When I first became really interested in fashion history in my early teens, and poured over historical costuming books and museum catalogues and saw mentions of sequins and spangles I assumed they were the same thing, and that ‘spangle’ was just a posh term for a sequin. As I studied textiles in university, and began working for museums, I realised that museums generally use very precise, specific terms (hmmmm…I wonder where my love of terminology comes from!), and that a spangle and a sequin might be different things.
As I’ve researched sequins and spangles I’ve realised that the use in terminology is sometimes very specific and precise, and that sometimes the terms are used interchangeably (see: how to make a fashion historian grumpy).
Many costume books use the terms to mean exactly the same thing, as do some museums. Some sources that make a distinction describe a spangle as a sequin with the hole at the top edge, rather than in the centre. Other sources describe a sequin as any decorative disk, while spangles must be metal – so all spangles are sequins, but plastic sequins (as we get today) are not spangles. To make things really confusing, some sources say spangles are circular, and sequins can be shaped, and others say exactly the opposite!
Which is right? When in doubt, go back to the history, and work from there.
Spangle was the English word for decorative metal disks in the 16th-early 19th centuries (and possibly earlier). In this period these disks were almost always made by taking a very thin gold (or other metal) wire, and twisting it around a narrow rod to form a very tight spiral coil. The spiral is then snipped in a line all the way up, so that it falls apart in dozens of C shapes or jump rings, which are hammered flat, with only the tiniest gap at the opening of the C.
The other option for creating a decorative disk is by punching shapes out of a sheet of metal, and poking holes in the centre. These could be created in a variety of shapes (while coiled spangles can only form circles), and had holes only in the middle, with no line or gap, however subtle. Decorative disks formed in this fashion are usually called sequins, not spangles.
So, based on historical precedent: spangles are formed by coils and have seams, and sequins are solid disks. This is the most consistent usage I can find in textile books and museum catalogues but it is no means universal.
Sequin is regularly used as a generic term for a decorative flat metal disk. Not all museums make the sequin/spangle differentiation: the Metropolitan Museum of Art, for example, identified almost all its disk-decorated items as being decorated with sequins, while many of its earlier items almost certainly actually decorated with seamed disks (i.e. spangles). Spangles are also sometimes used as a generic ‘decorative disk’ term, particularly in British English. One group that does almost invariably uses the ‘spangles-are-coiled, sequins-are-punched’ distinction is embroiderers.
Historically, I’m able to find instances where both terms are used in advertising from the 1890s to the 1930s, such as this 1901 ad for ‘spangle and sequin nets‘ being sold in preparation for a royal visit to NZ, or this one from 1903, or this one from 1913 (with a fashion image that may show such a net!). Unfortunately it’s not clear what the difference between a spangle net and a sequin net was at the time. Both are mentioned in newspaper descriptions of garments worn to gala events, such as this Tennis Euchre Party & Dance in 1910 – in my mind I visualise the sequinned items as being quite closely packed and overlapping, such as the blue dress from 1909 below, and the spangled items as being quite sprinkled, as in the Lady Maude Warrander laurel dress featured in Janet Arnold.
Sequins are an incredibly old form of decoration: punched metal disks used to ornament clothes dating to at least 2500BC have been found in India. Small gold disks were sewn onto the garments in Tutankhamen’s tomb, and Leonardo da Vinci drew a sketch for a sequin-making machine.
The name is much more recent than the ornamentation: it comes from the longest-minted coin ever: the Venetian Italian zecchino coin, debuting in 1284, and lasting until Napoleon conquered Venice in 1797. The coin was incorporated into a number of different traditional garments: punched and sewn to women’s vests and headdresses, as secure, portable valuables. The French pronounced the zecchino ‘sequin’, and when Napoleon rendered it obsolete as a currency, the name became applied to the use of metal disks as decoration.
While sequins are, as far as I can determine, much older, spangles are more common in extent garments until the Victorian era, as they were easier to make. Technological advances during the Industrial Revolution made punhced-disk sequins easier to create, and the introduction of non-metal sequins, in the form of celluloid sequins in the 1900s, electroplated gelatin sequins in the 1930s (which were exactly as durable as they sound – try not to sweat too much while wearing a dress decorated with them!) and more recently, plastic sequins, have almost completely supplanted coil-formed spangles.
The name ‘sequin’ entered English as part of the fashion for adopting French fashion works (such as fichu for neckerchief, and corset for stays) in the first half of the 19th century, just as punched disks began to replace coiled disks in popularity.
And what about paillettes? Generally paillettes are larger sequins, and are always flat (where sequins today can be faceted), though this, like sequins and spangles, isn’t a universal usage: sometimes paillette is uses as a straight synonym with sequin.
After Tutankhamun – a description of the sequins in his tomb