why glitter won’t die — dissecting an enduring trend

The runway has spoken: glitter is back in a major way for fall. We investigate the history of sparkles in fashion and art, from Dorothy’s ruby slippers to drag queens.

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Mar 11 2015, 9:50pm

rodarte fall/winter 15 by kathy lo

Glitter is not just for Dame Edna. Sparkles and sequins have been rampant on the runway for the fall/winter 15 season, from the glittery red catwalk at the Givenchy men's show, to designs from brands as varied as Di$count Univer$e, Rodarte, and Ralph Lauren - all the way up to Saint Laurent and Louis Vuitton this week. As we click through endless images of sparkling looks, we ask: why do fashion and art keep returning to the glitz, glamor and sometimes gaudiness of glitter?

Saint Laurent fall/winter 15. Photography by Mitchell Sams.

Fashion month was glittery in every city. Christopher Kane showed 70s glam-inspired lurex knits and pleats and sparkling thunderbolt detailing at London Fashion Week. In Milan, Donatella Versace stretched glittery alphabet letters across dresses. Paris has been a full-on glitter-fest, with former i-D cover girl Mica Arganaraz wearing a glittering red dress at Nina Ricci and sequins at Rick Owens. Hedi Slimane sent Julia Nobis down the Saint Laurent catwalk in a Joan Collins-worthy glittered gown, and today's Vuitton show featured ribbed glimmering knits. The runway has spoken: we will all be sparkling like Christmas trees in Dallas this fall.

This is not the first time the glitter wave has come around. During the 1920s, flapper dresses were covered in sequins and shiny beads, made for showing off on the dance floor. Years later, Norman Norell became inspired by the glitz of the flapper era and designed an entire collection around it in 1960. The same year, he crafted his exquisite "mermaid dresses" - floor-length silk gowns embedded with overlapping sequins - not unlike the gown that closed Ralph Lauren's most recent show.

Then there was glam rock (also called glitter rock), ushered in by T. Rex's 1971 appearance on "Top of the Pops," their faces plastered with glitter. And later, the days of disco, when Halston spun out magically draped dresses and tops with swinging bell-sleeves covered in sequins. In the late 70s, the floor of Studio 54 was covered with four tons of glitter for one famous New Year's Eve party. If fashion truly does repeat itself every 30-50 years, it's about time for a glitter revival.

T. Rex on "Top of the Pops," 1971

In fact, humans were bedazzling themselves long before runways and magazines existed at all. According to Valerie Steele, director and chief curator of the Museum at FIT, "Some articles in the Smithsonian magazine have suggested that versions of sequins existed as early as ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia."

"There have been many, many cultures worldwide that have sewn little pieces of metal onto clothing both as a sign of status and as a kind of beautiful decorations," Steele explained, "But also literally, as portable wealth."

In a 2012 article for the Smithsonian, writer Emily Spivack digs deep into the history of the sequin, beginning with King Tut, who was buried in an outfit covered in "gold sequin-like discs." Spivack also identifies Leonardo da Vinci as the father of the modern sequin. Da Vinci apparently sketched a machine that used levers and pulleys to punch out tiny disks of metal sheets. This ancient cultural connection might explain why Italian designers seem to have a penchant for everything shiny (as we salute this season's glitzy Dolce & Gabbana heels and Miu Miu's signature glittered shoes).

There are also wealth of iconic glitter moments in more recent culture that continue to inspire the fashion cycle. Where would we be without Dorothy's glittering shoes in The Wizard of Oz, David Bowie's glittered face on cove of Aladdin Sane, or the frivolous fun of Dame Edna's OTT costumes? And who could forget Andy Warhol's Diamond Dust Shoes pieces (powdered with actual diamond dust)? In 2013, Washington D.C. gallery Art Enables presented "Glitterbomb," an exhibition showing the many ways in which outsider art has made use of glitter.

Still from The Wizard of Oz (1939)

More recently, photographer Hannah Altman achieved viral status when Buzzfeed picked up her series of photographs "Everything is Nice," in which she uses glitter to question traditional beauty standards. The provocative images show glitter as blood, saliva and vomit, implying how deeply ingrained ornamentation is in girls' lives. Altman says, "The shimmer of glitter is ironic because it's being projected onto the female body without the subjects' expressed knowledge. This represents society's censoring the natural occurrences of the female body; it turns what might be considered unladylike into something with more sparkle."

In an article in The Guardian last month, Jenna Lyons declared that sequins are the new black. While it's hard to picture a sparkling sequined sheath as a substitute for the multipurpose little black dress, her point is that, when it comes to fashion at least, perhaps we're ready once again for a return to the glitzy and fantastical. And as a way to inject fantasy into everyday life, glitter is pretty much unparalleled.

Credits


Text Kristen Bateman
Photography Kathy Lo