If proof were needed of our ambivalent feelings towards curtains and blinds, then the expression ‘window treatments’, with its implication of disease, says it all. Curtains were invented for purely practical purposes, as draught excluders around beds. It was wooden window shutters that kept out the light and peeping toms.
It was only really in the 19th century that people started dressing windows as fashion statements. The style was picked up again in the 1980s, a decade defined by the swags and arrows of outrageous curtains.
Architects, though, never liked them. And that’s putting it mildly when it comes to Pugin, who viewed the “extravagant and ugly draperies” of his day with their “endless festoons and bunchy tassels” as “abominable in taste… not only useless in protecting the chamber from cold, but are the depositories of thick layers of dust, and in London not infrequently the strongholds of vermin.” Go, Pugin!
With the growth of Modernism in the 20th century, the architectural aversion to curtains became entrenched in a gender war. Curtains were girly, blinds were manly. In her book on the sexual politics of taste, As Long As It’s Pink, design historian Penny Sparke reminds us of a seminal moment in the brilliant 1992 TV documentary series Signs of the Times, which interviewed ordinary people about their homes.
One woman, married to an architect (who was himself wedded to Venetian blinds, considered at the time to be more ‘culturally advanced’), explained how she “sometimes went into the children’s bedroom – the only room in which curtains were ‘permitted’ – and softly wept.”
Today we are free to make decisions about whether to have curtains or blinds without resorting to gender politics and tears
Of course she wasn’t just crying about curtains, she was crying about her subjugation by the dominant aesthetic culture. At least, I think this is what Sparke is saying. (More likely, though, she was just crying because she was married to an architect.)
Today we are free to make decisions about whether to have curtains or blinds without resorting to gender politics and tears. The rules are really quite simple. Large plate glass windows require blinds, which are also best in rooms that don’t have much natural light. If you live in an old house with draughty windows, curtains are the best option.
A small ugly window can be disguised with a bit of dishonest drapery, but if the window is a particularly beautiful one, it’s a shame to hide it, so consider a simple roller blind and translucent curtains. Of course, you are only allowed to have swags and pelmets if you are the Duchess of Devonshire.