The glitzy adornments aren’t just for Christmas naffness – they have had a cool update on the high street and from designers such as Ashish Gupta and Michael Halpern
It is all too easy to throw shade at sequins. Well, not literally, obviously, but for certain fashion tastemakers – let’s imagine them as a cabal of Kinfolk readers who only wear navy, grey and camel-coloured cashmere – sequins are a turn-off. Sequins are not tasteful, in the subtle, understated sense. They seek to attract attention. They are Marilyn, not Audrey. They are Bob Mackie and RuPaul and Jessica Rabbit and Beyoncé on stage in a leotard and Bianca Jagger at the Met Ball in 1974. (I mean, come on, guys. What’s not to love?)
Sequin snobbery is nothing new. In 1955, while accompanying a satin-swathed Grace Kelly to the Oscars, the costume designer Edith Head summed it up with the snooty comment: “Some people need sequins; some people don’t.” This party season, however, even the usually sequin-averse among us may feel the urge to welcome sparkle into their lives.
Something very shiny is happening in fashion. You expect to see sequins on the high street in November, but this year’s gems will hold the office party to a higher standard. There are pencil skirts in clashing stripes at Zara and shimmering, liquid-like midnight-blue turtlenecks at & Other Stories. These are sequins that do not carry a whiff of Christmas-tree naffness, unapologetically designed to be worn at night.
In designer fashion, even minimalists such as Céline are using sequins, while many others – Dior, Margiela, Victoria Beckham – are deploying sequins’ glam cousins: glitter, rhinestones and crystals. Consider the rise of fashion’s current darling, Michael Halpern, a young designer whose 70s-influenced work has inspired the likes of Amal Clooney to pile on the bling. Then there is the emoji zeitgeist, where the symbol most likely to inspire fancy dress costumes this year – ie, the new flamingo – is the mermaid, a mythical creature with shimmering scales that can only be replicated through sequins. Little wonder that sequins are already key to the new Vogue under Edward Enninful, seen on Kate Moss at the launch party and on cover star Adwoa Aboah in the magazine.
Ashish Gupta is the London fashion week designer most associated with sequins, using them on straight-up beautiful dresses and politically charged slogan T-shirts (“STAY WOKE” and “QUEER” look glorious in sequins). “I used to think of [using sequins] as a little bit of a revolt against blandness and boring fashion,” he says. “Now, in light of everything that is happening, I find the idea of sequined slogans amazing, of saying something serious using a medium that is not usually taken that seriously.”
Some of the history of sequins sounds – appropriately enough – a bit embellished. The Smithsonian cites Leonardo da Vinci as a potential sequin pioneer because he once made a sketch for a machine that could punch discs out of a metal sheet. More convincingly, Tutankhamun is considered an early adopter, given that he was buried with gold discs stitched into his garments, presumably to confer wealth and status and ward off evil in the afterlife.
One of the V&A’s earliest examples of the use of sequins on European fashionable clothing is a jacket from around 1610, although, says curator Sonnet Stanfill, “excavations from much earlier periods” have shown the stitching of “coins and precious metals on to clothes to show rank” to be an ancient pursuit.
For Gupta, this history demonstrates sequins’ capacity to become “almost quite a scared, spiritual thing”. He can get quite deep when he is talking about sequins. He cites French philosopher Mark Alizart’s TED talk about humans’ fascination with blinking lights and the human interest in “fireflies, water reflecting light; there is almost a primal need for light and water. There are scientific experiments that prove that humans are attracted to glossy, shiny things.”
Gupta’s personal sequin references range from Dorothy’s ruby slippers and 80s Bollywood to Leigh Bowery, whose quote – “The reason I use sequins at the moment is because if I cannot cast the light, at least I can reflect it” – is a mantra that has helped him through difficult times. He considers sequins’ rise to be politically timely: “There is such a feeling of helplessness against so many things,” he says. “It could be a response to that in a way, a search for light and higher ground.”
For Stanfill, sequins are historically notable for their use by elite echelons of society “as a means of sartorial distinction and a demonstration of the ability to pay for the highest level of craftsmanship”, she says. “They are a wonderful expression of the desire to put your best self forward no matter what century you are dressing – the very human urge to dress up.”
That urge has even been dangerous. In the 30s, sequins were made from electroplated gelatin. The possibility of suffering a sequin-based injury was perilously high given that “they would melt when warm or overheated”. Now sequins are more likely to be made of vinyl plastic, although still more technological advances are being developed with the hope of making sequins sustainable. “It’s fascinating how many iterations there have been,” says Stanfill, who sees the many technological advancements as compelling evidence of humanity’s dedication to the cause of self-adornment.
Not all adventures in sequins are successful, given that so many garments tend to develop bald patches by midnight. Sure enough, good sequins tend to be expensive, mainly because stitching them on properly is so laborious. (Check the stitching carefully if you are sequin shopping on the high street. I have it on good authority that hand-stitched sequins are usually knotted individually, whereas machine-created high street versions are likely to be stitched in sections, so that if one goes, the whole section unthreads, like old-fashioned Christmas fairy lights.)
Perhaps the loveliest thing about sequins is that they are best experienced in person. Although they have been popular from the early days of Hollywood – with actors such as Marlene Dietrich using them to create otherworldly radiance – their twinkle and shine cannot be truly replicated through a screen. The app Kirakira was recently launched for this very reason – in an attempt to bring 3D sparkle to 2D photographs on Instagram – and while its effects are very beautiful, they cannot match sequins’ real-life luminescence. Nor can they beat the experience of wearing sequins and, being your own disco ball, throwing patterns of light on to the wall.
So, no, sequins still aren’t tasteful, in a minimalist-black-turtleneck kind of way. But don’t they offer something better and more necessary? As Gupta says: “They actually light you up.”Read more at theguardian.com