ANSWER: A little insight into the history of these two terms will help you understand where the terms draperies and curtains originated and how they were used.
As far back as 1789 curtain styles went through numerous changes in Europe. Very detailed curtains were created during the era before the French Revolution (1789 to 1792) and they started to be referred to as draperies. Also about this time, Parisian upholsterers started creating very elaborate works, and these too were often referred to as draperies. But before this time, the word curtain was used most often when it came to covering windows, doors and even beds.
Soon after the 1800s, lighter weight curtains became popular once again, but the very decorative poles, rings and finials that began to appear with them were new introductions to the style.
A design called the continued drapery started to appear soon after. This design called for an entire wall to be covered with a single treatment-still referred to as a curtain. These curtains would appear heavy and dark and have many folds or pleats. It was a look similar to what we today would refer to as a custom drapery.
In Webster's New World Dictionary, World Publishing Co. (1961), the term curtain is defined as "a piece of cloth or the like hung at a window, in front of a stage, etc., to decorate or to cover, hide, or shut off. Anything that hides, covers or shuts off. To furnish or hide as with a curtain."
In this same text, the term drapery is defined as a "curtain or other cloth hanging in loose folds." As you may have noticed, the term is generic looking back at its history.
The term draperies is defined as "loosely hung, often heavy fabric curtains," by LuAnn Nissen in the textbook, Inside Today's Home, sixth edition, 1994. In that same textbook drapery panel is a "drapery length made of one or more widths of fabric that travels in one direction on the rod." In this same textbook by Nissen, a draw curtain/drapery is defined as a "fabric panel that can be opened and closed on a traverse rod."
Although the terms are used interchangeably and have been throughout time, I still refer to window treatments as custom draperies.
Editor's note: This is a continuing series of articles written by Sharon L. Anderson that will answer some of the many questions we receive at Draperies & Window Coverings as well as questions Anderson has encountered in her own business.
Sharon L. Anderson has more than 20 years experience as a professional interior designer in both commercial and residential design. She has taught at numerous colleges throughout California and currently is an educator at Moorpark College in southern California. She is a published author and
frequent public speaker.