Window Treatments 101 – A Quick History

Curtains and blinds are something that each one of us has grown up with and become very commonplace. Growing up the last thing you would pay any attention to would be those pieces of fabric hanging on either side of all the windows. That is mom’s job. That is until the day comes when you have your own space and the windows need to be covered. For some looking at ways of treating a window and selecting curtains could be somewhat of a daunting thought – what patterns, what style, what pole, what this and what that? Fortunately, with the “off the shelf” facilities offered by many homeware stores, you can now purchase somewhat trendy curtains and blinds as readymade.  Nevertheless, the selection is very small and since it has to appeal to a much wider market, function over-rules form. Coming out of the drive to keep the costs as low as possible, there is a serious lack of creativity in terms of pattern and style with these ready-mades.

Together with fabrics, window treatments are among our specialist services. Over the next few weeks, the Décor Diva will touch on various aspects of how to treat your window, fleshing it out so that others may be inspired to take a fresh view of curtains and blinds.

Today in order for us to appreciate curtains and their context in history and without getting into a long history lesson, we could just glance back to catch a glimpse of their origins.

Did you know that the first curtains were referred to as “drapery”? In the homes of the working class, average Joe, these drapes were made with the sole purpose of being functional – the main function was to act as an insulation factor to keep the cold from penetrating the room. Naturally covering the window to block out the light was another function, which has never changed over time. At the top of a thick plain length of cotton fabric a pocket was sewn, into which a thin metal pole was inserted. This pole and drape was attached onto the wall over the window with brackets of a sort. Nothing decorative about these drapes!

Houses that were inhabited by the working class folk were mainly one big room. A communal room if you will – shared by all, in which every household activity was performed – the kitchen, dining and bedroom all thrown into this one space. To partition the bedroom from the dining & kitchen a length of draped fabric on the metal pole was suspended from the ceiling. The first internal wall I guess.

I can remember seeing old western movies which depicted this scene above and wondering how on earth they could live with just a piece of fabric separating the two spaces – for one thing what do you do about that person that snores? Shoving him into the next room ain’t gonna help one bit.

Naturally, in the homes of the more affluent and wealthy, windows were treated for the same functional reasons (keep out that chilly draft) but the decorative elements were included. Fabrics made of outstanding patterns, heavy and elaborate textured fabrics such as velvets and silk were decoratively draped to enhance the window opening and add depth into their rather large rooms.

From the late 16th century through to the early 19th century, the variety of ways in which to decorate a window opening was limited to those who could afford it. The fashionable windows treatments were:

  • Fabric covered hardboard pelmets, trimmed on the bottom edge with braids and fringes.
  • “Swags and Tails”. The fabric of the “swag” being draped over the top of the opening on a board mounted to the wall, pulled in a rouched fashion. On either side, it was finished with a tailored “tail” in same or contrasting fabric.
  • The “Austrian” blind, which was a width of fabric, with eyelets and string sewn up the back, that when pulled up caused the fabric to “balloon”.
  • The Roman Blind – still very popular today.
  • Symmetrical curtains made their debut often with a “gathered valance” to the top of the window opening.  This valance is a separate and very small gathered curtain, invariably used to “hide” the curtain rail.

Time for a speedy advance into the 20th century. The middle class had emerged making it possible for the working class to afford to decorate their windows as well. Down the line, the Industrial Revolution facilitated the evolution of manufacture for the mass market. Beautiful fabrics were no longer only affordable by the wealthy. Your working class now had the fabrics with which to adopt and adapt those same window treatments of the wealthy. In the 1950’s the window treatments saw no innovations, what with the use of straight, covered pelmets and simple rails being commonplace.

 By the time the 80’s hit us, there was a revival of all those elaborate window treatments, but with a distinct “county flavour” to it. It was the handwriting of designers such as Laura Ashley in the UK and Europe, with our own – wait for it – Biggie Best here in South Africa.

Wherever you looked the homes of middle class folk had windows with dust collecting Austrian blinds, gathered valances and fabric-covered pelmets, with fabric tiebacks – even frilled.

Thank goodness, the European minimalism style stepped in and saved the day by simplifying window treatments.

I feel that through the ages the decorative treatment of window openings has undergone a process that has brought it to a balanced maturity – not too elaborate or minimalistic. Rather the styles applied to windows are just that “stylized”.

Every good story ends like this…

TO BE CONTINUED…keep your eyes peeled for new curtain & blind definitions to our Décor Dictionary in the near future.

Images 1-7 sourced from New York Public Library: here

Images 8 & 9 sourced from Artchive: here

Last image sourced from: here



2 thoughts on “Window Treatments 101 – A Quick History

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.