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.