With the season of sparkling attire and bauble-icious fare in the stores at year’s end, it’s time for a little gentle awareness so we don't get too caught up in the hype of wearing spectacular shiny sparkly sequins only for the silly season.
Timely because, have you ever thought about how sequins are made?
Oh the tragedy when I found out or, was made aware that sequins are made of plastic.
Of course they are.
A Quick Shine On Sparkly History
“Sequin” originated from the Arabic word sikka, meaning “coin,” later becoming the Venetian word zecchino. In the late 16th century, it morphed into the French word, sequin.
Embellishing garments using polished disks of metal throughout history, that required extensive hours of hand sewing by seamstresses, has been en vogue since the archeological find of the embellished King Tutankhamen's garb – adorned with solid gold discs.
During the Renaissance, as a status symbol, nobility sewed precious gems and gold sequins to their clothing. So popular were sequins that in the 1480s, Leonardo da Vinci even sketched plans for a sequin hole-punching machine!
Above: Leonardo da Vinci’s sketch for a device for making sequins Sketch from the Codex Atlanticus housed at the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan.
In the 1930s, manufacturers developed a process to create lightweight sequins using gelatin colored with lead paint. They looked great but were alas, impractical. They melted at temperatures as low as body heat and dissolved in water.
That authentic flapper dress you saw in the vintage store and considered wearing to an Art Deco Festival or Gatsby soiree might be a nightmare to keep clean. If you do succumb, my only thought around killing any lingering 'greebles' (from more than 70 years ago) would be to put the treasure in the freezer for a couple of days. Place carefully in a plastic bag and be mindful of when it 'defrosts'. I wouldn't guarantee that every bead and sequin will still be intact, however…
Everyone who has ever been deemed 'everyone' has been wearing sequins; from the Pharaohs of Egypt (as well as later adding paillettes, diamantes and spangles), to Elvis to Michael Jackson. From Lady Gaga to Beyoncé. From Flappers to Princesses and Princes in real life and film. The discotheques of the 70s and 80s were awash with shimmer and shine and to this day, a bit of shiny glimmering on the daily stage of life will bring smiles to those who see you shimmying past them – from the bus stop to the supermarket.
Sparkle’s dark side
Sparkle is a feel good dopamine rush and a bit of 'flash' in your outfit that is universally loved.
- Sequins are made from punching through sheets of PVC plastic. According to the Re:directory, more than 30% remains during production and goes straight to landfill as waste.
- PVC plastic is made with toxic additives called phthalates. This gives sequins their durability and flexibility. These additives are hormone-mimicking chemicals that disrupt the endocrine systems of the bodies of animals and humans.
An informative article by Future Fashion Factory writes that, "In 2019 that Oxfam surveyed 2000 Brits (aged 18-55) who:
- 40% said they would buy a sequined piece of clothing for the festive season and
- only 25% were sure they would wear the item an average of 5 times again before throwing it in the bin.”
That equates to 1.7 million sequined pieces from 2019's festive season that have likely ended up in landfill in the UK alone. Sadly, the fabric the sequins are on is usually destined to be disposed of into landfill because it is so difficult and time-consuming to remove individual sequins post-use. Yikes.
And now for some good news!
An innovative Designer, Elissa Brunato has created a compostable, biodegradable sequin that we are sure to see in the future made from 100% cellulose, which is natural plant matter. Hurrah for shiny 'good' things!
So, while we wait for the good sequins to swamp the market in a good way, here's a few ideas on how to 'get your shiny on' without contributing to a sea of sequin sparkle pollution this year:
- Look for sequins and sparkles in the vintage stores. Highly sought after and prized by those 'in the know', keep your eyes peeled for a piece that both sings to you and will last the distance for you as a wardrobe keeper – like a singlet, simple dress, sweater or cardigan, which will give you many mix and match/wearing options.
- Be vigilant at the secondhand and resale store and chat with the store owners about what you’re looking for. Someone could walk in with your perfect holy grail item - bling bling denim jacket, fully sequined dress, 80s embellished cardigan, jeans with sequin pockets – you name it – win win.
- At your local charity store they might have vintage or retro sequin fabrics and trims in the haberdashery section. You could use it for dressing up a piece in your existing wardrobe if you are handy with a needle, embellishing that boring piece or adding detailing to bring a bit of fun and new interest, or reviving an existing item.
Sequins are not going to decompose for thousands of years and will fill the bellies of our sea life whether used or not. So instead of thinking sequins are only for events and the holiday season, wear them, enjoy them and keep them in circulation for as many re-wears as possible.
Let's make the most of sequins. We know they are never out of fashion and keep coming up in cyclic trends. They’ll ‘literally’ be around for the next few thousand years. We can contribute to cutting down on the amount of newly created clothing if we stick to just using what’s already been created. I.e. The most sustainable item is the one currently in yours or someone else's wardrobe right now!
That sparkly vintage stuff some of us love so much will never leave the earth, so let’s enjoy it ... and take a moment when considering purchasing the newly created sparklers for the lasting impacts they will make!