past & present

past & present: history of curtains

by Amy Azzarito

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.

Image above: From Sneak Peek: Stewart Russell of Spacecraft (see more window treatments in peeks!)

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.

Image above: This curtain was created out of linen remnants of fog linen products. From Sneak Peek: Yumiko of Fog Linen Work

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: At John & Vivian’s Atlanta home, they took off the closet doors and had bright, sturdy drapes made by Drape 98 Express. From Sneak Peek: John & Vivian of Square Feet Studio

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: Jen from Cabin 7 usedJohn Robshaw panel, found at a sample sale, for her bedroom curtain (she also used it as the tablecloth for the cupcakes at her wedding).

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.

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  • Great post! I also have considered curtains an afterthought for so long but now I’m beginning to see how much they can add to a room.

  • Perfect timing! I’m currently researching options for the eight windows in my new livingroom–this provides fantastic inspiration!

  • Great post! It’s so hard to find pictures of curtains for inspiration – they seem to be avoided in most interior shoots of houses but when you live in a cold part of the world they are essential!!

  • Has Stewart Russell identified where he got those curtains (mostly whote with grey graphic design)? LOVE those and they are just what I have had in my mind’s eye but haven’t been able to find anything to meet the image!

  • Curtains make light so soft and pretty. I love them in all my rooms. My cheap and easy favorites are IKEA’s Lenda which are only $15 a pair and have a nice weight to them. They come in lovely neutral shades and are extra long.

  • What can do you when you want the natural light but need privacy? Our only windows in our appartment are on the shared walkway that our neighbors all share. Everyone can (and does) look right into our living room from the walkway. Right now we have huge ugly blinds that I just hate and would love to put in some curtains but I don’t know how to do it without either blocking all the light or having sheer curtains that everyone can see through.

  • Megan: Us too! But it’s on both sides of our house! I can never decide if I want to scream or laugh/ love it when our neighbours stop to chat to us through the window while we’re washing dishes or watching tv! We have some lightweight cotton/ linen blend curtains from Ikea that definitely screen, but still allow a fair bit of light through. I’m stuck on what to do in the kitchen, where we have sash windows that we frequently open and an ugly, ugly vinyl roller blind.

  • What a curtain-y day it’s been for me! First I spent the whole afternoon hanging curtains around the house, and then hours afterwards browsing through the blinds collection at the hardware store, and come home to find this post! Aside from paint and wallpaper, nothing has the transformative power of window treatments, so I certainly enjoyed reading this. Thank you for spending the time to write this post!

  • My favorite subject ! I’ve been making custom window coverings for over 20 years and they have changed quite a bit in that short time. My favorites are the ones that combine beauty and function.

  • I would love to see more curtain images featuring un-painted wood trim. So many windows have painted white trim, it’s hard to picture what these drapes would look like with real wood showing underneath

  • It’s amazing how colorful (literally!) a history of something such trivial as curtains may be. Beautiful pictures, great post!

  • As a fabricator of draperies, etc. – I am obviously biased towards them! That being said I don’t think there is anything more transformative in a room than drapes! Beautiful pictures and very inspirational.

  • This was such an interesting post! I love this series and the curtains edition did not disappoint. I, too, am always dismissive of window treatments, but I may have to change that now that I am so informed on them.

  • I agree with Liz…the completely change the look, feel & size perception of a space. I am always fascinated how drapery can transform a room!

  • Not surprising that some of your examples are from England. Curtains are still considered essential by most Brits. You still have a lot if throwbacks to the Victorian era with swags, ties, trimmings etc. We’ve gone for lightweight white toile printed with white plant patterns – just could never leave the window bare. It just seems wrong! Blinds are so cold.

  • This is an incredible post–so much history is contained in the curtain! It’s interesting how the object has progressed from being so utilitarian (for heat) to being the subject of how-to books and the occasional debate.

  • I love this post. It’s so beautiful. I wish you wrote this earlier- back when I took my window treatment class. Regardless, it’s lovely and I loved the class. Windows are a whole art on their own. Happy designing, Izabela

  • @Megan I have the same issue… but recently saw an idea to sew together different bands of fabric for the different parts of your window…. sheer at the top to let the light in, more opaque at the bottom to shield you from prying eyes, and heavy below the frame to keep the curtains hanging beautifully. I’ve already got my top layer, only two to go ;-)

    PS. Gorgeous, varied photos, thank you DesignSponge!

  • What an excellent post – very close to a webinar I just presented for the Custom Home Furnishing Academy in Charlotte, NC.
    If you are feeling “curtain” challenged then please visit wcaa.org and look for a professional who can help you in your area. We have tools to help you visualize the dramatic difference a window treatment can have in your home.

  • A really informative article and so interesting. I love the effectiveness of the sheer made from linen remnants, such a clever idea and a beautiful design… one to remember!

  • I loved your write up about curtains, I have learned quite a bit from this one post, its amazing how the design of curtains has changed over the years, just like anything though really. Thanks for this post, I am going to link to it from my website, its too good to miss!

  • It’s interesting to me that curtains were made for warmth instead of privacy! It never occurred to me that the fires they had wouldn’t be enough to keep the rooms warm. We’ve come a long way from that, now we have electric heating and insulation!