The Lure of Timeless Taffeta

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!

Robe à la Française - Date: 1760–70 - Pink taffeta gown with shawl and bustle - Public Domain

2 – The Persian word we use for "taffeta" تافته means “twisted woven”–originally made of silk.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…

The Sēnmurw Silk (Woven silk), 7th century to 8th century (made). Patterned silk fragment with large sēnmurw in roundel, Iran or Central Asia, 8th century. via Pinterest

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…

The Shroud of Charlemagne, a polychrome Byzantine silk with a pattern showing a quadriga, 9th century. Paris, musée national du Moyen Âge. Public Domain.

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.

The Rainbow Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I (Unknown artist, c. 1600–1602; oil on canvas, 127x99.1 cm; in the collection of the Marquess of Salisbury, Hatfield House, Hatfield, Hertfordshire) - Public Domain

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…

La marquise de Pompadour par François Boucher (1ère moitié 18e siècle) Paris, Musée du Louvre - Public Domain
A woman with lots of hair in shimmering taffeta.

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.

This dude was named Scroop. For real. Man in a powdered wig in a gold frame. Public Domain.

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.

Peter the Great wearing the insignia of the Order of St. Andrew and a moire ribbon sash - Public Domain

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.

Red Dress - 1837, silk - Metropolitan Museum of Art - Public Domain

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.

Met Museum - Afternoon Dress: American, 1845 - copper taffeta with a dark iridescence. Public Domain.

12 – And that's taffeta! — SOURCES!
https://www.contrado.co.uk/blog/taffeta-origins-benefits-made/
http://www.gutenberg.org/files/24077/24077-8.txt
https://blog.plushaddict.co.uk/2018/07/05/what-is-taffeta-fabric-a-fabric-guide/
https://thedreamstress.com/2012/11/terminology-what-is-scroop/
https://blog.fr-one.com/en/2016/08/the-silk-warp-printing-technique
https://thedreamstress.com/2013/07/terminology-what-are-ikat-abr-and-chine/
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smuggling_of_silkworm_eggs_into_the_Byzantine_Empire
https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/the-history-of-the-word-tabby
http://www.weavinglibrary.org/2012/03/taffetas.html

https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collectionl

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.

Originally tweeted by Natania Barron (@NataniaBarron) on January 27, 2021.