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V&A/RCA History of Design (MA)

Rosie Wright

Rosie Wright is a design historian and textile designer with research focusses on nineteenth and twentieth century textiles, costume, and dress. She graduated from Chelsea College of Art (UAL) in 2021 with a degree in Textile Design, specialising in contemporary mixed-media embroidery. During this time she was selected to exhibit her work at the 3Space building in Brixton and sold embroidery samples and design IP to prominent French embroidery atelier at the Premiere Vision Paris Fashion and Textiles Fair. After working in bridal embroidery and gaining experience in some of London’s leading ateliers, Rosie identified many social and environmental issues within the industry. She was led to the discipline of design history following work within restoration and realised a passion for material culture and stories presented by object-based research.  

Image: Zoom of petal skirt layering Dior 'Junon Dress' A/W 1949. Photographed in British Vogue (September 1949).

Close Up of Ashish's 'Rainbow Dress' 2017. A sequinned interpretation of the Pride Flag

Rosie’s previous essays had focussed on couture designers, cultural appropriation in luxury fashion and presentations of femininity in the twentieth century. This year, Rosie has shifted attention to the work and lives of makers who are often invisible behind the names of designers as well as research concentrating on the materials used. Developments in material manufacture and technology is a prominent theme in Rosie’s work as well as the narratives around culture and societies that these material innovations can represent. 

Image: Close Up of Ashish's 'Rainbow Dress' 2017. A sequinned interpretation of the Pride Flag.

Contemporary sequins are a big contributor to plastic pollution through the micro plastic crisis. An easy solution to this: get rid of them. Society could move forward without ornamentation, excess or any object that does not serve to be purely functional – but would we want to? I have explored the need to find a sustainable alternative due to the cultural significance of sequins - eradicating them completely is not the answer. My dissertation traces material changes from 1770 to now, from metal to gelatine to celluloid to plastic, presenting the paramount characteristics needed to make up the phenomenon of the sequin and identifying the point in which they became an environmental problem. Materials were tweaked and advanced to find its lightest, sparkliest and most durable form and once these features were refined and improved upon, the ability to produce the sequin from cheap materials and processes became an accessible way for people to add sparkle to garments. 

The attraction to sparkle is innate, stemming from the evolutionary need to source water, to find a mate and to nonverbally stand out. The accessibility of cheap sequins emulating expensive materials such as mother-of-pearl, diamonds and rhinestones, brought feelings of luxury to an affordable mass-market. This allowed more people to experience the wonder of adorning oneself in sparkle. Designers have since exploited the knowledge that sparkle sells; the PVC sequin enabled higher volumes of production which the fashion industry has since gotten used to. With the detrimental effects that plastic sequins have on the environment, it is a critical time in the next stages of sequin manufacture and consumption. 

This dissertation laid out the necessary changes needed in the material choices, waste production and aftercare and disposal of sequins. Interviewing some of the leading pace-setters in the eco-sequin industry in France and the UK allowed me to understand their thought processes and access the minds of people who are truly passionate about creating change through combining science, art and design. 

The recurring theme emerging from this research has been nature. Nature is the model for sequin application in attempts to emulate natural beauty, fulfil natural desire and is the answer to solving the problems created by moving away from nature as a resource. There is not yet a definitive solution to the sequin problem, but this dissertation has collected and presented a multitude of exciting system changes currently in development with the hopes that once perfected, these circular and regenerative processes can be used in widespread manufacture. I hope this research has contributed to the magnitude of the topic of sparkle and provided evidence that sequins are not frivolous but hold emotional and optical importance. 

This project allowed me to experiment with making sequins alongside researching their history. I experimented with 3D printing in biofilament to remove waste from the sequin punching process and made sequin samples in CQ studio’s bio embellishment workshop using food waste and excess chemical dyes. Being able to combine practice and research has allowed me to highlight the significance of craft and demonstrate the importance of preserving artisanal skills that were once considered essential survival tools.

Close up of ‘Evening Outfit’ by Balenciaga 1967. Ombre pink to pearlescent white, round and curved spike sequins
Balenciaga, 1967, cellulose acetate sequinsClose up of ‘Evening Outfit’ by Balenciaga, embroidered by Maison Lesage in 1967. This demonstrates the range of shapes, colours and sheens produced by cellulose acetate sequins.

In her first essay on the MA, Rosie looked into a ballet tutu made for Russian Ballerina Anna Pavlova in 1924. Through object lead research and speaking with dance and costume historians she was able to identify the maker of this and most of Pavlova’s tutus, Madame Manya – the unsung hero of tutu construction history. This essay mapped the transition of emphasis from the makers to the designers of costumes, with the aim of illuminating the influential, prolific yet invisible maker of this object. The way that balletic historical records have been kept has erased the role of the maker from history. Other than for reasons of beauty and the eye-catching sparkle of the tutu, it is clear that it has been treasured and preserved in the V&A’s archive as an integral development example of British ballet tutu design. 

the underneath of a 1924 tutu, pink/purple layers of tarlatan
Tutu Skirt, designed by Konstantin Korovin, 1924 (V&A Collection) Photograph showing pink/purple layers of tarlatan. The Tutu was made by Madame Manya and worn by Anna Pavlova probably as Dulcinea in Act II scene 2 of 'Don Quixote', Anna Pavlova Company, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 1924.
the top of 1924 tutu with pink and gold tulle layers, gold sequins and gold applique motifs
Tutu Skirt, designed by Konstantin Korovin, 1924 (V&A Collection) Photograph showing the top of 1924 tutu with pink and gold tulle layers, gold sequins and gold applique motifs.