1 – It’s time for TAFFETA! It’s a sturdy, shimmery material that rose to fame in the 1980s with exuberant prom dresses & wedding gowns.
True taffeta is silk & it dates from the 12th century in Persia. This tale eventually comes around to Shakespeare, cats, & colonialism!
2 – The Persian word we use for “taffeta” تافته means “twisted woven”–originally made of silk. The iridescent quality comes from weaving two yarns together—sometimes referred to as shot silk. Its structure is stiff and rustles.
Of course silk is not native to Europe… so…
3 – Silk was stolen by Byzantine emperor Justinian I from China. Outright smuggled. Then allowed among the nobles, so of course there were sumptuary laws of all kinds.
Their economy exploded, but then their empire crashed. Trade reopened…
4 – In the Middle ages, moiré taffetas were all the rage.
In Shakespeare’s day, taffeta was frequently seen among the ladies of the night (and Queen Lizzy) as demonstrated by Falstaff’s “hot wench in flame-colored taffeta” among others.
5 – As silk itself is a whole other can of worms (GET IT) we can, however, connect the rise of taffeta to Madame de Pompadour. In fact, her own “silk warp” or “chiné à la branche” taffeta is known as … yup, Pompadour taffeta.
Which of course stole from…
6 – Pompadour’s designs of course took patterns like ikat, air/ebru & many others, from places like Malaysia, but also has roots all across the world. Abr/ebru is from Turkey.
Another term for it was also “chiné à la branche” hearkening back to stealing silk centuries before.
7 – The term “chiné” is, of course, steeped in colonialist bullshit and just meant anything “East” and was the most common term in the mid-18th century. Along with the chintz craze, well, anything “exotic” sold like hot cakes.
8 – Taffeta’s characteristic rustling sound is known as “froufrou” or “scroop.” This is because of acids added to the material for stiffening.
There was also a dude named Scroop Egerton, 1st Duke of Bridgewater, apparently. It is not known if he rustled when he walked.
9 – Tabby cats are also named for Taffeta, in a rather roundabout way. Tabby silk is quite plain, but in the right light it has very subtle stripes.
Moiré, which is also a visual effect, was super popular in ribbons as well. See Peter the Great below. Fancy, dude.
10 – Some other related terms include Bengaline, Ciré, Faille, Grosgrain, Moiré, Ottoman.
This red dress is my 100% favorite of the bunch, in moiré taffeta, and dates from the 1830s. It was clearly arm day, but it works.
11 – The Victorians went bonkers with taffeta, especially with its shimmery qualities, but by the mid-20th century we got some taffeta synthetics. In the 1980s it was everywhere. Paired with polyester crinolines, it was an itchy time to be fancy.
My junior prom dress included.
12 – And that’s taffeta! — SOURCES!
13 -? AND one more thing. You’ll often find taffeta in corsets, furniture, and even hot air balloons! It’s true. Structurally it’s fascinating.