Vintage view: The sweeping saga of the curtain

Kya deLongchamps recounts the sweeping saga of the curtain.

Throwing back the history of curtains, it’s fascinating to consider just how their form and function have altered in a few short decades.

Anyone old enough to remember who Adam Ant is, will remember that chill vertical column of air held back behind the curtains in just about any house in the 1970s — new homes included.

Condensation ran from Crittal-style steel window frames producing a puddle on the sill by morning.

Fragile houseplants were moved from the windowsill to save them from the vault of chill and draughts from October to May.

Curtains were lifted onto the window-board to allow the pitiable current of convection to at least have a chance to stay in the room.

I always think of Jane Eyre in the opening passage of Charlotte Bronte’s book of 1847 shivering in fear in that bit of pathetic hiding behind the hefty Victorian curtains.

This simple drape of an exotic material — it may represent a light rug — shows how simply slung curtains were used to cut draughts around doors even in the 19th century as illustrated in ‘Frieriet’ (The Proposal) by Knut Eckwall (Sweden 1880-89).
This simple drape of an exotic material — it may represent a light rug — shows how simply slung curtains were used to cut draughts around doors even in the 19th century as illustrated in ‘Frieriet’ (The Proposal) by Knut Eckwall (Sweden 1880-89).

With the current U value performance (energy efficiency) of double or triple-glazed units — curtains, while still providing useful privacy and a flourish of decoration, are thermally redundant.

Castles and cottages in the middle ages relied on their fires night and day in the colder months.

Passive and stack ventilation like windows, open doors together with some sort of hole in the roof to let the choking smoke out.

Hides, tapestries, any material that could cover the openings at least in part would be set up to keep at least some of the vital warmth in the habitable rooms.

Fabric hangings could be used to partition rooms and hide views — vital to crowded conditions where intergenerational households were living and sleeping closely together.

Taken to the floor, even cheap sackcloth could stop and redirect draughts through windows and internal and external doors across stone and mud floors scattered in straw or rushes.

Stone walls weep when cold.

More affluent families could use hangings on the wall to at least disguise the ingress of the weather and the cloying condensation collecting from the human and animal breath onto the freezing masonry. Early dry-lining if you like.

Posted and full framed beds would be draped in curtains to create a micro-climate for sleepers huddling against the misery of that fireless few hours before morning.

Where a frame wasn’t available, the curtains could be set on rods or ropes strung across the ceiling.

Well known to the Egyptians for thousands of years, curtains as we know them arrived in Western Europe with the increase in the spice and silk trade from the East and the commercial production of window glass during the Renaissance.

Even by the 1600s, curtains were still rude ingredients in the room, flat pieces of material hung or hooked up from an iron rod and pulled to one side before the timber shutters were opened.

In churches of all denominations, heavy fringed, tasselled curtains were used not only for additional comfort in horribly draughty buildings, but for prescribed religious reasons.

This included the katapetasma curtains of the Greek Orthodox on their iconostasis — a highly sacred wall of icons and religious paintings.

These hangings with their vestment-like embroideries added to the thick, ritual mystery.

The French and Italians were among the first to start using heavy flourishes of velvet, damask, sarsnet (silk taffeta) and silk to create generously folding pleats in curtains and bed hangings.

Rippled, pressure-treated moiré was a huge favourite for its iridescent flash and three-dimensional texture.

The use of abundant material in the most important rooms was a mark of wealth, affluence, and social status.

A material called brocatelle which combined the beauty of a facing in silk with a stronger, insulating linen lining was used for beds (daybeds and bedroom beds), windows and to cover doors.

Block printed “indiennes” from Marseille using vegetables dyes and metallic salts first used in India and Persia were applied to calico for decorative light curtaining.

Sweeping to the ground and fastened at the sides of the windows, heavier tog materials must have added some degree of comfort, but compromising the light before night, increased the need for tallow candles — not inexpensive.

By the 1600s, lesser households in Ireland and the British Isles were using Flemish hybrids such as wool and linen damask to create beautifully embroidered and printed curtains inspired by the fabulous pieces of the wealthy.

The advent of popular illustrated newssheets in the 1700s allowed people to peer into the interior design of the royal and aristocratic homes and institutions of Europe from Versailles to the Vatican.

Curtains now only framed and sometimes edited the view from and into a room, but curtains and forms of blinds protected other fragile materials used in soft furnishings and the natural colourings in oriental and French carpets.

Portieres over doors and lambrequins, an early form of stiff pelmet, were introduced by French Huguenots in the 17th century, and two curtains were now favoured by upper classes as they gave a greater symmetry and beauty to the window openings. French rods, allowed the curtains to be “drawn” by cords for the first time and draped behind tie-backs.

Metal weights filled with lead and heavy trimmings held the curtain parts in an attractive position.

Popular Georgian trends like orientalism which could be staged boldly uses the decorative embroidery and printing offered by curtains — again, marking the chatelaine out as a fashionable, cultured being.

The feel of fabrics like sprigged muslin in Grecian lines worn by fashionable ladies worked its way into the lighter, transparent flowing look for room curtains.

A lady might be judged for the depth of the pleats on her pelmet, or the quality of her dress-curtains.

For swags, drapes, colour, contrasting fabrics and sheer design variety, the late 18th century and 19th century offer a fabulous array of window curtain stylings from Ikats, Kashmir and Persian-inspired Paisleys.

These are the types of curtain that became pretty much embedded in classical interior decoration right up to today.

Some features of the curtain design were fixed and purely for show, others for disguise (with the arrival of the sheer) and others integrated thermal protection.

Swags could be wound around the curtain pole to supplement the look of straight curtains operating by a cord.

You could choose from a single or double asymmetrical arrangement to suit the position of the window or its architecture.

Fabrics were twinned to the curtains and upholstery by designers including society influencer and architect Robert Adam (1728–1792) to create a cohesive, elegant look in flirty French printed toile and other fashionable materials.

Blinds appeared to complement the function and decorative possibilities of the curtains.

Curtains may have taken a hit from the crisper lines of the modern blind, but the really old period forms, patterns, cut and decoration remain deeply entrenched in our modern curtain choices.

With interior “maximalism” on the rise — the busy, floor length curtain has not had its final curtain call.

More on this topic

Life in a vacuum: Your guide to choosing vacuum cleaners

Vintage view: How old stone and brick walls can benefit from lime render

'People will die in their own homes', says campaigner for elderly as over 6,000 on waiting list for home support

TD calls for emergeny Dáil debate on plans to slash home help hours

More in this Section

Capturing the castle: Johnstown Castle in County Wexford is well worth checking out

How nature can work wonders for body and soul

Making Cents: Consumer guide to entering PcP car loan contracts

Podcast Corner: An introduction to podcasts

Latest Showbiz

BBC’s Ann Sarnoff appointed chairman and chief executive of Warner Bros

Naomi Campbell to be honoured with Fashion Icon Award

Amanda Holden claims Phillip Schofield ignored ‘olive branch’ coffee invitation

Mindy Kaling ‘listening to music and weeping’ as she turns 40

More From The Irish Examiner