My mother stored dressmaking and embroidery things in a large Chinese wedding basket of lacquer compartments scented with a nostalgic fragrance I’ve come to believe must be a blend of nepthalene and colonial antiquity; an aroma I still associate with snooping about where I shouldn’t. It was like a giant tiffin box, each round tier a repository for wonderful and mysterious remnants of gorgeous fabric, unfinished projects, twists of yarn, pom-pom and flower-crocheting contraptions, and, my favourite; the tiny plastic vials containing coloured beads and little clear Petri dishes of sequins.
There was also, somewhere in the secret vaults of archived family treasures-that I shouldn’t be rummaging through, an ancient fragment of dusky pink gossamer silk weighted down with pearls, rhinestones and snaking rows of silvered sequins, a precious memory rescued from a long forgotten ancestor’s wardrobe. I revered this relic as if it was the holy grail itself, imagining how directly it linked me to the glamorous lady who had once worn it, dancing, maybe smoking a cocktail cigarette held in a tortoiseshell holder.
I must have been born with magpie blood, because for as long as I can remember my eyes have constantly and actively sought out anything that glitters, to the point of avidly collecting and keeping any that I could pick up, and I’m ashamed to admit in the case of grandma’s diamanté costume jewellery, pick out. I even treasured a little fragment of shattered windscreen from the roadside by my grandparent’s house, and I cannot begin to describe my passionate childish desire to gouge out and keep the reflective cat’s eyes that enchanted me at night on that same stretch of road.
When I was eight, I performed a death-defying feat of spectacular athleticism as one of a troupe of circus acrobats in the River School Christmas play (that’s how I remember it anyway) and what gave me the strength and courage to do so was the shower of shimmering peacock blue sequins (from that wedding basket) that my mother had stitched onto my royal blue ballet leotard. I felt a million dollars.
The following year I returned to the stage to hassle Ebeneezer Scrooge, cast as ‘The Spirit of Christmas Past’, and this time my mother stitched a galaxy of little silver sequins to my diaphanous ghostly robes ensuring, yet again, that I was magically imbued with sequin power.
Apparently we can thank the ancient Egyptians for sequins. They sewed discs of precious metals into King Tut’s funeral clothes so that he had some loose change handy for afterlife spends, but mainly so that he could arrive there looking like an awesome glam rock star.
I was delighted to be given mainstream permission to include sequins in my daytime wardrobe when the effervescent Trinny & Suzanna hit the TV in their show featuring a parade of shrinking violets enduring bosom-honking makeovers. Sparkly accessories suddenly became ‘what to wear’. Before then, there was a general consensus that only bouffant old ladies on cruise ships, vying for a place at the captain’s table, wore sequins. Or Michael Jackson. Or Elvis.
I willingly embraced T&S’s spangle edict and purchased two little sequinned waistcoats and a shimmering silver ‘skinny scarf’ and set about attempting to seamlessly incorporate these modest glittering garments into my workaday wardrobe. Living as I did in a rural East Yorkshire backwater and mostly sitting on the floor at playgroup singing about dingle-dangle scarecrows, or schlepping round the aisles of Safeway’s; the sequins often felt more than a little misplaced. In my thirties, carrying a bulging mum-tum and a haversack of post-partum low self-esteem, knee deep in mud or nappies, the sequins in my life were gradually confined to small details such as festive table runners and children’s teeshirts.
When Rose was about five I was green with envy about a fashion revolution in the Girls departments of every retail store, namely The Flippy Sequin Detail. Imagine shudders of delight elicited from wearing a tee shirt with a silver unicorn on the front that, when stroked, turns a shimmering cerise! (Sadly not in grown-up sizes) For a time, Rose’s room was filled with flippy sequins; on notebooks, cushions, pencil cases, even slippers!
In a moment of unusual exhibitionism, I once arrived at a summer garden party wearing a cream silk shift dress entirely covered in varying sizes of pearlescent discs that made the most exquisite shooshing rustle as I moved. With hindsight I think I might have looked more like a barrage ballon on a rainy day, and the unnerving noise it emitted might have been slightly disconcerting as I sidled up to strangers in the dimming dusk light, but I kept it because it is just so beautiful to look at, on the hanger.
Latterly, but BC, (which used to mean Before Children, and now refers to the happy times Before COVID) I recall countless parties, dancing, charity balls, festivals, grand birthday celebrations and all manner of other excuses to not only gather en masse, with other humans and HUG, but also to get my glitzy glad-rags on. Heck, I miss those days: Glitter balls, strobes, and twinkling night-sky marquee ceilings; all the shiny things.
A word of caution for a post COVID era. If wearing sequins to a social event it is wise to heed the following words of hard-won wisdom:
*When approaching a high plastic bar stool in a sequin sheath dress do not hop onto it with any measure of enthusiasm as the sequins act to significantly reduce friction and one is likely to scoot straight off the other side and onto the floor like shit off a shovel.
*When drunkenly embracing friends in a sequinned or beaded number, be wary of the potential for sudden and unexpected epilation as hair, and/or hair extensions, can be caught up and yanked out leaving a tangled clump resembling a hairy corsage.
*Enjoyment of an event can be significantly marred by a beaded or sequinned sleeveless dress when the beading covers the entire circumference of the arm hole. After just a few hours strutting ones stuff on the dance floor in tipsy excstacies, one will endure severe lacerations to the armpit.
Since The Outbreak, despite the dearth of social engagements, I seem to have become increasingly dependent on my little shiny disco friends to lift my mood, get me through the week, and especially as we squelch into a long winter, light up the darker days. In between lockdowns I scooped up some dazzling charity shop bargains, thinking ahead to a time when we might resume those social gatherings and I can kick my heels up once again. As a fun challenge every Friday morning, I like to see just how shimmery a lockdown outfit I can get away with, and I share pictures of it on my Instagram feed. My weekly #frockfriday update grows sparklier as the winter mud gets deeper.
Galloping towards Christmas I’ll be donning ever more dazzling layers of mystical dragon skin to keep my spirits up. There’s a mesmerising vintage Frank Usher two-piece outfit in icy blues rattling at the wardrobe door to be released, just as soon as I have altered the saggy waistband. Other charity shop triumphs this year have included sequinned palazzo pants that shimmy delectably when I walk, and look great with a baggy jumper and trainers, (ideal Aldi wear, surely?) and a multi coloured sequin bobble hat that brightens up a gloomy sea swim, its scintillating luminosity gives me that magic inner strength to plunge into the icy waters. Plus, on a practical note, it makes it easier for the coastguard searchlight to spot me if I’m still there after dark! (Joking, Mother.)
Saturday nights are another opportunity to charge up the glitter quotient as we, Rose and I, soak up an instalment of Strictly Come Dancing, cooing over the costumes and just longing to be there in person. It is a source of fascination to see how cleverly the designers translate an ordinary garment into an encrusted confection of ballroom campness. A blokeish boiler-suit for the Greased Lightin’ number becomes a flatteringly tailored one-piece with sequinned epaulettes and matching glitter eye-makeup.
Sadly, because plastic is The Devil’s work and our oceans are choking on the stuff, our two favourite sources of magpie’s delight, sequins and glitter, now carry a heavy weight of conscience. If you put sequins in your search bar you’ll find a million reasons why you should eschew these little shiny discs of joy as they contribute to the slow and painful strangulation of the planet.
In the 1930s, before plastic pollution was ever a thing (imagine that), sequins were made from electroplated gelatin. The problem was, they had a tendency to melt. If scientists can send a probe to Jupiter surely they can invent a biodegradable sequin? Just for me? There are recycled ones, which is a start I suppose, and I like to think that the sparkly second-hand items I find in charity shops are exactly that; ‘recycled’, but I am struggling with this dazzling dilemma. Especially as I spend a disproportionate amount of time chasing second hand Rosa Bloom play suits online, preparing for the day I simultaneously lose enough weight to carry it off, and enough self-consciousness to give a damn who sees me in it.
It seems the little things that bring me hand-clapping bouts of joy are becoming taboo. Like the richly coloured Smarties of the 70s. Their vivid sugar shells, no longer laced with toxic synthetic colours, are now drab and unappetising. Glitter, surely the object of everyone’s deep childhood desire, strewn wantonly across every sticky home made Christmas card, is now poisonous food for tiny marine animals and sequins have joined this joyous parade of extinction.
I wonder if a great grandchild of mine might one day clutch a fragment of my M&S party frock and try to imagine a bygone era of glamour and fun that existed before the lights went out.
Yikes, there’s a miserable dystopian ending to leave you with…
Why not cheer yourself up by donning a shimmering cape of light-reflecting discs (aluminium, shell, gold or gelatine) and take the dogs for a muddy walk in the rain? It works for me.