The hanging of a drapery, or portière, over a doorway or arch was a popular decorating practice during the Victorian era. Who doesn’t remember Scarlet O’Hara’s makeshift dress from the fabric of her mother's green velvet portières? These draperies were both decorative and functional; they were useful in keeping out drafts and adding to the privacy of a room. In the upper class Victorian home, with its tall ceilings and grand rooms, drawing a heavy velvet curtain across a doorway would keep the heat in the room and the drafts out; likewise, a room could be closed off with a closed curtain when not in use to conserve heat.
Side Panel Drapery with Festoon Hanging
For the colder months, these Victorian draperies were regularly made in velvet, often with a contrasting color on each side so that the adjoining room would have a distinct look. Light-weight silk draperies were hung in the warmer months. For the more opulent home, separate portières would be hung on each side of the sliding wood panel doors connecting the parlor and dining room. Occasionally the portière was decorative only and attached to the archway so that it could not be drawn.
Curtains, c.1868: From Hints on Household Taste in
Furniture, Upholstery and other Details
In 1868, British architect and furniture designer, Charles Eastlake, published Hints on Household Taste in Furniture, Upholstery and other Details in which he wrote of lavish portières for a dining room. They were fashioned in embroidered velvet and decorated with deep borders consisting of alternate stripes of velvet. One embroidered panel was decorated in appliqué work with a representation of Aesop’s fable, the Fox and the Stork.
Embroidered Curtains, c.1868: Decorated in appliqué work with a
of Aesop’s fable, the Fox and the Stork.
For old house owners today, replicating this Victorian house feature could be helpful in today’s economy during the cold winter months. Several styles of portières are offered. To begin, one must first study the doorway to be decorated and choose the material to be used – a good heavy fabric is necessary and the draperies should be lined.
Pair of Portieres Simply Draped and a Simple Cornice Arrangement
The pole for hanging the draperies can be wood to correspond with the surrounding woodwork, or it can be brass with the rings of the same substance. If the woodwork of the room cannot be matched, the brass pole should be chosen and should be not thicker than one inch. The wood pole may be a half-inch more in diameter. Moreover, the pole and the socket or bracket on which it rests should be alike.
Curtain Shirred Over a Brass Pole
In low ceiling rooms the appearance of an archway is generally improved by adjusting the pole on brackets fastened almost at the top and upon the outside of the door-frame. This adds to the length of the curtain from six to eight inches, and increases the appearance of height. When doorway draperies are elevated to this position, those at the windows should be similarly treated.
Similarly, the outside adjustment of the curtain pole is also recommended where it becomes desirable to create the illusion of breadth in a narrow doorway. For example, a four or five foot pole may be placed over a three-foot opening with the drapery being drawn at each side thus giving the illusion of a fairly wide opening.
Arrangement of a Single Pair of Portieres with a Valance
Where the illusion of height or breadth is sought, the cornice becomes a useful accessory. This is an ornamental box which encloses the pole and conceals the rings from which the curtains hang. It may be lifted to the border line of the ceiling, continuing the latter, creating the illusion of an opening that rises the full height of the wall. Where fixed draperies or valances are used, the cornice or a substitute frame becomes a necessity.
Groups of Shirring
In some instances the attempt to create the illusion of height is not advised, since such a design may take away all the quaintness of a country or cottage home interior. For this style décor, the sunk pole — i.e. the pole set inside the door-jamb — would be the better choice.
With Slight Side Pleats
There are three ways of attaching curtains to the poles: one, by means of curtain hooks; another by sewing directly to the curtains rings which are then slipped over the pole; and third, by shirring the material over the pole. [Illustrations from Harpers Bazaar]