“Now, the melancholy god protect thee, and the tailor make thy doublet of changeable taffeta, for thy mind is very opal.
I would have men of such constancy put to sea, that their business might be everything and their intent everywhere,
for that’s it that always makes a good voyage of nothing. Farewell.”
—FESTE TO ORISNO in Twelfth Night
Changeable taffeta, otherwise known as “shot silk,” is a fabric mentioned in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Feste tells Orisno that he hopes a tailor will make him a doublet (a two-piece outfit) out of fabric that changes color constantly, because Orisno’s mind is very changeable—he is fickle and moody.
Changeable taffetta is known for its stiffness, crispness, slipperiness, luster, and gleaming quality. Taffeta rustles as you move, and has often been used in eveningwear (see: Princess Diana’s taffeta wedding dress). Tissura, a network of fabric shops and showrooms, gives us some context: “Derived from a Persian word, which means ‘twisted woven’, taffeta is also a tightly woven fabric consisting of high-twist yarn. It has various kinds and types from opaque to sheer, from glossy to matte.” Changeable taffeta in particular became popular in the 18th and 19th centuries, and has historically been associated with luxury, displays of wealth, and high fashion.
The fabric is easily stained and can be ruined if folded; this is interesting when one considers Orisno’s character. It implies that he could be impressionable, or he might become bent out of shape easily. Fashionhance tells us that taffetta “is easily impaired by pins and needles.” In other words, it’s not a very durable fabric. One might almost call it high maintenance.
Sandra Clarke’s Shakespeare and Domestic Life: A Dictionary notes that in regards to this particular scene, editor Keir Elam* thinks that Feste “is satirizing Orisno’s inconstancy under the guise of comparing him with luxury items, rich fabric and gemstones.” He “relates the iridescence of the taffeta to the ‘play of alternative perspectives’ he finds in Twelfth Night.
Contrastingly, the artist Herbert Norris calls taffeta “a cheap substitute for the rich thin silk so popular amongst the nobility.”
Clarke’s dictionary also tells us that taffeta was sometimes the clothing of prostitutes.
Today, changeable taffetta is used to make garments like neckties. Some forms of academic dress use shot silks—the robes of a Cambridge Doctor of Divinity are faced with "dove" silk, which is “turquoise shot with rose-pink to create an overall grey effect.”
*Please visit the bibliography for all of the sources mentioned!
All instances in which taffetta appears, with thanks to Open Source Shakespeare:
All’s Well That Ends Well (clown):
As fit as ten groats is for the hand of an attorney,
as your French crown for your taffeta punk, as Tib's
rush for Tom's forefinger, as a pancake for Shrove
Tuesday, a morris for May-day, as the nail to his
hole, the cuckold to his horn, as a scolding queen
to a wrangling knave, as the nun's lip to the
friar's mouth, nay, as the pudding to his skin.
Henry IV Part I:
Unless hours were cups of sack and minutes
capons and clocks the tongues of bawds and dials the
signs of leaping-houses and the blessed sun himself
a fair hot wench in flame-coloured taffeta, I see no
reason why thou shouldst be so superfluous to demand
the time of the day.
Love’s Labours Lost (Boyet):
Beauties no richer than rich taffeta.
Love’s Labours Lost (Boyet):
Taffeta phrases, silken terms precise,
Three-piled hyperboles, spruce affectation,
Figures pedantical; these summer-flies
Have blown me full of maggot ostentation:
I do forswear them; and I here protest,
By this white glove;—how white the hand, God knows!—
Henceforth my wooing mind shall be express'd
In russet yeas and honest kersey noes:
And, to begin, wench,—so God help me, la!—
My love to thee is sound, sans crack or flaw.
Twelfth Night (Feste):
Now, the melancholy god protect thee; and the
tailor make thy doublet of changeable taffeta, for
thy mind is a very opal. I would have men of such
constancy put to sea, that their business might be
every thing and their intent every where; for that's
it that always makes a good voyage of nothing. Farewell.