Objects of Light. A Brief History of Sequins from Ancient Egypt to Couture

Image Vogue, Rihanna wearing a hand- embroidered Saint Laurent sequin top.

As winter is upon us once again, so is our strong desire to seek the lights. You may have noticed the big comeback of sequins. From Alexander McQueen to Balenciaga, Gucci and Valentino, all have embraced the exotic beauty of the disk-like bling this Autumn/Winter season. Once predominantly worn as evening wear, today full sequin looks are well integrated in a wide range of everyday-wear and a quick google search reveals that a sequin dress can cost somewhere between $4,170 dollars at Saint Laurent , up to $14,000 dollars at Gucci. Not a entirely shocking, when you realise that every single piece is hand-stitched on to the dresses.

Stick to something long enough and it comes right back in fashion. In fact, sequins can be traced back to ancient Egypt. When archeologists discovered King Tut’s tomb in 1922, they found the king’s mummified body clad in garments with what looked like to be sequins attached to them.

Throughout history, sewing precious metals and coins onto clothing has served several purposes. While gypsies and traveler folk wore their valuables sown on to their clothes for practicality, in ancient Egypt, India and Peru metal disks were attached onto clothes as decorative symbols of wealth and status. In the Middle East, stitching coins to traditional costumes and headdresses was and still is a common way of displaying wealth. This reference to wealth is in harmony with the origin of the word sequin itself, which derives from the Arabic ‘Sikka’, meaning ‘coin’ or ‘minting die’ and the 13th century Venetian ‘Zecchino’, a gold coin, named after the ‘zecco’, the industrial facility where coins were minted.

The ability of the metals to catch and reflect light, not only reminded others of the wealth and power of the wearer, but also evoked the light of the divine. In reference to their spiritual purpose, in many ancient cultures it was believed that shiny objects helped ward off evil spirits that meant to bring harm. In that, you can say that sequins represent an early, fashionable example of the spiritual struggle between light and dark.

Son of the Egyptian sun god Ra, this might be a clue as to why King Tut was clad in sequins for his journey to the afterlife. To the Egyptians, the sun represented light, warmth, and growth. This made the sun deity very important, as the sun was seen as the ruler of all that he created.

From Tutankhamun to couture, sequins have had a remarkable and rather unusual history. What I find most intriguing about this ancient bling, is that it reveals aspects unique to human nature. For one, our sensitivity to status and displays of wealth, and at the same time our quest for the divine, and constant struggle between light and dark. But most importantly, our strong innate connection to objects of light. In his Ted Talk ‘Pop Theologie’ , philosopher Mark Alizart explains a similar theory about our fascination with blinking objects and blinking (city) lights, making an interesting connection between St. Paul’s messianic state of eternity and the blinking lights of modern life and objects of contemporary art.