Banner of Iridescent foil photographed

The Popularity of Iridescent Products throughout the Ages

The surprisingly long history of holographic and iridescent products. A brief explanation of the naturally sourced material to the examined modern history of the synthetically made products.

Iridescences is an effect that is often found in nature. Iridescence effects are the full spectrum of colour represented on an object or area. I briefly explained the difference between iridescence and holographic effects in modern everyday objects. But how did these things develop in popular culture? Our use of wanting things vibrant and colourful has always been in our culture in some way establishing some sort of social or technological advancement.

Modern-day iridescence developed because of technology. But it also bridges our new capabilities to mimicking nature in an artificial way. We now manipulate materials of iridescence in fashion, car wraps, makeup, stationery, apparel, furniture and a new variety of unexplored methods now found on local store shelves.

How Iridescences Works in Nature

There’s a specific butterfly that is used as an example of iridescence. It’s called the Morpho butterfly. It shimmers a blue colour on its wings when in sunlight shined from above. But when the light is shined from below as if the butterfly was in flight the colour of that butterfly would look brown. Many animals that have a blue colour have this effect. This effect appears on various birds, insects, stones, soapy surfaces and fishes. For example, blue jays and peacocks are known to have blue feathers but they have that colour because of ridges in their feathers. But it is also an effect that is seen in the sky and the ocean to some degree.

This is an example of structural colour. This is when a surface is ingrained in such a fine pattern that it interferes with visible light. The wings have microscopic scales that traps lightwaves, filtering it to move at different lengths to make a new colour from the minused colour of visible light. In the video above there is a wing that appears to be blue. Even though the wing is originally brownish tan. The yellow light is being filtered out of the butterfly wing bouncing off a brilliant blue. The wing is made of two sides one brown perforated side and one “blue” scaled side. The light is filtered into the wings and when squirting on liquids that could be alcohol based the light is changed temporarily to a muted green. This is because if those ridges on the butterfly wings are blocked changing the way the how the ridges are filtering light.

Iridescence objects work in a similar fashion. When light hits a surface that stacked that lightwaves bounce out in different directions. With iridescent products, it comes down to reflective effects of iridescence like in an oil slick or diffraction of light like on a CD or DVD or structural like in the Morpho butterfly. I discussed this briefly before in an earlier post of what the difference was between iridescence and holographic.


This is just a brief explanation of the impact of pearls as a product. There is a long history of pearls in art and society that I could only briefly explain here. The impact of the pearls has been cultivated since 2300 BC. Pearls and rhinestones used in jewelry have a natural iridescence. “The Queen of the Gems” was the ultimate status symbol in Ancient times. It symbolized love, sex, vanity, purity, feminity and power. The type of pearl that would shine a visible iridescence would be Mother Of Pearl also known as nacre. It can produce a strong, resilient multicolour shine. Nacre is a hexagonal platelet of aragonite which is a form of calcium carbonate. The aragonite platelets are so closely placed together that it makes an iridescent appearance from the wavelength of visible light. The creation of the structural colours can be seen from different viewing angles of the pearls.

Paintings with Pearls

Johannes Vermeer painting of the Girl with a Pearl Earring - 1665. Source Wikipedia.
Johannes Vermeer painting of the Girl with a Pearl Earring – 1665. Source Wikipedia.
Painting of Isabella Clara Eugenia of Spain - Frans Pourbus II from the 17th Century.
Painting of Isabella Clara Eugenia of Spain – Frans Pourbus II from the 17th Century. The painter unknown. Source: Wikipedia.

The Flapper Girl Style

The Flapper look in the 1920s had more of a glitz and glam look. The dresses had rhinestones, sequins and pearls attached to the lapels, ends of the dress or the shoulders of the dress to extenuate the fast dancing moves of the times.

Here are some examples of flapper styles:
A photo of Lauire La Plante in flapper girl style.
A photo of Laurie La Plante in flapper girl style. An American film star was mostly known in silent movies. Source: Many The Wonders
A photo of Caja Eric in fancy dress and a pearl necklace.
Photo of Ziefield girl, Caja Eric. A Ziegfeld girl is a showgirl from Florenz Ziegfeld’s theatrical Broadway revue spectaculars that were high-class Vaudeville variety shows. This photo was mostly taken between 1929 to 1934 by Alfred Cheney Johnston. Source: Flickr: trialsanderrors

First adaptations of iridescence in products

The recent emergence of this trend co-exists with the interest of futuristic fashion and design which has developed more and more which each passing technological achievement. The earliest type of the iridescence process that was used until the invention of plastic was a glaze placed over surfaces that people wanted to stand out. The technological advancements not only created the interest of iridescent material but made it easier to develop on multiple products.


Lustreware was still popular in ceramics and tinted glazes from the 9th century, early 20th century and to a degree now. The glassware was a popular technique used to layer colours. Lustreware is either a porcelain or pottery product with a metallic glaze that gives off an iridescent effect. This is produced by doing a second firing in a muffle kiln with pottery glazed by a metallic oxide overglaze finish. The earliest date of lustreware in production was back in the 9th century. Hispano-Moresque ware was glazed in pale yellow iridescence and cobalt blue pigments by Moorish potters of 15th century Málaga, Spain. Various metals were used like gold, silver, platinum and copper to create that shiny iridescence ceramics. The Napoleonic war created a scarcity of silver being used in ceramic arts that platinum chloride, aka poor man’s silver, was substituted in its place.

They are many products in history that show an iridescent effect when in the light. In the 1950s a chalice from ancient Rome was recovered in an exhibition. It’s called the Lycurgus Cup. It is a chalice that changes colours in certain lighting. It also changes colour when certain liquids are filled inside the cup. It could have been used as a poison detection device or for show. Recently it had been examined under a strong microscope uncovering traces of silver and gold on the exterior of the cup. The flecks are so small that it was capable to cause a colour change in the chalice.

Carnival Glass

The spin-off of Lustreware is Carnival glass. It’s an iridescent glass moulded and pressed into various shapes. It has a high metallic shine. Like lustreware, metallic salts are added into the kiln process to make the iridescent effects. Most of the glassware was made between the late 1880s to early 1900s. Then becoming a kitschy collector’s item in the 1950s. It was once called the “poor man’s Tiffany” even though it was inspired by Tiffany vases. The glassware was able to catch a lot of light and redistribute it throughout the room. The most well-known glass maker of Carnival glass was Loetz.

Image sample of carnival glass. An orange and yellow gradient of a hen in glass form.
Image sample of carnival glass

Technological Advancements in Fashion

Since the mod scene in fashion and design in the sixties, more designers (especially industrial designers) and artists had more control over what products they wanted to use for their designs. There were more experimentations with colours and materials that had items being made with unconventional nontraditional materials like plastic materials, metallic foils and fluorescents. More designers and artists were able to make products for tomorrow and thinking about the future with this new development of technology and concepts of life. New machinery and technological advancements created an interest in the future and what tomorrow can bring. There were a lot of creative designs, shorts and products that emphasized experimentation.

This was semi apart of the art movement of Futurism. In the beginning of the 20th century, Futurism focused on ideas and problems of representing modern experience which could be a focus of discussing speed, technology, youth, violence, man-made objects and the “industrial city” in experimental and beautiful light.

The art that came out of this era had vivid and bright colours that used as much of the full spectrum of colour at once. It was to give a surreal experience to the viewer who would be experiencing a soul-revealing experience. This was the era of the Psychedelia movement and Light and Space art movement. It was all to see what new thing could work and if the people liked it has this was all apart of the counterculture movement at the time. Synthetic materials either a fabric dye or an actual material used in a product were becoming more readily available to the public. New dyes made more vibrant and different patterns for products within this era.

The Art Movement of Light and Space

In the 1960s & 1970s, there was an art movement that started in the southern California area. This was an art movement that experimented with perpetual perceptions on light, volume and scale with by using the new material from the decade like neon paints, glass, fluorescent lights, acrylics, resins and other types of form casting materials. The movement is closely related to other art movements like op art, minimalism and geometric abstraction. The installation artwork would work around or play with light either natural light or man-made light. A modern day exhibit would be the Endless Summer exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago has some examples of shadow work as art and colour gradients on resin installation pieces.

The art movement uses translucent, transparencies or reflective materials to create form and explore the voids of space within an area. Before artists like Robert Irwin (see an interview by Newfields), James Turrell, Helen Pashgian and Larry Bell there was an artist that started the movement was John McLaughlin. He was an artist that painted in minimalism and hard-edge painting with influences from Piet Mondrian and Kazimir Severinovich Malevich, two painters from the 18th century. From the 1950s to the 1970s, he stopped using curves in his paintings to concentrate on form and colour palette.

“My purpose is to achieve the totally abstract. I want to communicate only to the extent that the painting will serve to induce or intensify the viewer’s natural desire for contemplation without benefit of a guiding principle. I must therefore free the viewer from the demands or special qualities imposed by the particular by omitting the image (object). This I manage by the use of neutral forms.”

Wikipedia: From McLaughlin, John (1963). John McLaughlin: A Retrospective Exhibition, Pasadena Art Museum, November 12 through December 12, 1963. Alhambra, CA: Cunningham Press.

His body of work served as an inspiration of the Light and Space Art Movement drawing from the exploration of geometric abstraction with Asian influences, using spare form and colours.

In 1971 UCLA’s art exhibit Transparency, Reflection, Light, Space was the first formal introductions to an art movement that was mostly underground known to other artists in southern California. Artist in the exhibit like Peter Alexander, Larry Bell, Robert Irwin, Craig Kauffman, John McCracken and James Turrell went on to other minimalism works.

An Evolution of Club Wear and Hologram Foil

People were still wearing and using metallics in fashion in the 1970s. It became more popular for people in the disco period to wear reflective eye-catching club wear and glitter for dance parties. It was all about being the most noticeable person on the dance floor. The iridescent effects were all to capture the motion of dancing under the lights and disco ball. There were a lot of technological advancements in food preparation, social movements, appliances, media and fashion that people wore. This was also the era of shiny glitter colours and the birth of Glam rock with the popularity of Disco.

And in the 1990s, iridescence was even more popular with makeup, nail polish, glitter and metallic iridescent garments became popular among teenagers and young adults. It was once marketed as multi-coloured metallic and holograms in the mid-1990s. This may have came from the way the holographic foil chunks were used at the time to create depth; cut in triangular shapes that the reflections were never really unison and somewhat making things three dimensional. For example, in the early 1990s, McDonald’s made a short-lived collectible sports cards that used the foils as a multilayered illustration.

The foil effects were usually made with mica powders adhered to them with a top coat, foil stamping and heat transfer. The use of mica powders made the particles to be smaller, more refined and more colourful. The mica powders were made of silicate.

Multi-coloured metallics were most popular with the dance club crowd, fashion fades like the hippie-chic look that came after the first Austin Powers movie and novelty products. Mostly in the underground club scenes like in all-night raves, nightclubs, dance clubs and festivals. Throughout the era, the fashion was mostly influenced by the supermodel craze, the club scene and music. Alternative rock, dance, techno, electronica and really early hip-hop were among them for most of the music genres that influenced the mainstream culture. It was also becoming more popular in makeup than any other product that had iridescent finishes added to it. The choice of wearing these types of metallics became commonplace.

Some examples of 1990s products with hologram foil:

Photo of a bunch of Lipsmackers lip gloss.
Photo of a bunch of Lipsmackers lip gloss. Source: Instagram: limitedtoo
Screen shot from Romy and Michelle's High School Reunion (1997)
Screenshot from Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion (1997)
Advertisement/Magazine Excerpt of a 1990s magazine.
1990s Tote Bag - Happy Smiley Face - Black Vinyl Glitter Holographic.
1990s Tote Bag – Happy Smiley Face – Black Vinyl Glitter Holographic. Source: Etsy: AfterDarkVintage

The Technological Modern Day

In the 2000s to now, it’s been apart of fashion. The glitter became larger and single toned before it became multi-coloured glitter. But it became popular in other commonly used things people had like car vinyl wraps, shoes, bags, shirt imprints, hair accessories and book imprints. Over the past ten to fifteen years, iridescence fashion was only used sparingly on some items to full coverage of metallic shine on most products.

Iridescence is popular today because of technological advancements. Without the advancements in materials used to create these effects, prismatic colours would not be as popular has it is today.

Modern day products that notably used iridescent effects:

1970s to now – Media products like laser discs and compact discs use different ridges to bounce light waves back to the player giving information to playback by constructive and destructive interference.

2002 – Philippe Starck made the clear acrylic Louis Ghost Chair which was an up-to-date design of Louis XVI chair in Versailles, France.

2009 – graphic designer Peter Saville and architect David Adjaye created a multi-coloured gradient staircase.

2015 – Patricia Urquiola designs interlocking multi-coloured transparent furniture. One coffee table, one side table and one wall mount shelf.

2016 – Holographic nail products that use mica powders that get rubbed onto the nails for an iridescent effect


The Weird And Fascinating Story Behind Design’s Iridescence Craze – Fast Company

Iridescence as a result of interference – Causes of Color

What is a Hologram? – Live Science

Iridescence: Design With Shimmering Science – Sherwin-Williams

400 Years of Holograms: The History of Illusion – Popular Mechanics

This 1,600-Year-Old Goblet Shows that the Romans Were Nanotechnology Pioneers – Smithsonian Magazine

Carnival Glass Identification and Value Guide – The Spruce Crafts

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