Curtains come in so many models, shapes and levels of 'dressiness' that for each project it is not difficult to end up with something quite unique.
The options do, however, fall into a number of 'types', and some of these I will discuss here, using images from various books.
Historic examples can be found in prints and watercolours, particularly from the early 19th century, which is when curtain design considerably diversified. However complicated sometimes, there is no reason why they cannot equally be given a contemporary look by using beautiful, unpatterned fabrics and for example a coloured border instead of a 'fussy' fringe.
CURTAINS FROM A POLE
The simplest way of dressing a window, is with curtains hung with rings from a pole. This is often done in modern interiors because it can be made very sparse and minimal and today there is huge choice in metal poles with innovative finials, but I think these simple curtains have a role to play in more eleborate and traditional interiors too.
On the left the curtains are a of simple white fabric. The strong red border though, gives it a real punch and individuality. On the right a traditional room with lots going on and here anything more elaborate and patterned could have been too much.
Both these rooms show the smart combination of shiny brass rings and finials on a dark wooden pole, and this balances the informality of the curtains.
FALSE PELMETS AND SWAGS
Curtains hung from a pole can be made more interesting by adding so called 'false pelmets'. These are attached to the tops of the curtains so they open and close with them and their full effect is only seen when the curtains are closed. They are a good option if there is not enough height to make a fixed pelmet above the window, or where such a thing is thought to be too busy and elaborate. The most usual false pelmet is a horizontal skirt and this type can be found in illustrations as early as the 1820s.
A much more elaborate false pelmet can be made by attaching swags and tails to the curtains. This was popularized by the firm Colefax & Fowler and is often used by David Easton, as here in his own house. The advantage of this are the lovely soft, informal swags and beautiful long tails on either side. When the curtains are shut, the swags stretch out along the whole width and this can be very attractive and 'dressy'.
VALANCE from a pole
If there is enough space above the window, between its top and the ceiling, you can hang a generous pelmet without taking reducing the light into the room. This can make the windows and the room look taller, and is also just a beautiful decoration in itself.
This type of pelmet became popular in the first half of the nineteenth century. A splendid example from 1828 can be found, totally unchanged, in a grand drawing room in Ireland, where the bottom line is deeply curved.
It can be a very attractive mixture of lovely loose fabric and a beautiful chunky pole with rings. Basically it is a pleated skirt, with either a curved or a straight bottom line, with a simple, invisible track behind it for the curtains.
VALANCE from a wooden cornice
Pelmets with vertical pleats can also be hung from of a cornice, as in this lovely example. The moulding is fairly basic but the painted decoration makes all the difference. Done like this, it's quite similar to the way fourposter beds are often shaped.
VALANCE without cornice or pole
Another effective option is to make the valance entirely of fabric, with neither a pole nor a cornice showing. The watercolour from 1838 shows a pelmet like this in a room in Yorkshire. They can be nicely informal, very suitable for bedrooms, where the bed tester can match the shape and fabric. They are attached to the front of a board, which can be shaped, while the curtains hang from an invisible track underneath.
As with the other valances shown above, there is a large variation possible in finish, straight or curved bottom line, fringes etc and they can be just as simple or rich as one likes to make them.
One way to give a pelmet a tailored and contemporary look, is to make it completely flat. There are usually boxpleat folds on the corners and sometimes in the middle too. The bottom line can be gracefully curved, like the one below by Nina Campbell, which I think shows an attractive middle between modern and traditional styles.
Although a flat pelmet can look very modern, the idea can be found on sixteenth century beds and was particularly popular in the seventeenth century, decorated with baroque scrollwork in braid (the red example below is a 20th century interpretation of this style) and I think a line of braid along the bottom line still looks very smart and finished.
The early 19th century Empire style introduced various new shapes for curtains and pelmets. A whole new design language was developed, inspired by Napoleon's campaigns and all the original Roman forms that were found on wall paintings in Pompeii etc. Suddenly pelmets were made by draping pieces of fabric on and around wooden props like arrows, laurel leaves and swords. Fringes began to be very eleborate as well, and they do look particularly good in these nice curves across the window.
Some of the original designs for Empire style curtains are incredibly complicated with swags of different colours. Often one sees asymmetrical arrangements that are mirrored by a window next to it.
Another new idea, which came to be widely used thoughout the 19th century was to make a long pelmet of many swags and tails to hang across more than one window, often with mirrors in between.
FULL SWAGS AND TAILS
The most elaborate type of pelmet design goes back to the festoon curtains that were fashionable in the eighteenth century and consisted of a single piece of fabric per window, drawn up with strings. The resulting shapes; three or four billowing swags with tails on either side are now made in seperate pieces, but they are still often decorated with ropes and tassels that are supposed to be holding the whole thing in place.
In eighteenth century England this type of pelmet was used almost exlusively and occurs in designs by Chippendale and Robert Adam.
It is the most decorative of pelmet types and can look very grand indeed when hanging from an architectural or carved and gilded pelmet box.