The History of Glitter

We traced the substance from cave paintings to glitter bombs to Mariah Carey's blockbuster flop. Is sparkle tacky, a force for political change, or somewhere in the middle?

Lauren Oyler

Lauren Oyler

Photo by Jovana Rikalo via Stocksy

What is glitter, and why does it matter? The question sounds like a joke, one of those blunt, semi-ironic things to say when you're trying to draw meaning out of what has long been considered meaningless, trite, or superficial. And to some extent, it is that: To spend a long while thinking about something that for most people represents a kind of feminine frivolity has been embarrassing for centuries. Who cares about glitter when you can care about politics? Also, isn't it tacky anyway?

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Pre-20th-Century History, Mostly Irrelevant

Like all aspects of visual culture, glitter has something to do with cave paintings and something to do with Cleopatra, Beyoncé of BCE. The word comes from the Old Norse glitra, which is a verb that means the same thing that glitter means when used as a verb. But humans have been making things sparkly for much longer than white people have been talking about it. The first known use of the word glitter was in the 14th century. But there are flecks of red, black, and white mica—a shiny type of rock that is still used to make our paint multi-facetedly shiny today, as well as to produce that heretofore ineffable eye shadow element called "shimmer"—in cave paintings from the Upper Paleolithic period from 40,000 to 10,000 BCE. The Mayans also used mica on the surfaces of their temples—though only for special occasions.

As for Cleopatra, she and the ancient Egyptians before her made a substance glitter-like in form and function out of crushed-up beetles.

I know we have this idea of the past that they weren't sparkly, but they loved to put little bits of metal on things.

Modern-Day Origins, Plus One Fun Fact

If you believe what you hear/see on reality TV shows about New Jersey, then you will find it fitting to learn that the inventor of glitter was from there. In 1934, Henry Ruschmann stumbled upon a way to manufacture the stuff we package and sell as glitter while grinding up plastics and other materials from landfills. Ruschmann's company, Meadowbrook Inventions, still makes glitter today, though some people consider plastic glitter like this cheap—or for "casual crafters" only—true depth of sparkle only being achievable with glass glitter. This seems very dangerous and is indeed not recommended for use by children.

The fun fact is that the US Army considered shooting glitter out of the tail ends of planes to fuck with radar during World War II, though they didn't end up doing it.

Image by Kat Aileen

OK, but What IS It?

Although there are nuances to methods of glitter manufacture, we've generally removed the beetles and now make it out of big sheets of thin plastic or foil that's covered in a layer of aluminum or other reflective material. That is then coated in titanium dioxide for color, which is dependent not on some fundamentally chemical thing but on optics; in other words, the thickness of the titanium dioxide layer is what determines whether your Lady Gaga costume from 2010 is purple or green or pink or whatever. It's cut into shapes that can completely cover a two-dimensional surface, to avoid waste; hexagons are the easiest to make, weirdly, but they also do squares and rectangles, according to this AMA with Joe Coburn, an heir to a glitter factory in Germany.

These properties are what make glitter a force for both good and evil. During Coburn's AMA, a boring number of people boringly asked him whether his job meant he had a foolproof excuse to give his wife when he had sex with strippers or other other women; Coburn fielded the questions admirably, but actually, they're not so off-base. Yes, seeing unfamiliar glitter on your partner might make you suspect s/he's been with someone else—or just, like, hugging someone else? Chill out?—but the substance also considered a really effective contact trace for forensic evidence.

In a paper titled "Glitter as Forensic Evidence" published by the National Forensic Science Technology Center, a retired criminalist poses the following "Hypothetical scenario":

After work a young woman meets several of her girlfriends at a bar where there is music and dancing. The woman is wearing glitter as part of her eye makeup. A man she does not know asks her to dance and she accepts. However she gets bad vibrations and refuses additional requests after that one dance. She decides to go home and walks out to her car in the parking lot. She doesn't realize the man has followed her and just as she gets her car door open he grabs her from behind. He forces her into her car and follows in behind her. He then forces her to perform fellatio. Afterwards, he runs off. She immediately reports the assault....The suspect is arrested and brought to a hospital where a SART nurse examines him. Standing over butcher paper he removes his clothing and as he does so several glitter particles fall to the butcher paper and are recovered as evidence. As the SART nurse then examines the suspect (takes penile swabs, etc.) she sees a pinpoint of light reflecting back at her from his pubic hairs. Using a Post-It Note she recovers a glitter particle from his pubic hair.

In Clothing

According to Nancy Deihl, a fashion and textile historian who teaches at NYU, "glitter is all about [evoking] jewels and metal"—and, thus, wealth and power. In Western society, people were sewing sparkle onto clothing as early as the Tudor period, when the rich would use silver and the less-rich would use alloys like pewter to adorn their tunics and bodices. "I know we have this idea of the past that they weren't sparkly," Deihl says, "but they loved to put little bits of metal on things."

In the 18th and 19th centuries, sparkle made its way into clothing through metallic threads, even in wools; the first tailored suits for women included metallic details, Deihl says, "so that they would look more 'feminine'" and not "dull like men." Designers like Chanel returned to this technique in the 80s to make their suits look "more jazzed up." The high point, though, was the 1920s; women sewed beads and sequins onto their dresses to the extent that the clothes were weighed down by them.

You would think you'd see a downtick in sequins and sparkle during the rationed years of World War II, but actually, Deihl says, sequins were a popular way for designers to "dress up otherwise plain things" at the time. "Wool, for example, was very hard to come by because it was really being deployed for uniforms," she says, "but sequins were not on that list—it was available and it was fun, and it was seen as kind of a morale booster."

Glitter and sparkle started showing up on performers shortly thereafter. Performers like Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, The Supremes—"it was not like today where you would get up [on stage] in ripped...jeans," Deihl says. Their "custom-made evening creations" were "always beaded, sequined, because you wanted it to catch the light.

"They wore furs and sequins because their audience expected them to look glamorous," Deihl continues. "And the sequins and the glitter really go along with glamour."

In Makeup

First, the conventional wisdom on glitter in makeup was: don't wear it, it's for children and whores. Then: you can wear it, but wear it subtly, so that no one knows you're wearing it, or at least so that straight men and the unsavvy don't know you're wearing it.

"Obvious makeup, obvious fake stuff was such a no-no until really the middle of the 20th century," Deihl says. "There's stuff going back to the 1970s with people doing outrageous face painting and things. [But] in terms of general wear, not countercultural but teenage girls putting glitter on their faces—that's relatively recent."

They wore furs and sequins because their audience expected them to look glamorous. The sequins and the glitter really go along with glamour.

To read beauty copy, you'd think that wearing glitter was as sensitive an enterprise as surgery, or fisting. A Fashionista article offering "tips for a grown-up glittery eye" called "How to Wear Glitter Eye Makeup and Not Look Like a Middle Schooler" has several qualifications: "Wearing glitter as an adult doesn't have to look like you raided your old Caboodle."; "There is such a thing as sophisticated glitter, but it's all about creating balance"; "The most surefire way to keep glitter from looking garish? Instead of covering your entire lid, choose an eyeliner with a bit of sparkle"; "'If applied the right way it can look very modern and chic.'"

On your nails, glitter is considered more than fine, though fraught with logistical issues; it never comes off, except in huge chips that look horrible and reveal the scraped trauma your fun and flirty vibe has wrought on your fingernails, and often the colors bleed and look gross.

For the latter problem, at least, Coburn's AMA has advice:

very dark [glitter] colors like black, red, [and] royal blue...have a hard time holding up in certain lacquers. Nail polish eats away at the coating that separates the outside elements from the dye. Often times the longer the particles are in the medium (polish for example) the more likely they are to have the color stripped away.

If you want to get glitter off yourself or your clothes, long-time makeup artist Francesca Tolot speaks from the experience of glittering Beyonce from head to toe for the cover of Flaunt Magazine in 2013 (and then doing it to Beyonce's nine perfect-assed backup dancers at the 2014 VMAs): Scotch tape works pretty well.

The Mariah Carey Movie

Have you seen it? Everyone who helped to make this movie a cliché for bad movies hopes not, for your sake, unless you watched it ironically. Set in the sparkly disco era of 1983, Glitter is described in its Amazon reviews (3.7/5 stars!) as "A Movie Lost In The Midst of Bad P.R. and Tragedy" and "not the worst thing ever created on film." Perhaps the moderately critically acclaimed soundtrack—which was nevertheless Carey's least successful album and lost her an $80 million contract with EMI Records—helped. In any case, Mariah's on-screen debut as foster kid-turned-dancer Billie Frank yearning to realize her dream of becoming a famous singer was widely panned.

It's Annoying

If you've ever need to get glitter out of non-bodily crevices (or off your hands), Coburn says compressed or high-pressure air is your only real option. Herein lies the market for mayhem that captivated the frenzied virtual masses at the beginning of this year. Twenty-two-year-old Mathew Carpenter's self-explanatory viral website ShipYourEnemiesGlitter.com launched in January 2015 to uproarious reblogs and such a great idea LOLs. The millennial lovechild of Diana Ross and Rick Roll, the service was inundated with demand within hours of launching; completely unprepared for the draw his sort-of joke would have for a fundamentally vengeful humanity, Carpenter lasted four days before posting a fed-up message asking users to stop ordering his "horrible glitter product" because he couldn't keep up with demand. He then sold the site for $85,000.

What makes glitter annoying is also what makes it powerful.

Or that's how the story went, anyway. As the Guardian points out, "[t]he site gained fame, in part, because of its tone. 'We fucking hate glitter,' is how its pitch opens." This glitter is cut with an additional layer of self-awareness; the juxtaposition of Carpenter's bitter cynic ad copy with the superficial joy of glitter reflects the tensions of our modern lives! Ship Your Enemies Glitter was a win-win for a generation that can't decide whether irony is a viable method of critique or evil: It was a way to do something mean without doing anything harmful, a virtual joke with an IRL punch line.

After the successful sale, however, Carpenter revealed the website and its insane popularity were an exercise in viral marketing. Exposing the whole thing as an elaborate ploy seems disappointing initially, but actually, Ship Your Enemies Glitter was only a hoax inasmuch as all vaguely classified "business" is a hoax: Regardless of his intentions, Carpenter took orders, filled a lot of them, made a statement about how he couldn't keep up with demand, and pushed it off onto someone who could, for profit.

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Glitter Bombs Are Over

Glitter is inherently confrontational, not only because it is annoying but also because it represents a dramatic display of the feminine and is a symbol for LGBT empowerment, so it makes sense as a tool against conservative misogyny/homophobia. As we also saw in the Hypothetical scenario, what makes glitter annoying—it transfers and sticks easily; it's flamboyant—is also what makes it powerful. However, the glaring symbolism of glitter bombs is both their selling point and their downfall: become stale and impotent as a force for statement-making in this great twenty-first century.

The "original glitter bomber" Nick Espinosa, who set the trend by showering Newt Gingrich with a Cheez-It box full of sparkle at a 2011 event opposing gay marriage, explained why he did it:

What I have tried to do with creative forms of protest like glittering is to capture people's imagination and tap into a cultural point of reference with a piece of political theater projected into the real world. By creating a moment of conflict I shine a light onto the hypocrisy and bigotry of our current political discourse in a way that is as entertaining as it is dramatic.

This being exciting both as spectacle and as philosophical fuck-you, glitter bombing Republican candidates became the hottest protest tactic of the 2012 presidential election, and beyond. Noted assholes Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney got it more than once; Tim Pawlenty was covered in hot pink confetti and feathers at a book signing; Karl Rove also mistakenly held a book signing; Michelle Bachmann's attempted glittering by the activist group GetEQUAL was unfortunately lame, and kind of just made her look pretty, but then activists stormed her and her husband's stop-being-gay! counseling practice, and that attempt was more successful in sparkling up the sweater vests. Activists have not limited themselves to the merely abhorrently anti-gay, either: Dan Savage and Germaine Greer have been glitter bombed for being transphobic, among other offenses, and Lindsay Lohan was targeted for apparently no reason as she made her hour-late way to a hearing at the Los Angeles Superior Court, which is sad and mean.

Espinosa said he liked using glitter because it is "harmless," but it is certainly not to the ego, which is why it's gone from a fun thing to do to a serious offense. Assholes Gingrich and Huckabee argued glitter bombs should constitute "assault," and while this is obviously stupid, even acknowledging that glitter can scratch your corneas if it gets in your eyes, a University of Colorado-Denver student who attempted to glitter Romney in 2012 was arrested and charged with disturbing the peace and throwing a missile. The latter, more serious charge was ultimately dismissed, as were suggestions that the student, Peter Smith, might be expelled; initially he stated publicly that he didn't regret what he'd done, but he later retracted it—probably because what he'd done also got him fired from his internship at Colorado's Democratic Senate, not because he felt bad for humiliating a politician who deserved it. No one knows how to have any fun around here.

This increased seriousness is not the only reason power of the #glitterati is likely diminished for the 2016 election; to mix metaphors slightly, the shiny novelty of the gesture has worn off. Nevertheless, a pro-choice activism organization called Glitter Bombs for Choice unites the glitter bomb with ShipYourEnemiesGlitter: the group mails glitter-filled cards and envelopes to pro-life politicians like Nebraskan representative Jeff Fortenberry, whose aides bore the brunt of a glitter bomb this March. Although Fortenberry was in DC when his office received the offending package, the group's message was heard sparkly and clear; an accompanying note read, "Congrats, you've earned this for trying to deny women their right to choice. Mind your own uterus."

Photo by Margaret Vincent via Stocksy

Eating It

In early 2014 small business owner and person with really a lot of nerve Margaret Martin was fined over £13,000 after she sold some shittily packaged and not at all edible-looking glitter under the nevertheless misleading name EdAble Art, Ltd.; she claimed in court the name was referring to three animated mice named Ed, Able, and Art, which is completely absurd. (She was peddling the plebeian plastic kind, not the glass version, at least.) A similar but more utilitarian project exists in these Etsy glitter pills, which purport to be "not meant for consumption" and yet strongly, temptingly contradict that warning in a form that suggests they will have you shitting novelty.

These cases don't seem like selfish capitalists manipulating the dollar-eyed masses but rather like get-rich-quick schemes in which all parties are as mesmerized by potential profits as you are when you go to the cupcake place and see one with gold flake on it. It's stupid, it's pointless, but it's also kind of irresistible. (In 2014 a group of Belgian scientists posited that our attraction to shiny things is evolutionarily rooted in our attraction to water.) Although our attraction to sparkle and its cheap manufactured manifestation was perhaps originally about attraction, glitter's long-running connection to the feminine and queer has given the substance a significance that few could describe as tacky.