The ancient Egyptian roots of sequins

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The shiny discs have been used in fashion from Ancient Egypt onwards. With a show devoted to sequin-loving designer Ashish Gupta wowing audiences, Rosalind Jana reflects on their volatile history.

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In the 1930s, a woman wearing a sequinned dress faced an unusual dilemma. She might have looked fabulous – literally dazzling – but she was in a fragile position. Clothes designed for social settings (where else might one wear sequins?) should have some durability: withstanding sweat and the jostling proximity of other people. But dance with such a woman in sequins, and you would both engage in a perilous game. In resting one hot, damp hand on her hip, you flirted with committing an act of serious damage – risking leaving behind a permanent handprint, your clammy touch melting her embellishment into a ghostly, gloopy outline. 

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The history of sequins is, like all materials, one of money, manufacture, and shifting social mores. The sequins of the 1930s were volatile because they were made of gelatin that was coloured with lead paint. Obvious lead-based health issues aside, gelatin had a very low melting point. On becoming too warm or too wet, it dissolved. Ergo the handprint hazard. And forget about washing or steaming. However, what they lacked in longevity, these sequins made up for in lightweight – if fleeting – wearability. Before the introduction of synthetic materials, sequins were made from heavier metals spanning the precious (gold, silver) and the cheap (copper, brass). In this form they had been manufactured for thousands of years, from the days of Tutankhamun to displays of wealth and opulence in Renaissance Italy.

The new London exhibition of Ashish Gupta's work showcases an array of his dazzling, besequinned outfits (Credit: Nicola Tree for William Morris Gallery)

The new London exhibition of Ashish Gupta’s work showcases an array of his dazzling, besequinned outfits (Credit: Nicola Tree for William Morris Gallery)

In fact, in the late 15th Century, Leonardo da Vinci sketched out a machine for making sequins. It was an elaborate contraption, black-inked lines illustrating a series of pulleys and wheels that worked together to punch out small metal disks. There is no evidence that this machine was ever actually made, but there is something pleasing in imagining it in motion – a rudimentary form of mass-production that might have sped up the process of turning an elite status symbol into something so widely available as to start losing its lustre.

As fashion curator and lecturer Vanessa Jones puts it, the historic sequins still preserved today are largely found “on really high-end garments from the 15th Century onwards… In the 16th and 17th Century we see [more] of these decorative metal, sequin-esque shapes adorning garments… from wealthy or at least middle-class families”. Now, as she says, “you can pick them up for next to nothing. You can get thousands for a couple of pounds”.

Fashion’s biggest sequin champion

In designer Ashish Gupta’s exhibition Fall in Love and Be More Tender, currently on display at the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow, London, a wonderful tension emerges between what sequins were, and what they have become today. Born in Delhi and based in London, Gupta’s Ashish label is best known for his sparkling, eye-catching designs that have been worn by figures including Madonna, Beyoncé and Taylor Swift. The French word “sequin” comes from the Arabic sikka (meaning coin or minting die) and Venetian zecchino (a type of gold coin). In England, they were previously known as “spangles”.

The word itself captures the humble sequin’s early alliances with affluence and artisanal splendour. No better way to prove you have money than to wear it. But the transition from metal to gelatin, followed by further leaps forward, via acetate, mylar and vinyl, transformed sequins from a rare and sparkling commodity to the embodiment of mid-century glamour to a kitschy form of ornamentation that runs the gamut from all-star entertainment (Elton John, Dolly Parton, Tina Turner, legions of drag queens) to everyday celebration (festivalgoers, ardent Christmas party attendees) to children begging their parents for a sugary rush of glitter.

Sequins are so heavily symbolic. There’s a kind of innocence and danger and magic to them – Ashish Gupta

In Gupta’s work, the sequin rules everything. Designed in London and hand-embroidered in India, his clothes are by turns brash, stunning, and slyly shocking. Often, they rely on trompe l’oeil trickery. What might look on first glance like a tartan, crochet or Fair Isle knit reveals itself on further scrutiny to be an intricate arrangement of sequins. These are clothes that must be seen up close (or ideally worn, surprisingly soft against the skin) to appreciate their full effect, that tell-tale shimmer from afar merely hinting at their elaborate construction. It’s a design process that relies on the element of the “slightly unexpected,” the designer tells BBC Culture, “taking things that were very ordinary and elevating them into [something] really special.” Such elevations are frequently humorous, reliant on clashes in context or witty wordplay. Sequinned shopping bags riff on popular retailers – M&S becoming “S&M”, Tesco rebranded as “Disco”. Hi-vis jackets and lumberjack shirts shed their hardy masculine associations, sparkling under the lights.

Among Gupta's creations are some witty sequinned shopping bags (Credit: Nicola Tree for William Morris Gallery)

Among Gupta’s creations are some witty sequinned shopping bags (Credit: Nicola Tree for William Morris Gallery)

“Twenty years ago, sequins came with a slightly dodgy cocktail dress association,” Gupta says. Undeterred, Gupta’s graduate MA collection was themed around Dorothy and her ruby red slippers. “They’re so heavily symbolic,” he says. “There’s a kind of innocence and danger and magic to them.” However, it was only when he read a quote from the performance artist Leigh Bowery, who said “the reason I use sequins… is because if I cannot cast the light, at least I can reflect it,” that the designer’s vision crystallised.

A sequin recalls many things. It mimics the movement of water and the flash of fish scales

By making sequins his hallmark – a material that has fallen in and out of favour, moving from the mainstream to the subversive and back again, spanning Lésage couture embroidery, disco and bargain-basement boob tubes – Gupta found an endlessly malleable palette to work with. It’s one that has allowed him to probe at the edges of taste and respectability: conjuring questions about identity, belonging and the desire to be looked at without ever getting too serious about it; transporting the wearer in a mere click of heels or shimmy of a gleaming denim sari to a more colourful world.

A man's sequinned cap from 16th-Century  England; they adorned the garments of wealthy families at the time (Credit: Getty Images)

A man’s sequinned cap from 16th-Century England; they adorned the garments of wealthy families at the time (Credit: Getty Images)

For the last two decades, Gupta has specialised in clothes that flicker, twinkle, and make a scene. From exquisitely crafted floral gowns to t-shirts making political statements (in the upstairs room of the gallery, the words “Planned Parenthood” are picked out in black sequins on a striped rainbow background), he creates pieces that can take days or even weeks to make that play with our expectations of what finery should look like. “It’s that idea of camp: good taste and bad taste, mixing high culture and low culture,” Gupta says. “People take fashion so seriously. I think there’s something funny about that.”

A sequin’s associations 

A sequin recalls many things. It mimics the movement of water, the flash of fish scales (one is reminded of Colette’s short story The Hidden Woman, in which a costume of dark violet and silver “glistened like the conger eel fished for by night with iron hooks, in boats with resin lanterns”). There can be an illicit – or explicit – erotic thrill to this movement, a suggestion of something that hugs the body but also makes it alien. In Seeing Through Clothes (1978), art historian Anne Hollander writes about the world of 1930s black-and-white cinema, where “sequins, marabou, white net and black lace developed a fresh intensity of sexual meaning in the world of colourless fantasy.”

A contortionist wearing a sequinned bodysuit in the 1930s, when sequins were at their most fashionable – and volatile (Credit: Getty Images)

A contortionist wearing a sequinned bodysuit in the 1930s, when sequins were at their most fashionable – and volatile (Credit: Getty Images)

For Gupta, there are different, but no less enthralling, implications. Sequins might suggest the natural world, but they are also an emblem of bright lights and bustling urban spaces. “I’ve always been very attracted to nightlife and big cities,” he explains. “If you belong to minority… For example, if you’re a gay man… Big cities provide a haven and a safe place for a lot of people. You don’t have to hide anymore. You can be who you want, find your people. In a way, sequins are a funny metaphor for that. There’s no hiding when you’re wearing sequins. It’s a metaphoric and literal coming out.”

Before the exhibition begins, a video of Gupta and his team plays on loop. In one scene, he visits a sequin shop: the shelves stacked floor to ceiling with every imaginable colour, material and metallic hue. It is a dizzying sight, hundreds of thousands of sequins held in one store. Spilled, they would create a small sea (or at least a sizeable pool). “There’s so many possibilities,” Gupta explains. “Do you want the dress to look wet? Do you want it to look metallic? Do you want it to look like it’s almost not there?”

An Elton John fan at this year's Glastonbury Festival, paying homage to his iconic sequinned baseball suit (Credit: Getty Images)

An Elton John fan at this year’s Glastonbury Festival, paying homage to his iconic sequinned baseball suit (Credit: Getty Images)

Contemplations of such quantity and scale have a real magnificence, but there are downsides too. As sequins have got more durable (and therefore cheaper – sewn as they can be using a machine, rather than via the intensive techniques used by Ashish’s highly-skilled artisans), they have also become worse for the environment. Hopefully the next evolution of the sequin will take it away from plastic, towards something like Elissa Brunato’s bio luminescent sequins made from cellulose, a plant-based polymer, which has already been adopted by various designers including Stella McCartney. Hopefully there will be no more sticky handprints. Or if they are, hopefully they will be deliberate. One could almost imagine a high-end Ashish garment mimicking those 1930s sartorial disasters, the suggestive outline of a hand lingering on a beautifully crafted gown. 

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