It’s not an official requirement, but the Olympics wouldn't be the same without a bit of sparkle and pageantry. At the Opening Ceremony for the 2016 Rio Olympics, supermodel Gisele Bündchen set the tone in a dress covered in gold sequins, a garment that took four months to create.
Now a common material in the fashion and costuming industries and in high-visibility, performance-based events like parades and stage shows, there is actually more to the history of sequins than you might know.
1. THEY DATE BACK TO ANCIENT EGYPT.
In 1922, archaeologists discovered King Tutankhamun’s tomb and became the first people to enter it in more than 3000 years. The rooms of the tomb were filled with many signs of Tut’s wealth, including a solid gold coffin. Inside the coffin, the young mummified king’s body was found draped in lavish garments with what Smithsonian.com described as “gold sequinlike disks” sewn onto them.
2. LEONARDO DA VINCI INVENTED A SEQUIN MACHINE.
A prolific inventor, Leonardo da Vinci had ideas for many machines that he never got around to building. One of his sketches from the early 1480s is of a device that would use pulleys and what appear to be weights to make gold sequins. Da Vinci’s reasons for designing the machine are still unknown, but the Smithsonian believes it may have been for fashion or something more “utilitarian.”
3. THEY WERE ONCE MADE FROM ANIMAL PARTS.
From the solid gold of Ancient Egypt to the metal coins that inspired the word "sequin" in the 13th century, sequins have gone through many phases to become the plastic disks we know today.
In the 1930s, sequins were made of gelatin from animal carcasses because the material could be rolled into sheets and punched into shapes. The problem was that gelatin melts when too much heat is applied, and it also dissolves in water. Wearing sequin dresses in the rain was a disaster, and they obviously couldn't be cleaned using washing machines, so the collagen style didn't survive the decade.
4. WORLD WAR II CHANGED SEQUIN PRODUCTION.
Herbert Lieberman of the Algy Trimmings Co. was a pioneer of sequin production in the United States whose customers included everyone from the Ringling Brothers to Elizabeth Taylor. In an interview with Derek McCormack, Lieberman said that his father had to learn how to make sequins himself when the supply in Europe “dried up” during the Second World War. Working with Eastman Kodak (the camera company), Algy was able to get his sequin material custom made out of clear plastic.
“Eastman Kodak was producing acetate for their film stock,” Lieberman explained. “They plated it on one side with real silver. They coated the silver with a clear ink of the color we desired. They colored the other side as well ... The light would penetrate through the color, hit the silver, and reflect back.”
The new sequins ran the risk of cracking like glass because of the acetate, but they were more versatile and less fragile than the alternative.
5. A NORWEGIAN FIGURE SKATER BROUGHT SEQUINS TO THE OLYMPICS.
Sequins have become a standard part of the Olympic dress code for sports like gymnastics and skating, but that wasn’t always the case. In the late 1920s, figure skater Sonja Henie changed the Games with her white boots, choreography, and short skirts, which gave her more range of motion and helped her perform jumps on the ice. No doubt influenced by the flapper style of the period, Lieberman says that the three-time Olympic champion was also the first in the sport to add Algy’s sequins to her outfits.