Image above: illustration by Julia Rothman
I have to confess that I’ve never thought much about window treatments in my own space. If I didn’t live on a highly trafficked street, I’d probably do without them all together. I compromise by having minimalist matchstick blinds that are left completely open throughout the day. (And I usually end up doing that dance where you realize that the blinds are totally open, it’s dark and you’re a wee bit on display. Apologies to anyone getting off near my subway stop.) So, I probably wasn’t the best person to tackle the history of curtains. Georgina O’Hara Callan is a fashion writer, devotee of textiles and founder of The Curtain Exchange. She volunteered to give us a little history on the curtain, and I hunted through the sneak peek archives for my favorite examples of window treatments in homes. I ended up so inspired — particularly by the floor-length options — that I just may rethink my curtain apathy. (And if this leaves you itching to make your own, check out Sewing 101: Curtains!) — Amy A.
Hi, I’m Georgina O’Hara Callan! When Design*Sponge allowed me to indulge my passion for curtains by writing a Past & Present piece, I couldn’t have been more pleased. Curtains have a history almost as long as textiles, but there is much hesitation about where and how to hang them. Really, it’s like everything else in the design world; you factor in form, function and style and take it from there. Once you’ve read this piece, you’ll see that there are no rules that haven’t already been broken! I love natural light, and I am drawn to rooms that are light-filled without any gloomy corners. Yet I know many light-lovers fight a battle with the idea of curtains. I think this is because curtains, in the latter part of 20th century, got a bad rap with architects and some designers. But let’s face it — we don’t need Versailles at the window. Curtains today can be as sleek and modern as your furnishings.
Image above: Curtains on the Great Bed of Ware, 1590–1660, from the collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum
Before central heating and air conditioning, people didn’t always get to choose light over warmth. Curtains of one sort or another have been used to define space and create privacy. The first curtains were made from animal hides that were placed over the doorways and affixed by hooks, but hide, being rather stiff, does not drape well. With advancements in textile production, weaving and dyeing, the evolution of household textiles (primarily items designed for warmth, such as curtains, hangings, blankets and bed hangings) marched right along with developments in clothing. Early textiles were linen and flax, first spun in ancient Egypt, followed by wool and later cotton and silk.
CLICK HERE for more curtain history + a look at the best Sneak Peek window treatments!
Image above: 1901 photograph of Castle Rising, built in the 12th century, from the Victoria & Albert Museum
Although little visual documentary evidence exists from the Early and Middle Ages, it would be reasonable to imagine that occupants of early homes, particularly in the relative affluence of castles, used woven textiles to cover doors and windows. These were often tapestries and heavy cloths, anything to keep out the cold, especially if the castle or home was located in England or Northern Europe. If you’ve ever visited a castle, you know that they are often cold, damp places. Most rooms had large fires, but the windows let in drafts even through wooden shutters, so they were draped in heavy fabrics, which in turn excluded light and would have produced dark, smoke-filled rooms. Glass making was perfected in Italy in the 13th century and became a viable option for windows over the following centuries.
Image above: Vittore Carpaccio, The Dream of St. Ursula, 1490–1495 (Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice)
During the Renaissance, buildings that could be recognized as forerunners to the modern home evolved, designed with glass-paned windows (albeit small panes of glass) separated by muntins, not the large expanses of glass we see in contemporary architecture today. Leaded casement windows remained in architectural style for centuries, and it is possible to see these reflected in paintings of the period. While glass let in light, it also permitted the voyeuristic stares of neighbors and strangers, and shutters and fabrics were used to conceal and reveal, but “curtain” design as we think of it today was still centuries away.
Image above: Chinese satin silk with silk embroidery, 1760–1770, from the Victoria & Albert Museum
Although the ancient civilizations of the East in Persia, India and China had long-produced textiles and used them to cover openings and separate rooms, these ideas took many years to translate to European and American homes. Trade with these ancient cultures from the time of the Crusades brought examples of finely woven textiles to Europe, loaded on ships along with spices and other novelties or carried overland along the silk trading routes. Over the centuries, textile production areas in Italy, France, Holland and the UK became well known for silk, linen, cotton and wool inspired by the treasures of the East but adapted for Western tastes.
Image above: Mrs. Patrick Campbell photographed by Frederick Hollyer, 1893, from the Victoria & Albert Museum
The mass-production of textiles is linked to the development of machinery around 1840, which replaced time-consuming handmade items. The same machinery provided ready-made clothing to everyone and changed fashion, which was, prior to that time, reserved only for the very wealthy; everyone else wore homemade items and hand-me-downs. Around 1850, household textiles were available to the emerging middle classes, which sought decorative help and advice from drapers, decorators and architects to marry architectural styles with window coverings. Lace curtains, which became “net” or “sheer” curtains, became staples of every home to maintain privacy as towns and houses grew increasingly dense, with homes being developed closer together in the footprints established by town planners of older cities. For curtain architectural styles and window treatments at this point, the more elaborate and ornate, the better!
Image above: Drawing-room window curtains, 1826, from the New York Public Library’s Digital Gallery
If you look at the elaborate clothing of the late 19th century, you will see that it is mirrored in the fussy and adorned window coverings of the period and the overstuffed, decorated rooms. It is important to remember that synthetic colors were being introduced at the time, and this influenced prevailing decorative styles as well as the fabric colors selected for curtains and draperies.
Image above: Backstage, Alice in Wonderland, Maverick Theatre, Woodstock (1950), from the NYPL Digital Gallery
Two World Wars would profoundly change decorating styles as they shifted social culture. But it was after the Second World War that massive homes were broken up into apartments, and housing subdivisions and new towns were developed. By the 1950s and 1960s, curtains were essential components to most homes and were carefully incorporated into architectural style that sometimes, but not always, reflected interior styles. Many modern homes had simple, plain curtains without elaborate top treatments, similar to the tailored shift dresses of the period and a far cry from the billowy, bedecked and trimmed window fashions of the late 19th century.
Curtains include anything from a wool blanket tacked up over a door to the most elaborate layers of silk and detailed, swagged cornices. In the last decade, greater respect for architectural details has produced a decorative style whereby simple curtain panels — in cotton, linen, silk or any synthetic fabric — adorn each side of the window. Some are functional; others are purely decorative. The higher the curtain is hung, the taller the room will appear. Curtain lining, intended for warmth and light insulation, may be simple or multilayered. They provide a great way to bring color and softness to a space.
Image above: Lace curtains on Anne M. Cramer’s sleeping porch in Minneapolis
Image above: Full-length curtains in the playroom at Sarah Bedford’s home in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. From Sneak Peek: Sarah Bedford and Alan Hill
Image above: Floor-length drapes in Rob Brinson’s loft studio in Atlanta. From Sneak Peek: Rob Brinson & Jill Sharp Brinson
Image above: These velvet drapes in Claire Bingham’s home in Macclesfield, England, were actually found at Ikea. From Sneak Peek: Claire Bingham
Image above: The curtains in Fiona Douglas’ Scotland home are made from cotton muslin edged with a real ikat shipped from Uzbekistan. From Sneak Peek: Fiona Douglas of Bluebellgray
Image above: Love the drapery puddle in Di Overton’s home in northeast England. From Sneak Peek: Di Overton of Ghost Furniture
Image above: These white floor-length drapes are found all through this home in Barcelona. From Sneak Peek: Lisi and Alex
Image above: Simple matchstick blinds in Scarlett’s Santa Cruz home. From Sneak Peek: Scarlett of Saffron and Genevieve
Image above: Bed curtains in Raoul Textile fabric hung on the canopy in this little girl’s room. The roman shades are made out of burlap. From Sneak Peek: Angie Hranosky
Image above: Floor-length sheers from Sneak Peek: Anne McClain of MCMC Fragrances
Image above: Big pattern in Amie Corley’s St. Louis home
Image above: Pretty lace curtains frame the view in Sande, Norway. From Sneak Peek: Gunilla and Eivind Platou
Image above: The curtains in Annette Joseph’s summer home in Tuscany are floor-to-ceiling. From Sneak Peek: Annette Joseph
Image above: Love the plaid curtains paired with the lace bedspread in Sweden. From Sneak Peek: Ulrica Wihlborg
Image above: A curtain as a breezy room divider from Sneak Peek: Sarah of A Beach Cottage
Image above: Light blue toile on the windows adds some color pop against the white walls in Emma and James’ London living room.