A few months into 2016, it's evident that we are in the midst of a major sequin revival in both fashion and pop music. Affixed to pants, gowns, and leotards, sequins are a current symbol of power, the brightly sparkling counterpart to a louder battle cry. Sequins have always been an ideal choice for anyone willing to command attention; they couldn’t be more appropriate for a pop landscape rich in attention-seeking.
And we have Britney Spears to thank for bringing us this gift.
Of course, Britney's reign comes in the wake of a centuries-long moment for sequins as a symbol of the social and economic elite. After making their debut as early as 1341 B.C. (King Tut’s tomb revealed gold discs sewn onto his garments), sequins maintained a place in high society and among royalty until the 20th century, when the era of mass production helped them become a cultural mainstay. Sequins appeared on the costumes of Vegas showgirls and dancers during the 1940s and 1950s. They showed up in the 1960s on the matching costumes worn by Diana Ross and The Supremes. The ’70s saw Donna Summer and other disco stars use them to embody a luxe cultural climate. And in 1983, Michael Jackson wore his mother’s sequined jacket (and his famous rhinestone glove, thank you very much) for his performance on Motown 25.
Through these decades, sequins were the aesthetic equivalent of “I dare you not to look at me.” Sequins proved that more is more, especially when talking about tricks of the light. They were the incandescent uniform of game changers.
But then the early ’90s happened, and OTT ’80s-era vibes gave way to neutral tones, understatement, and grunge. Suddenly, sequins felt outdated, sensationalist, and reminiscent of the eras the decade was musically reacting against; they didn’t fit with the modesty and vintage looks dictating the early to mid 1990s. Arguably, sequins were always rooted in the excess nature of the past – which is how they became our future, ushered in by the late ’90s’s burgeoning pop princess.
Britney Spears's official debut, 1998's “...Baby One More Time,” delivered a schoolgirl outfit and a whole lot of controversy. She followed it with 1999’s “(You Drive Me) Crazy,” which also appeared in a Melissa Joan Hart/Adrian Grenier rom-com called Drive Me Crazy; the video for the song put the singer in a shiny, metallic tank top that evoked the sparkling glam of pre-Carter Administration America. From there, Britney built her sequined empire. She performed at the 2000 MTV Video Music Awards in a nude sequined two-piece, marking her ascent to adulthood. The next year, she upped the ante in another sequin-embellished two-piece, performing with a live snake (who was sadly not wearing a sequined two-piece, or even a tiny hat). Attempting her 2007 comeback at the same awards show, she channeled her past self in another sequined ensemble; by the 2013 release of “Work Bitch,” on whose cover she wore a sequined onesie alongside feathers and a look of determination, she was owning the look. At nearly every live performance between 1999 and the present day, Britney has made sequins her signature, evoking the glamour of pop’s former dynasties while simultaneously laying the groundwork for today.
Sequins currently dictate the pieces worn by 2016 music royalty: Beyoncé, Selena Gomez, Adele, Taylor Swift, Meghan Trainor, Kesha, and J.Lo have all performed in sequins over the past year, have walked the red carpet in sequins over the past year, and have even kissed Charlie Puth in sequins over the past year (never forget the AMAs). And while doing so, they’ve all – like Britney – unapologetically asserted themselves as front and center of their own careers. Through sequins, they defend their right to show off or be glamorous or even play dress-up. Their lives, their rules. No one’s apologizing for commanding attention.
That mantra has trickled down to the rest of us, too. Last year, collections by Rodarte, Jenny Packham, Sonia Rykiel, Vetements, and Saint Laurent (to name a few) established S/S 2016 as a season rich in sequins, helping to make the trend accessible to any person — pop star or not — who’s into feeling fancy. (Or even regal: When Tilda Swinton showed up to Cannes in 2013 in a gold sequined pantsuit by Haider Ackermann, few of us could yell “queen” loud enough — especially after realizing sequins aren’t limited to Vegas-style performance art.)
And though we’re still seeing sequins worn in ways that do subscribe to a classic showbiz-type of aesthetic (sequined onesies being an example), the ease with which sequins are being adapted to events and to music and to personalities tells us they’re a trend that can bend to the command of who’s wearing them, instead of vice versa. On Britney, they’ve symbolized success, failure, and comeback. On Beyoncé, they’re a battle cry. On J.Lo, they’re an accessory to her new Las Vegas lifestyle. And for the rest of us normals, we can wear them with jeans. Just make sure you say a silent, sparkly thanks to Britney when you do.