This soft, luxurious fabric has a fascinating history; and, if there were an endangered list for fabrics, the velvet of decades past would be near the top.
Historians have tried to unravel its tangled tale of origin and propagation to America, but the exact time, inventor, and means of escalation remain a mystery. The plush fabric is believed to have originated in Kashmir, India, around the 14th century. Although velvet can be made from cotton, wool and other sources, silk was the method of choice used for this most coveted fabric, for which the Chinese developed silkworm farms.It is believed to have been one of the items traded by Marco Polo along the legendary Silk Road that stretched from the Far East to the Mediterranean. The largest production of velvet, which required a special loom process, is thought to have been claimed by Italy, which supplied Europe for centuries. It was so adored by kings and queens that it became known as the “royal cloth.” Eventually, it made its way to America where it was sought by artisans of all trades for use in apparel, accessories and a wide array of decorations. It also was adopted by upscale theaters throughout the United States for use in costumes, decorations and theater curtains.
Designers of theaters lavished the structures with velvet for stage plays and also during the era of the “silver screen.” Buildings were adorned with gold and velvet to assure that theater-goers would truly have an elegant evening.
Attending the theater was a gala affair, as formal attire was respected. Men dressed in tuxedos and women arrived in beautiful gowns, wearing shoulder-length gloves and their finest, dazzling jewels. The atmosphere they would enjoy was one of elegance and opulence beyond compare. The lobbies of the grand theaters were filled with ornate hand-carved gilded decorations, huge gold-framed mirrors, and beautiful swirling staircases, which led to curved balconies. They were truly a wondrous sight to behold with chandeliers dripping with crystals, lofty decorated ceilings and marble countertops, even found in the restrooms, which always had an attendant.
Plush, red carpet ushered the way through the tall decorated doors into the lavish auditorium where rows of comfortable folding chairs upholstered in velvet, each with a carved armrest, awaited their guests. As the magical moment arrived, lights dimmed the velvet-clad walls, and darkness fell upon the audience. Heavy, flowing velvet curtains, dimly lit, were parted, revealing the silver screen, now the centerpiece of attention.
Gone are the days of watching a movie in elegance and experiencing the era of rich, royal velvet, except for a few remnants of yesteryear that still grace the remaining grand old theaters. If the opportunity comes your way, take the time to visit one. Experience a glimpse of a bygone era, and perhaps some of the mystique of velvet.
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