When it comes to textiles, there is no fabric more luxurious than the delicate weave of silk. The Silk Road traversed continents, just as the history of silk has traversed millennia. Let’s take a look at silk’s history through time, from its origins in the mysterious Far East thousands of years ago to its popularity among modern-day fashion icons.
Where Does Silk Come From?: The History of Silk
The origin of silk is shrouded in mystery, but legend has it that some 5,000 years ago, Lady Hsi Ling Shih (aka the ‘Goddess of Silk’) was sitting beneath a mulberry bush in the palace garden sipping tea when a silkworm cocoon dropped into her cup, revealing its shimmering threads. It is said that she went on to cultivate silkworms, discovering that, when fed a diet of mulberry tree leaves, the Bombyx mori silkworm would cocoon itself in one strong, lustrous raw silk fibre up to 100 metres long. These fibres could then be harvested, unravelled and wound on a reel.
Silk was China’s best kept secret for thousands of years, until 440 AD when a Chinese princess smuggled silkworm eggs hidden in her hairpiece over the eastern border to her new lover – the prince of the Iranian Kingdom of Khotan.
Once the secret was out, silk fast became the most desirable textile among the wealthy and well regarded. From the Chinese Empire to the Persian and Roman Empires, silk garments became a status symbol.
Notable silk enthusiasts of these ancient times included:
- Darius III, King of the Achaemenid Empire of Persia – The last king of the Persian Empire, Darius III and his court wore lavish silk headscarves.
- Caligula, Roman Emperor – Caligula was an extravagant leader with a taste for the finer things in life. He wore the finest Chinese silks, while sipping on cocktails made from dissolved pearls and admiring his collection of women’s shoes.
- Elagabalus, Roman Emperor – Elagabalus believed that washed garments should only be worn by peasants and so he wore a new silk robe every day.
- Queen Seondeok of Silla, Queen Regnant of Silla in Korea – Queen Seondeok was a wise leader, passionate about the arts and literature, who as a girl helped to tend to the silkworms raised in the palace. Upon being crowned, every member of her royal court wore colourful silk robes.
During the Han Dynasty, the Silk Road was born, connecting China with the west and bringing unprecedented prosperity to the country and to those trading cities along its route. The trade route stretched across Eurasia from the Himalayas to the Black Sea, enabling the free flow of goods, religions and technologies along its length.
Silk in Fashion
From its ancient origins to the haute couture runways of today, silk has been a desirable fabric for thousands of years. And though its beginnings are veiled in mystique, it is no mystery as to why this lustrous textile has been popular for millennia, thanks to its soft texture and thermo regulating qualities.
No luxury fashion brand is complete without a silk scarf in its collection, perhaps inspired by Grace Kelly, American actress and Princess of Monaco who wore her broken arm in a sling fashioned from an Hermes scarf. Or maybe credit goes to the iconic Audrey Hepburn who said When I wear a silk scarf I never feel so definitely a woman, a beautiful woman, and who wore a silk scarf knotted beneath her chin on her wedding day.
Silk garments can play a role in the slow fashion movement, with their natural origins and longwearing properties. Though they come with a higher price tag than other garments, they have superior properties in terms of breathability, strength and softness.
The saga of silk has woven its way through the ages, from ancient China to the silk fashion statements made by style icons of today. What will the next chapter of the story of silk bring?