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REFLECT (2015)


  • To throw back light or sound
  • To give back or exhibit as an image or likeness

REFLECT celebrated 2015 as the United Nations "International Year of Light." While the artifacts in this exhibit were not embedded with light-producing technologies, they still act to reflect light to the viewer in a variety of ways. The use of specific fabrics, trims and surface decoration offers fashion designers many opportunities to create reflection. In addition, the garment itself can reflect not only literal light to the viewer; it can also reflect the wearer’s personality, social status, gender, or personal style. This exhibit focused on the literal reflectance properties of clothing and accessories. Selected garments and accessories derive these properties from the fiber and weave structure, through applied surface design, through interwoven reflective yarns and, in the case of accessories, from the material itself.


Throughout history precious metals have been incorporated into clothing, jewelry and textiles as symbols of beauty and meaning. One of the most common forms is the transformation of metal into metal threads. In this process, precious metals such as gold, silver or copper, are manipulated by various means into flat or cylindrical strips and wrapped around yarns of silk, leather, linen, cotton, even paper. These metal threads are then applied to the surface of textiles or incorporated into the textile weave itself.

Gold, silver and copper can be melted together into liquid metal, formed into a bar and repeatedly rolled into thinner and thinner ribbon. These ribbons are then cut into squares and beaten into extremely thin unbroken sheets of metal leaf for gilding. Lastly, finely ground metal flakes can be used to create metal paints for adorning textiles, accessories and the human body. Most commercially available paints of this type, however, contain little to no actual metal. Due to the high costs associated with using purer metals, contemporary metallic adornment often contains little or no actual precious metal. In these newer forms, materials appear to be made of metal, but do not actually contain a high enough percentage of either a metal or a metal compound to be called “metal.” Metallic threads vary in thickness, made of polyester, nickel, aluminum and other alloys and synthetic materials that are often washable and tarnish-resistant.

Click images to learn more. Historical and donor information will appear.

Paper Dress with Metallic Gold Finish
Wool and Faux Leather Vest by Jean Paul Gaultier
Metallic Gold Mesh Necklace
Metallic Tunic and Pants by Molly Parnis (1969) Gift of McCleary Anheuser
Metal Beaded Purse (1920s)
Metallic Silver Evening Gown by Rosemarye (1960s)


Reflective elements may be incorporated directly into a textile or accessory’s structure. Velvet, for example, is woven on a special loom that weaves two thicknesses of the material at the same time. The two pieces are then cut apart to reveal a short, evenly distributed, dense pile that can be both highly reflective or rich in shadow. The weave structure of satin is characterized by multiple weft yarns "floating" over warp yarns, or vice versa, resulting in a highly reflective, fluid surface. Originally made of silk, much contemporary satin is made using cotton (sateen) or synthetic fibers such as rayon or polyester.

Similar structural elements are used in the formation of richly decorative patterned fabrics, including brocades, damasks, and simpler geometric patterns. Designs are created through the use of supplementary, non-structural threads, giving the appearance that the weave is embroidered on the surface. This can produce areas of high luster, as well as areas with raised surface texture that easily reflect light. Yarns and fabric can also be manipulated before or after construction using heat, moisture or various chemical processes to produce reflective, textured surfaces.

Moire Silk and Velvet Walking Dress
Polka Dot Dress
Silk Velvet Evening Gown (1939)
Silk Satin Wedding Dress (1924)
Silk Satin Wedding Dress
Textured Dress and Vest with Rhinestone Buttons (1960s)


Reflective surfaces can be added to a constructed textile or accessory as surface decoration or as a chemically additive process. Rhinestones, whose name originally derives from rock crystals found in the Rhine River in Europe, are used on a wide variety of clothing and accessories. Heat transfer rhinestones are faux rhinestones made of glass or acrylic and are affixed to objects with a glue backing on the flat bottom of the gem. Rhinestones can also be set into pronged metal nail heads which pierce the material using a specific tool.

Metal or metallic paint, chains and grommets also add reflective details to the surface of objects, as can shells, sequins, beads, glitter and foil. Originally made of metal, contemporary sequins are most often made of plastic and formed with multiple facets to increase their reflective qualities.

Additive elements and processes convert synthetic nonwoven plastic polymer vinyl into a reflective compound. More recently, polyester has replaced polypropylene vinyl in many applications but its reflective qualities remain the same. Lastly, natural and synthetic coatings can be applied as liquid and spread across the fabric surface to provide high luster and gloss.

Plastic Sequin Dress (1987)
Denim Jacket and Skirt with Rhinestones, Chains and Metallic Paint by Zandra Rhodes (1980s)
Black Cotton Jacket and Pants with Silver-Plated Grommets
Andean Festival Jacket with Metallic Foil
Vinyl Jacket (1990s)
Spiked Hat, Material Content Unknown