From the highest ecclesiastical offices to the low prurience of a near-the-airport strip club, tassels are both a signifier of status and a visual point of whimsy.
In Deuteronomy 22:12 we read: “You must put four tassels on the hem of the cloak with which you cover yourself — on the front, back, and sides.” But we didn’t need the bible to tell us that tassels add a little something extra to almost anything decorative.
In early Egypt, Mesopotamia and throughout the Arab world, tassels were affixed to the hats and hoods of children to ward off evil spirits and demons.
Tassel comes from the Latin word tasseau which means a clasp. The origin of the word “passementiers” has been lost to time, but it is French in origin, as are all things truly exquisite. Passementiers were fine craftsmen who created all sorts of trimmings and decorative bindings but especially the finest tassels. An apprenticeship of seven years was required to become a master in one of the subdivisions of the their guild.
Tassels and their associated forms changed style throughout the years, from the small and casual of Renaissance designs, through the medium sizes and more staid designs of the Empire period, and to the Victorian Era with the largest and most elaborate. Some of these designs are returning today from the European and American artisans who may charge a thousand dollars for a single hand-made tassel.
Tassels have been widely used around the world, generally as ornaments. In ancient times, the Chinese decorated lanterns, swords, clothing, and shoes with tassels. In China and Japan their color signified rank among the swordsman, and their bright colors were used to distract the opponent. The beautiful knotted red tassels we often see interwoven with gold threads or gold bindings are a symbol of good fortune. In Buddhism a tassel is regarded as being able to understand spirits and exorcise them to avoid any calamity.
And today one of the most common signifiers is the tassel worn on the mortar board hat of a graduate. At the final ceremony of graduation the tassel is moved from one side of the square hat to the other to denote completion of schooling.
And of course, we have indulged in our own tassel whimsies. In the early 90’s, we created an exclusive offering of tassel-decorated boxes of Bitter Orange Potpourri for Bergdorf Goodman. They sold out almost immediately and when they reordered, we discovered we couldn’t get any more tassels from the man we bought them from in San Francisco’s Chinatown. We were flabbergasted to learn they were originally souvenirs from the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition.