Design icons: passementerie

From a series written for ABC Radio National’s Blueprint for Living. Passementerie was first aired on 12th November 2022. You can listen to the audio here.


In the world of passementerie, everything is about gilding the lily. The French term is used to describe the fancy trimmings used in clothing and furnishings. In French a passement was a piece of fabric woven with gold or silver thread, or with silk and wool in a spectrum of colours, which was then attached to something else as an embellishment. Lace trimming was included during the Renaissance, too, before it claimed its own classification. Gradually passementerie came to encompass all manner of tassels and fringes, pompoms and bows. Anything, in fact, that would dress up something considered too plain. Most were made by women, which meant passementerie making was never formalised into a guild.

Louis XIV’s sumptuous interiors at Versailles were awash with every kind of passementerie with no edge left unadorned, every curtain fringed as splendidly as were the clothes of the courtiers who surrounded the monarch. And when commoner Napoleon proclaimed himself Emperor a century later, he made sure his military officers wore uniforms heavy with gold braid, the level of lavishness corresponding to rank. It was a clear signal to Britain and Russia, whose own military uniforms were similarly appointed, that the French were every bit as good. The taste for highly ornamented ceremonial uniforms has remained, with enormous fringed epaulettes worn by the French Foreign Legion and multicoloured trimmings worn by the Mongolian Guard, copied from those worn by Genghis Khan’s troops in the C13th. These trimmings give the shimmer of authority to simpler outfits as well, such as the gold braid on a stationmaster’s cap in Italy. Passementerie is defiantly all about clothes making the man.

The idea is common to all cultures, from the intricate beadwork used by indigenous North Americans to the woven wool designs used by the Mapuche in Chile to trim capes. It’s seen in the traditional dress of the Solomon Islands with fringing embellished with beads made from shell or teeth. Always, the more lavish the decoration, the higher the status. In some cultures, such trimmings can be seen as an extension of tattoos and body art, elevating the ordinary to something more meaningful.

Passementerie used in interiors became popular in medieval Europe as fabric drapery for beds and windows become more common. But it was with the popularity of silk imported from the East during the Renaissance that the craft became more extravagant. Its popularity peaked in the nineteenth century with the new middle classes seeking to turn their homes into palaces. No Belle Époque interior was complete without its tassels, and passementerie became almost essential in Victorian Britain, where fringes could disguise the lewdness of a shapely chair leg or give further embellishment to an already fancy mantelpiece. The invention was endless. Just as every surface was smothered in pattern, so too was each element highlighted by trimmings. No wonder that the early modernists stayed clear of it, preferring plywood and pony skin to anything frilled and flounced. And yet when less became a bore and the post-modern movement reared its colourful head then passementerie was the perfect way to trim a sofa in neon-coloured velvet. Listed as an endangered craft in Britain, its traditional home in France has also seen many workshops close as the manufacture of more ordinary tassels and fringes has moved to the factories of China and elsewhere. Passementerie remains core to couture, though, from the gold braids of a Chanel suit to the ragged silk fringing of a Comme des Garçons jacket. It continues to feed our lust for adornment, and a need for our lilies to be gilded. As Wilde said, nothing succeeds like excess.

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