bruise of a lipstick smear or awkward tear of a button.
During the World War II, European gelatin sequin production ceased. Costumers and designers in the ’50s experimented with different manufacturing techniques to develop a sequin that wouldn’t melt or break, and that would still be light enough to move with the body, rather than inhibit it. Mylar-acetate sequins became popular, eventually replaced by vinyl plastic, which could be produced cheaply and easily — just in time for glam rock.
Biba, the London boutique that kicked off fast fashion, also introduced mass opulence in its Art Deco-inspired department store, draping sequins over everyone from Twiggy to Mick Jagger, who all showed up to party on the roof with resident flamingos. Kansai Yamamoto collaborated with David Bowie for his Ziggy Stardust tour, using sequins to highlight the extreme Kabuki-inspired shapes of his Space Samurai and Rites of Spring costumes. Sequins ruled the dance floor at Studio 54, all high-gloss disco and radical shine. And in the 1980s, sequins again became a symbol of conspicuous consumption, embellished across shoulder pads on Dynasty and Dallas.
You’ll find sequins on the 2017 runways of Oscar de la Renta, Morse, Prabal Gurung. It’s a strange time to be searching out opulence, but I get it. As designer Ashish Gupta says of his exuberant collections, “Sequins have always been relegated to a slightly dodgy cocktail kind of thing. They are, in a way, a protest against gloom, against wearing beige, against blandness.” It’s the Jenna Lyons approach, a vibrant middle finger to neutrality and convention. “Sequins,” she said, “are the new black.”
Despite the fact that I basically dress like a monk or one of Eileen Fisher’s more boring fit models, I remain a sequin magpie. The most recent addition is an ivory vintage sheath crop top smattered with opalescent sequins winding around the bodice. It jars in my closet, nestled next to its sequined buddies, all of them flashing strangely against the subdued gray linens and silks. But I like the aggression of it; I like that it doesn’t make you look at me as much as at the garment. I like that you’ll be a bit blinded, that you might not see me right away. I like how the weight of a sequin, the scratch and sound of them, reminds me that I’m here, moving through the world.