Gareth Pugh’s spectacular S/S16 collection was an ode to Soho, and the libertine nightlife the London district has played host to since the 1700s. Mini dresses with plunging necklines were covered from top to bottom with coin paillettes, a symbol of hedonism, refracting light and creating surface embellishment akin to the disco ball – and Pugh's decision to use them in this way draws on a long and rich tradition.
The origins of the word sequin can be found, in fact, in both the Arabic word sikka and the Italian zecchino, both of which mean ‘coin’ or ‘the mint’. The history of using coins to decorate garments has long been linked to the wearer's wealth; in the 13th century they were often sewn onto garments as a precautionary measure to keep them close to the body. By the 17th century, however, this tradition had taken on a purely decorative function with coins replaced by metallic discs known as 'spangles'. Since then, the sequin has manifested itself in a number of different ways, spanning myriad fashion genres. Here we chart its journey from practical to decorative, considering the 1920s flappers inspired by King Tutankhamun, and finishing up with the 1970s disco era so resonant in Pugh's paean to embellishments.
Courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum Collection.
This 17th-century jacket is embroidered with floral motifs of rose, columbine honeysuckle, irises, daisies and pansies, strongly denoting the fashion for flora-adorned dress for women at this time. Among the lavish silk and metal thread embroidery lie a scattering of spangles, which in candlelight would have glimmered to spectacular effect. This is an early example of the metallic disc's use within the design of surface textiles. Over time, the word 'spangle' was replaced with 'sequin' in popular usage, which is believed to have begun in the 19th century.
Photography by Edward Steichen.