Accessories are often small and can be very decorative, but they also have a practical function. These outfit accessories work with the whole body, from head to toe. Some, like curls, have been with us unchanged for thousands of years. Others, like the phone case, appeared almost yesterday. Some were staples of the elite, but many were worn, handled, admired and enjoyed by the masses.
As the categorization of accessories is tricky, is the belt that holds your jeans together an accessory? What about your sunglasses or jewelry? – we will define clothing accessory as something that a person wears or wears, which complements their clothes.
Accessories are the Cinderellas of sartorial history, too often forgotten as their fancier sisters go to the ball. But in their time, these objects did influential things and they connect to much larger ideas. Picking up a prop reveals aspects of the story in exciting new ways.
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Their raw materials show us global trade and sometimes global exploitation. Some accessories bore the stamp of the empire or were used to commemorate political ideas, such as the patch box which featured the famous anti-slavery motif “Am I not a man and a brother”.
Enterprising manufacturers used the widespread circulation of other items as an opportunity for mass advertising. The accessory, although small in size, has also given shape to gender roles and expectations, and new items – like the compact for example – show these changes over time.
To modern eyes they are sometimes mystifying, but these once-common objects have fascinating and important stories to tell.
Becoming medieval: how the chatelaine evoked the past for the Victorians
Both pretty and practical, the chatelaine was designed to hang on the waist of the wearer. There was a series of chains, each carrying something useful or useless: objects like sewing tools could be hung interspersed with trinkets. A woman wearing a chatelaine would feel its weight and hear it move with her.
Although the concept is centuries old, in the second half of the 1800s it became popular in series and featured practical objects for everyday Victorian life: propellant pencils, note takers, spectacle cases or maybe magnifying glasses.
This new version of an old accessory has also been given a historic-sounding name: “châtelaine”. Evoking the medieval lady of the castle who kept the keys, it celebrated a centuries-old practice of domestic art and the management of women. This accessory faced the present by looking to the past.
Dangerous Dressing: Why Edwardians Feared Hatpins
Hatpins became extremely long in Edwardian times. A length of up to 30 cm was needed to skewer a vast “picture” hat on the equally vast hair of its wearer, a fashionable chignon that incorporated hairpieces and padding.
The potential danger of hatpins, especially on public transport or on crowded streets, was clear. Sometimes they caused accidental damage, but they could also be purposely used as weapons. In 1908, Phyllis Thompson was arrested at Bootle, near Liverpool. Reprimanded by a police officer for being drunk and disorderly, she then stabbed him in the thigh with her hatpin.
The fear of hatpin peril was far greater in the United States than in Britain, and attempts were made to legislate against the longer of such accessories. It was also where the hatpin was seen as an ever-ready self-defense weapon for women, to be quickly pulled out of a hat and stuck into an attacker’s arm, leg, or eye.
Birth of Bling: Men and Women Embrace Sparkle with Artificial Gemstones
Jewelry made of flashing glass stones (called “dough”) is as popular today as it was in the 18th century. Then, the British-made shoe buckles were designed as a scintillating fashion statement for men, with the “calibrated fit” in glass. This means that all “stones” are shaped to fit snugly into standard holders. Gemstones are processed differently, with their natural shape determining the cut and mounting to reduce waste.
Alsatian jeweler Georg Friedrich Strass pioneered imitation diamond paste in his Paris workshop in the 1730s. He used a range of chemical elements as well as metal foil bases to enhance and diversify the color and the shine.
Following its invention, glamorous accessories made of artificial gemstones became affordable to the masses. This is where the bling began, in the middle of the 18th century. And these curls show us that it has been appreciated by both women and men.
Addicted to a Feeling: Victorian Button Mania
Button hooks were ubiquitous throughout the Victorian world, helping men – and especially women – to put on and take off their tight-fitting, tightly buttoned garments. They were available in a range of sizes and materials: large ones in silver and ebony, for example, were used for boots, gaiters and spats (buttoned up splash guards worn by adults and children); while smaller examples – made from various metals, Scottish agate, bone and guilloche enamel – were used for buttons on tight-fitting bodices or gloves.
Through these pieces, one can imagine the physical sensations of being locked into inflexible garments, and the ritual of dressing and undressing before the era of Velcro and zips. They come from a past where being dressed properly and comfortably meant being able to feel the pressure of your clothes on every part of your body – a person in Victorian Britain would have felt comfortable in clothes we would consider unacceptably restrictive today. Comfort is as much psychological as physical.
East meets West: 20th-century Western designers drew inspiration from overseas
Since the 18th century, the West has been fascinated by objects from the Orient, and in the early 20th century, European and American designers borrowed imagery and techniques from Africa and Asia to forge new trends in modernist styles of the time. West. The decorative arts, jewelry and fashion they created were imbued with the glamor of what was then considered exoticism.
At the time, a sense of the exotic could help sell mass-produced merchandise, but cultural borrowing was often only skin deep. A surviving example of a belt buckle from the 1920s, for example, is in the form of Chinese characters in an ancient script unintelligible to modern readers, and may have been copied purely for appearance, or possibly even invented. It may have been made in a small workshop specializing in craftsmanship in plastic: from a world where the machine and the handmade were less rigorously separated than today.
Facing the future: the compact at the center of socially acceptable cosmetics
Compacts emerged at the turn of the 20th century, part of a feminine style revolution that saw cosmetics become not only acceptable, but even socially necessary. Until then, wearing makeup evoked immorality and was widely frowned upon.
He took what was once illicit and made it desirable. Its portable nature celebrated women who were increasingly active outside the home, in leisure or work. Being essentially a small hairdresser, the compact produced another change in behavior, allowing women to apply their cosmetics not only on the go, but also in public.
Cordula van Wyhe is a lecturer in art history and Susan Vincent is a research fellow at the Center for Renaissance and Early Modern Studies, both at the University of York.
This article first appeared in the July 2022 issue of BBC History Magazine