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Curtains, Draperies Or Drapes? What’s In A Name?

Do you carry a purse or a pocketbook? Drink pop or soda? Enjoy a sub, grinder, hoagie or hero for lunch?

So what, then, do you call those stylish folds of fabric at your window? Curtains? Draperies? Drapes?

Chances are, if you live anywhere close to a major metropolitan area, you identify soft window treatments as draperies. If you live in the South or Midwest, you probably describe them as drapes. And if you live in the Northeast or on the West Coast, most likely you refer to them as curtains.

Regional differences aside, each of these terms has a historical claim to being a common expression for soft window coverings. Curtains and draperies have the oldest pedigree, with the word "curtains" cropping up numerous times in the Bible as a term referring to the fabric hangings that were used to veil the tabernacle in early religious temples. The word curtain is derived from the Latin word "cortina," which means a partial veil or covering.

The word "drapery" is relatively newer and seems to have originated among the weavers of Great Britain in the 14th century. Drapery is based on the word "drab," which at that time meant woolen cloth; weavers of that cloth were referred to as "drapers." By the 17th century, the term drapery was the common usage for soft window coverings.

The word "drape" began its etymologic journey as a verb: to drape meant, very simply, the process of hanging draperies. However, we can thank retailer Montgomery Ward for turning the verb into a noun in an 1895 catalog, referring to drapery silk as being suitable for "sash curtains and mantle drapes." Sears, Roebuck & Co. got into the verb-as-noun act in its 1908 catalog, calling a Nottingham lace curtain "one of the most stylish and attractive drapes one could possibly desire for the parlor window."

Drape has had somewhat checkered history, however. Up until the 1950s, usage of the term "drapes" was considered fairly low-class—indeed, in the 1950 edition of Emily Post’s Etiquette, she calls the term drapes an "inexcusable vulgarism." Politicians, never ones to shy away from a good vulgarism, use the phrase "measuring for drapes" as a way to ridicule their opponents: most recently, during the 2008 presidential campaign, John McCain said his opponent Barack Obama was so sure that he would be moving into the White House that he was already "measuring the drapes." Similarly, during the 1968 campaign, Hubert Humphrey said of Richard Nixon, "Why, he's even been to Washington to look at the White House and measure for drapes." (Interestingly, both Humphrey and McCain turned out to be right!)

Regardless of historical usage, there are some generally acknowledged differences between curtains, draperies and drapes: simply put, draperies and drapes are considered more formal fashions, while curtains are deemed to be more casual window treatments.

In keeping with the formal designation, draperies and drapes usually are constructed of heavier weight fabrics, including velvet, damask, suede, silk, and chenille. Draperies often feature more elaborate manufacturing details, such as pinch pleating or inverse pleating, and frequently incorporate a separate fabric lining. Draperies can be either stationary or moveable, and often coordinate with elegant top treatments and fabric tiebacks.

On the informal side, curtains are offered in myriad styles and configurations, including simple airy sheers; flat, ruffled or gathered panels; and short tier or café styles. Generally, curtains are lightweight, unlined fabric panels constructed of more casual fabrics, including voile, lace, unlined silk, cotton or cotton/polyester blends. Curtains typically feature a rod pocket construction and are stationary rather than moveable; they sometimes are gathered to the sides of the windows using fabric tiebacks or fixed holdbacks.

So, the final word is this: if you’re looking for heavyweight, formal window fashions, ask for draperies (or drapes, depending on where you live and if you’re a politician or not.) If you desire lightweight, casual window coverings, then you should search for curtains. Either way, Curtainworks offers a wide selection of fabrics and fabrications to help you decorate your home!

(Please see our "How To Measure & Install" section for more information on selecting the appropriate window coverings to fit your individual needs.)

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