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A band of colorful ribbon, a silken tassel, a row of buttons, a flash of sequins—trimmings can add texture, color, drama, and visual interest to clothing and accessories.

Prior to the Industrial Revolution, garment trimmings were generally available only to the elite, who flaunted costly dress accents such as gemstones, fine lace, or egret plumes to signify their high social status. In the early 2000s, trimmings of all kinds are manufactured worldwide, from South America to Southeast Asia, and are available to all. They constitute a substantial portion of the total international fabric industry's sales, and are used in quantity by makers of evening wear, bridal wear, childrenswear, youth fashions, uniforms, costumes, and millinery.

It's All in the Details

Fabric trimmings such as lace, braid, cord, piping, embroidery trim, and fringe are most frequently used literally to "trim" a garment by attaching them along the edge of the sleeves, hem, collar, or bodice. Trimmings in this category can be made from natural fibers such as cotton, linen, silk, wool, rayon, or raffia, as well as from polyester, nylon, and other manufactured fibers.

Lace is a delicate openwork fabric made of yarn or thread in a weblike pattern. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the great demand for handmade linen and silk lace for apparel as well as domestic and church use gave rise to major lace-making centers in Antwerp, Brussels, Chantilly, Valenciennes, Venice, and elsewhere. A machine for making lace came into wide use by the 1840s, and the production of most lace today is done by machine, with modern varieties like eyelet lace and stretch lace available.

Braid, cord, and piping can be made from solid colored or metallic thread, or from groups of different-colored threads braided or twined together. They are a salient trimming on military, parade, and police uniforms, especially for dress occasions. Embroidery trim (as distinguished from embroidery done directly on a garment) is sold in bands of machine-embroidered floral or geometric motifs, popular for childrenswear. Another form of embroidery trim is a ribbon-banded style called a "jacquard," a notable detail on Tyrolean clothing. Fringe, which is also sold in bands, is a favorite trim on cowboy-style Western wear and garments affecting a rustic look.

Glitter and Glamour

Spangles, sequins, and rhinestones are often used to trim evening wear and theatrical or holiday costumes. Spangles and sequins—factory-made, small, shiny metal or plastic disks (or other shapes)—can be sewn over the entire surface of a garment, or added to limited areas to add sparkle and color. The show-stopping gowns by designer Bob Mackie (1940–), who has been called the "sultan of sequins," stand out for their exuberant surface application of sequins, rhinestones, and other glittering elements.

The imitation gemstones called rhinestones are made of glass, paste, gem quartz, or crystal that has been cut and polished to provide high reflectiveness. Rhinestones can be attached to a garment by sewing or ironing on individual stones, or stitching on pre-made bands or patches. The Austrian company Swarovski is especially noted for its lustrous, faceted lead-crystal rhinestones in bold colors.

The Milliner's Art

Ribbons and bows are perhaps the most common hat trimmings, though they can be used to trim clothing as well. Contemporary ribbon styles are available in grosgrain, satin, silk, velvet, beaded, wire-edged, floral, pleated, polka dots, stripes, and more.

Individual items that lend themselves to hat trimming include feathers, artificial flowers, pom-poms, and tassels. In nineteenth- and early twentieth-century England and America, a cottage industry of hat trimmers kept workers busy, since no self-respecting woman would appear in public without an artfully trimmed hat. Indeed, some hat styles would not be complete without their particular trim: the pom-pom on the tam-o'-shanter, or the tassel on the fez, for example.

The decorative use of bird feathers was practiced in Pre-Columbian America and Polynesia, as seen in elaborate feather work headdresses and capes from Mexico, Hawaii, and New Zealand. In eighteenth-century Europe, tall plumed headdresses called "aigrettes" enjoyed a vogue among society women. In the twenty-first century, pheasant, turkey, rooster, and ostrich feathers are often used in millinery design, though concerns about the exploitation of rare birds have curbed the resale of imported feathers.

Artificial flowers have been a favorite trimming for millinery and haute couture since the nineteenth century. To create fake flowers, manufacturers treat silk, organza, cotton, chiffon, or velvet with a stiffening agent, dry the fabric, die-cut the petals and leaves in a press, and then paint or dye them for final assembly. Of note are the exquisitely lifelike blossoms made for four generations by Guillet of Paris, whose high-end clients include Lanvin, Emanuel Ungaro, and Christian Lacroix.

Liberace: Trimmed to the Nines

For his final performance at Radio City Music Hall in 1986, the famed showman Liberace (1919–1987) appeared in a series of elaborate ensembles completely encrusted with pearls, sequins, bugle beads, rhinestones, and ostrich feathers.

Buttons and Beads

Since antiquity, buttons have been made from a variety of materials including bone, metal, stone, wood, and shell. Besides being utilitarian fasteners, buttons can be sewn to a garment as a pure surface ornament. At the annual Pearly Kings and Queens harvest festival in London, buttons-as-trimmings take the spotlight as "royal" revelers sport elaborate costumes covered from head to toe with mother-of-pearl buttons.

Beads of clay, stone, and glass have a long history, used as a clothing or hair decoration in diverse cultures for centuries, from the Copts in Egypt, to the Benin and Yoruba tribes in Africa, to the Plains Indians of North America. Hand-beading in the contemporary garment industry is often the domain of couture houses, where lavish beaded creations by designers such as John Galliano (1960–) require long hours of careful stitching. Beading is also a major element in bridal wear, especially in the use of white seed pearls to decorate wedding gowns and headpieces. Affordable mass-produced forms of beaded trim include bands, patches, and fringe.

See alsoBeads; Braiding; Buttons; Feathers; Knotting; Lace; Ribbon; Spangles .


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Fleming, John, and Hugh Honour. The Penguin Dictionary of Decorative Arts. London: Viking, 1989.

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Specter, Michael. "The Fantasist: How John Galliano Changed Fashion." The New Yorker 22 September 2003.

Thrush, Elizabeth. "Made in Paris: Flower Child." France Magazine Fall 2003.

Kathleen Paton