Spangle is a Synonym for Sequin
The name of one of Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks. It’s full of ideas for inventions. My favourite: a machine for making sequins.
It’s a mess of pulleys and levers. A sheet of gold slides onto a table. Punch presses punch. Sequins drop into a basket below. Scrap gold slides out.
Or something like that. It was never actually built. Still, I have to mention it. There are few visionaries in the history of sequins. Leonardo’s one.
Herbert Lieberman. He’s another.
Strippers. Shriners. Sonja Henie.
Mr. Lieberman costumed them all. He sewed sequin headdresses. Ringling Bros. Circus ordered them. For elephants.
Mr. Lieberman manufactured sequins. His former factory in New York turned out six million spangles a day. Spangle is a synonym for sequin.
He pioneered sequin production in the United States. He pioneered the use of plastics in sequins. He invented a new species of sequin. By solving a problem that plagued plastic sequins. The problem: dirt. He invented the washable sequin.
I phone him at his home in Florida. To talk sequins. The history of. The making of.
How he made sequin history.
“My father was an artist,” Mr. Lieberman says. “He made the pennants they bring to college football games. In those days they were handpainted.” The 1910s. His father a teen.
“The company my father worked for started to embroider pennants,” he says. “They taught my father the embroidery trade.” Mr. Lieberman, Sr. struck out on his own. As the Algy Trimming Company. He did contract work. Embroidering fine ladies’ wear.
“Then they found King Tut’s tomb.” Tutmania took America. Fashion designers designed sandals with Isis buckles. A “Luxor” gown in Egyptian colours. Gold and black. A New York City store advertised an Egyptian winter coat with “aristocratic” collar. The collar was squirrel.
Embroidery business boomed. Algy embroidered dresses with Egyptian motifs. Sphinxes. Scarabs. Hieroglyphics were big. It didn’t matter what they meant. “My father did well,” Mr. Lieberman says. “We always do well on fads. Who’s that woman that’s been married ten times? She played that queen? Elizabeth Taylor?”
He laughs. “We sold more Cleopatra costumes,” he says.
King Tut wore sequins.
At least his mummy did. “When they found King Tut’s tomb,” Mr. Lieberman says, “everything was gold.”
Gold sequins tucked between Tut’s bandages. In the antechamber of the tomb lay a shirt. Shimmering with sequins. So Tut could dress well in the afterworld.
“Ornate gold rolled thin and cut out and hung on,” he says. Egyptians glazed the gold. To stop scratches and chips. “Those were the first sequins.”
The Roma migrated to Europe in the Middle Ages.
Dark hair. Dark eyes. The Roma hailed from India. Europeans mistook them for Egyptians. Called them Gypsies.
Gypsies wore sequins. On belts. On blouses. “Gypsy coins,” Mr. Lieberman says. “They came to be known as Gypsy coins. And it was real gold, authentic gold.”
Europeans hated Gypsies. Loved Gypsy coins. King Charles VI of France hired a gold beater. To beat sequins. A French sumptuary law of 1294 declared that only royal princes could wear spangled embroidery.
Almanach des fabricans travaillant au matieres, d’or, argent, et autre metaux.
A directory published in Paris in 1810. It included a list of working goldsmiths. Almost a thousand. Among the smiths: “Manufacturers of spangles.”
Their days were numbered. Napoleon and his army had just crawled back from Egypt. He’d tried to colonize it. Failed. His troops were weak. He’d fed them a new food supplement.
Gelatin comes from carcasses. Boil cows. Horses. Old shoes work, too. Jelly rises up. Gelatin. Napoleon hoped it would take care of his army’s dietary needs. He was wrong. It’s pure protein. No vitamins. It had other uses.
“The first form of plastic was gelatin,” Mr. Lieberman says. France used gelatin in its paper money. Photographers used to develop photos on silver plates. Gelatin plates coated in silver worked just as well, they found.
And dress designers. They found that gelatin could be rolled into sheets, punch pressed, electroplated.
“During the Great Depression,” says Mr. Lieberman, “people were honest.”
A customer owed Algy a debt of one hundred and seventy five dollars. The customer had no cash. He had something else. Mr. Lieberman, Sr. got paid in sequins.
“It took two taxis to transport them,” Mr. Lieberman says.
The sequins were gelatin. Made in Austria. Austria, Czechoslovakia—these were the capitals of sequin production. “And the colours,” he says. “Vivid.” The dye had lead.
“Gelatin melted if it got too hot,” he says. Forget dry cleaning. Forget ironing. “Someone would leave a garment close to the heating stove, it would melt.” Moisture was no better. “Someone got caught in a rainstorm, it would melt.”
Washing machines liquefied sequins. “The early sequins you couldn’t do anything with,” he says. “They just looked beautiful. You could only sponge the garment a little to get the perspiration odour out.”
Algy sequined nighclub dancers. Mardi Gras paraders. Sonja Henie wore Algy in her Hollywood Ice Revue. The first touring figure skating show. The first skater to sport sequins.
“My father taught himself how to stitch sequins,” Mr. Lieberman says. “And he was quite successful. If people needed sequins they looked to him to get it.”
Then sequins vanished. “All the European supplies dried up in World War Two,” Mr. Lieberman says. He himself served overseas. In Italy. A volunteer. His father persevered. “He had to learn how to manufacture sequins himself.”
Algy tried a new plastic. “Eastman Kodak was producing acetate for their film stock,” he says. “Clear plastic. They plated it on one side with real silver.” Kodak customized acetate for Algy. “They coated the silver with a clear ink of the colour we desired. They coloured the other side as well.”
The effect was brilliant. “The light would penetrate through the colour, hit the silver, and reflect back,” he says. “Like you painted a mirror with nail polish.” Brilliant, but brittle. “Acetate will crack like glass. The harder the plastic the nicer the sequin’s going to be.”
When war was over, Mr. Lieberman went to work for his father. “I knew sequins,” he says. “I wanted to find some new products.”
Mr. Lieberman started producing costumes for Broadway shows. It didn’t pan out. “If the show was a success, you got paid,” he says. “If the show was a failure, you didn’t get paid.”
Algy made costumes for Shriners. “We made sequin headdresses, jackets, pants,” he says. Shriners wear fezes. “They were coming in and spending thou—” He stops himself. He doesn’t want to snitch on Shriners.
Mr. Lieberman worked on The Jackie Gleason Show. He made costumes for Gleason’s costars, the June Taylor Dancers. “There were twelve or sixteen dancers,” he says, “and we had to produce a set of costumes for them each week.”
“Here it is Friday,” Mr. Lieberman says, “and the show is Saturday night, and Jackie Gleason came up to the establishment. ‘How do you expect the girls to dance in these?” he says. “They’ll all break their necks, they’re going to catch their heels!’
“I went and got him a big pair of shears,” Mr. Lieberman continues. “All the girls stood there and he cut twelve inches off of those skirts.” Mr. Lieberman laughs. He’s 79 years old. “I’m having a blast remembering.”
“Purdue University came out with their Golden Girl,” Mr. Lieberman says. In 1954. The Golden Girl was a baton-twirler featured at football games.
“She wore the first all-over sequin uniform.” Made by Algy. The company had a new name. Algy Dance Costume Company. “Band directors from all over the country started asking, ‘Where did that costume come from?’”
Majorettes and marching bands became major markets. “Some of our products were terribly abused,” he says. “They [customers] will go to the parade, and sit on the ground, or sit on a hard wooden bleacher bench. They can get them extremely dirty.”
Plastic sequins were hardier than gelatin sequins. Still, they could melt in sun. And tarnish in rain. “We had to get around that eventually,” he says. “It took many, many years. We experimented with different methods. What we came up with was a sandwich.”
Mylar’s the bread. Dupont developed Mylar during the war. To replace nylon in women’s hose. “It’s the plastic sequin with a piece of very thin, clear mylar around it,” Mr. Lieberman says. “The colouring is actually inside. Protected.” It’ll survive a washing machine. Set on Gentle. And Cold. “I warn mothers, ‘Don’t put it in a dryer,’” he says. “Or we’ll have very disappointed kids.”
In 1970 Mr. Lieberman sold the sequin factory. He moved Algy to Florida. It became a catalogue company. “We narrowed our scope,” he says. “The costume world is so vast. We concentrated on kiddie recital costumes. The other area where we concentrated was in the marching bands for high schools and colleges.”
“Drum corps is very big in Canada,” Susan Lieberman-Gordon tells me. Mr. Lieberman’s daughter. She and her sister Laurie Godbout run Algy. She’s joined the conversation. “You have two very competitive drum corps up there. And we have dance school clients in Canada, but no high school squads.”
“Weather’s our biggest enemy in Canada,” Mr. Lieberman says. He retired in 1999. He still comes around the office. “I get no greater joy than seeing these kids come pick up their costumes,” he says. “The minute a little girl puts on her fairy costume, she’s a fairy. I get the best photos and letters.”
Sequins aren’t made with silver anymore. “Silver tarnished,” he says. “As the air got in around the edges. Like your mirror turns black around the edges. Also the cost of silver was getting prohibitive.” New sequins come coated in aluminum. “The truth of the matter is that most sequins today aren’t as brilliant.”
“Today the sequins are made out of vinyl plastic,” he says. “It’s easier to work with. It’s not brittle. The plating adheres to it better because it’s a softer surface.”
“Unfortunately, it will curl up as it gets older,” he says. “Vinyl has a memory.”