Velvet – isn’t it just the height of glamour? Always chic but especially on-trend this winter, with Prada’s luxe midnight velvet hiking boots, Gucci’s gorgeous teal velvet bag and Demna Gvasalia’s strapless gowns for Balenciaga.
Why do we love it so? Its extreme softness and delicacy has made it a luxury down the centuries. Elizabeth I actually made it illegal for any subject below the rank of knight to wear velvet, so concerned was she about devaluing its currency as a mark of nobility.
She need not have worried: velvet has maintained it luxury edge down the centuries. When Charles Worth, the man widely credited with creating the first haute couture fashion house, opened his design salon in 1858, he quickly became known for lavish fabrics and embellishment. This richly beaded velvet jacket from Worth even draws clear inspiration from Tudor style with its structure and puffed sleeves.
Velvet seems to have originated in Baghdad in the 9th century. It reached Europe in the middle ages through Venice, the main thoroughfare for the spice route between Asia and Europe. The city has maintained a close association with velvet through the ages, culminating in Mario Fortuny’s exquisite devoré and printed velvet cloaks, coats and tunics, produced in the city in the early twentieth century, and recently celebrated by A S Byatt’s excellent book, Peacock and Vine. Fortuny was an inventor and an artist – fashion was only one of his talents which also extended to lighting and theatre set design. To this day, no one has managed to discover the process he invented (and patented in 1909) to create his signature creased and crushed silk “Delphos” dresses. Lucky ladies buying the dresses received them rolled and wound in boxes.
Velvet can be made from cotton and linen – typically heavier textiles – as well as in lighter silk or silk/rayon mixes. The fabric lends itself to a range of textural effects, from devoré, in which the velvet is burnt with acid to create a pattern, to crushed velvet (see above). It can also be woven in combinations of colours to make it appear iridescent.
Since the start of the twentieth century velvet has featured strongly in every decade’s fashion. In the Jazz Age of the 1920s flappers wore lustrous embroidered velvet opera coats, referenced by John Galliano in his 1998 haute couture collection for Christian Dior.
Art deco of the 1930s brought a more minimalist feel in which colour and design were pared back to bring out the beauty of luxury fabrics themselves, as seen below in a panne black velvet necktie trimmed with ermine.
The 1940s and 50s saw the return of colour and pattern, especially in hats as velvet was used for percher hats and half-hats. The shimmer of the fabric highlights and flatters skin tone (see above).
The greatest couturiers of those decades, Christian Dior and Cristobal Balenciaga, also used velvet frequently in their collections. Dior’s H-line collection (Autumn-Winter 1954-55) was inspired by tudor court dress, while Balenciaga manipulated green velvet into a pattern mimicking astrakhan fur for this opera coat.
The 1960s saw the rise of perhaps one of the greatest designers to use velvet in his collections: Yves Saint Laurent. Who can forget his black velvet flamenco hat from the iconic portrait of Lou Lou de la Falaise by Steven Meisel? Black velvet was a staple ingredient of his evening dresses and featured strongly in some of his most famous collections – as bodices in the “Russian” collection of 1976 and as knickerbockers in the “Chinese” collection of the following year.
Also published on Medium.