“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 everything and their intent everywhere, for that’s it that always makes a good voyage of nothing. Farewell.” —Twelfth Night
Changeable taffeta is 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, otherwise known as “shot silk taffeta,” 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. But 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.
* (Arden Edition, 2007)