NOMADIC OULED NAÏL DANCER, ALGERIA, c1904
The sequin was the currency of Sinbad and Scheherazade, a coin to calculate an Arabian Nights fortune. By the time this photograph was taken, it had become an avatar of money—a glittering disc that turned a nomad’s head-dress into an assertion of wealth. The photographer Rudolf Lehnert used images like this to transmute the sequin back into hard cash—he and his partner Ernst Landrock became purveyors of photographic orientalism to the world, until the Great War sent them scuttering from Tunis.
FLAPPER THE ROWE SISTERS, 1928
The dancing Rowes were fast movers, known to their fans as “the Greyhounds of Paris”. Here, though, they’re chasing a fashion from 3,250 years before—Egyptian bling, rediscovered in the Jazz Age when Howard Carter cracked open the tomb of Tutankhamun. Pharaonic mania struck, raising Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood, giving Lenin’s tomb in Moscow a step-pyramid structure, and sheathing flapper bodies in shimmering metal circles. Carter’s sidekicks Arthur Mace and Alfred Lucas spent a fortnight teasing 3,000 gold sequins from the boy king’s robes. They considered that painfully slow work; a modern Egyptologist would swoon at the velocity.
HIGH GLAMOUR AVA GARDNER, 1960
Gardner, the woman to whom Sinatra and Howard Hughes both knelt, looks like silvered nobility. Is she off to Buckingham Palace to trigger a constitutional crisis? No, it’s Oscars night 1960, where Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons—the gossip-mongering Scylla and Charybdis of the red carpet—know that under the lucent covering is the daughter of a dirt-poor sharecropper. Today, the sequin is democratised. Go to any city centre at kicking-out time on a Friday night, and you’ll see that sequins are what modern party girls are made of. And maybe it all began here.
High-fashion sequins tend to play one of two ways. Fortissimo, as when Miuccia Prada built fish-scale dresses out of giant orange and yellow plastic sequins in 2011; or pianissimo, like the delicate silk-and-chiffon confection here. Either way, the modern trick is to pair them with something very casual and everyday—as if you hadn’t noticed you’d just slipped into something that turns the showbiz all the way up to 11.
“Marie” cashmere cable-knit roll-neck sweater, £225, Homespun Cashmere (homespuncashmere.com); blush sequinned skirt, price on request, and leather ankle boots with zip, £750, both Boss (hugoboss.com)
PHOTOGRAPHER SEAN GLEASON
STYLIST OLIVIA POMP
Hair David Wadlow
Make-up Ruby Hammer
Model Florence Kosky
HIGH CAMP LIBERACE, 1981
“Camp sees everything in quotation marks,” wrote Susan Sontag. “It’s not a lamp, but a ‘lamp’; not a woman, but a ‘woman’.” In 1959 Władziu Valentino Liberace, known as “the Glitter Man” and “the King of Bling”, won £8,000 from the Daily Mirror after it implied he was a “homosexualist”. The jury were as dazzled as the audiences who saw him shrug off a £200,000 fur coat lined with £70,000 of sequins and Austrian crystals. Here, at the Tivoli Concert Hall in Copenhagen, he may look like an oven-ready Grandpa Munster, but the spangles argue otherwise—this is a “flamboyant entertainer”. And I mean that most sincerely.
MATADOR LOUIS MIGUEL DOMINGUÍN, 1950
The “suit of lights”, the product of Promethean tailoring, is deceptively practical, a cloaking device that renders a man immaterial, a shimmering element apprehended by the bull as just another terror to compute, along with the swishing cape and hooting crowds. In this shot, the great matador looks inviolable. But he did have a weak spot: Ava Gardner. “The world’s most beautiful animal,” said her publicists. Dominguín believed the hype. “I had”, he boasted, “a very fierce wolf in a cage.” Truth is, she was never tricked into it.
ROYAL PRINCESS ELIZABETH AT BUCKINGHAM PALACE, 1945
It’s 1945. The blackout curtains have come down. Neon burns again in Piccadilly Circus. Oliver Messel is preparing to fill the stage of Sadler’s Wells with all the colours once denied by rationing and necessary modesty. Norman Hartnell is sewing iridescent gelatine sequins on the frock that Princess Elizabeth will use to signal that war is over. Cecil Beaton is behind the camera, as he was when Elizabeth’s mother posed like this six years before. We remember post-war Britain for its solid, utilitarian achievements—the welfare state and the National Health. But it’s also the moment when British culture got the queer-eye makeover. On Coronation Day, an Australian newspaper ran the headline “Streets of London Are Gay” which now seems fabulously apt.
STAR-SPANGLED HIGH-SCHOOL PARADE, DENVER, 1972
Herbert Lieberman. Write the name across the sky in machine-washable acetate sequins, because he’s the one who made all this possible. The man who punched little discs out of the same plastic material from which movies were made, and sprayed them with Mylar—a liquid form of polyester—thus allowing his firm, the Algy Trimmings Company, to bring the drum majorettes and pipe bands of America closer to the condition of their banner. His creations coated other forms, too: Gary Glitter’s shoulder pads, the military jacket Michael Jackson wore to the White House, the hotpants of Vegas strippers, the head-dresses of Ringling Brothers elephants. Six million sequins a day surged out of his factory in New York—ample evidence of a glittering career.
EN FETE DRAG QUEENS, RIO DE JANEIRO, 1980
The sequin is a tease and a confection. The name refers to the zecchino— a Venetian coin of the 13th century, which also rattled in the purses of the Ottoman Turks. Now it’s become a little plastic disc—beguiling, eye-catching, pleasurably artificial. If you thought it looked good when poured on the body of a Hollywood glamour girl, then behold the drag queen, amplifying that brilliance until it hurts the eyes. There’s a liberating message conveyed in those Aldis-lamp flashes—gender itself might not be something held in the flesh and bones, but a set of accessories to be mixed and matched to fit the occasion.
ON STAGE NEIL DIAMOND, LOS ANGELES, 1977
“Neil Diamond, in all his sequinned glory, rocking the 50th reunion tent.” Thus tweeted a Princeton alumnus who, along with a whole crowd of graduates, thought he was singing along to “Sweet Caroline” with the real thing, and not Jay White, a paste Diamond from the Vegas circuit. The old Princetonians needn’t beat themselves up too much. The man himself, here rocking LA for real, is reported to have looked twice when White approached him for an autograph. And the spangles stitched upon the shirt of the so-called “Jewish Elvis” aren’t so far removed from the strips of foil that guided missiles use to bamboozle enemy radar.
ICE SONJA HENIE, c1950
Liberace claimed that the figure-skating movie star Sonja Henie broke his heart—and if any Sturm und Drang did occur, then surely its climax involved a fist-fight in a walk-in wardrobe full of gear like this. Liberace wasn’t the only one Henie dazzled—the sight of her well-packed Norwegian fetlocks skimming over Olympic ice also stirred something in Hitler, who took her to his pad in Berchtesgaden for vegetarian nibbles. The association left Henie surprisingly untarnished—in 1936, Nazi bad taste didn’t look too different from the Hollywood variety. The sequin is a kind of mirror, but it’s far too small to reflect the shape of moral ugliness.