Beyond fashion: 6 accessories that reveal changing attitudes in society, from the Georgians to the 20th century
We’ve added accoutrements to our outfits for centuries, from buckles to buttons, but they aren’t just important for fashion’s sake. Cordula van Wyhe and Susan Vincent reveal what six accessories can tell us about historical attitudes to gender, empire and more...
Accessories are often small and they can be highly decorative, but they have a practical function too. These outfit add-ons work with the entire body from top to toe. Some, like buckles, have been with us unchanged for thousands of years. Others, like the phone case, appeared almost yesterday. Some were elite must-haves, but many were carried, manipulated, admired and enjoyed by the masses.
Since categorising accessories is tricky – is the belt that holds up your jeans an accessory? What about your sunglasses, or your jewellery? – we will define the dress accessory as something that a person carries or wears, which supplements their garments.
Accessories are the Cinderella of dress history, too often forgotten while their fancier sisters go to the ball. But in their own time these objects did influential things, and they connect with much broader ideas. Picking up an accessory reveals aspects of history in exciting new ways.
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Their raw materials show us global trade and sometimes global exploitation. Some accessories had the stamp of empire or were used to commemorate political ideas, like the patch box that featured the famous “Am I Not a Man and a Brother” anti-slavery design.
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Enterprising manufacturers used the widespread circulation of other items as an opportunity for mass advertising. The accessory, though small in size, also gave form to gender roles and expectations, and new items – like the powder compact for instance – show these changing over time.
To modern eyes they are sometimes mystifying, but these once common objects have fascinating and important stories to tell.
Going medieval: how the chatelaine evoked the past for Victorians
Both pretty and practical, the chatelaine was designed to hang from the wearer’s waist. It had a series of chains, each of which carried something useful or useless: things like sewing tools might hang interspersed with trinkets. A woman wearing a chatelaine would feel its weight and hear it moving with her.
Although the concept was centuries old, in the second half of the 1800s it rose to mass-produced popularity and featured things that were handy for everyday Victorian life: propelling pencils, note-takers, cases for spectacles or maybe magnifying glasses.
This new take on an old accessory was also given a historical-sounding name: “chatelaine”. Evoking the medieval lady of the castle who kept the keys, it celebrated an age-old practice of women’s domestic skill and management. This accessory faced the present by looking to the past.
Dangerous dressing: why the Edwardians feared hat pins
Hat pins became extremely long in the Edwardian period. A length of up to 30cm was needed to skewer a vast “picture” hat over the equally vast hair of its wearer, a fashionable updo that incorporated hair pieces (postiches) and padding.
The potential danger of hat pins, particularly on public transport or in crowded streets, was clear. Sometimes they caused accidental harm, but they could also be purposefully wielded as weapons. In 1908, Phyllis Thompson was arrested in Bootle, near Liverpool. Reprimanded by a police constable for being drunk and disorderly, she then stabbed him in the thigh with her hat pin.
The fear of hat-pin peril was much greater in the United States than in Britain, and there attempts were made to legislate against the longest of these accessories. It was also there that the hat pin was seen as an ever-ready weapon of self-defence for women, to be swiftly pulled from a hat and driven into an attacker’s arm, leg or eye.
Birth of bling: men and women embrace sparkle with artificial gemstones
Jewellery made of flashing glass stones (called “paste”) is as popular today as in the 18th century. Then, British-made shoe buckles were designed as a sparkly fashion statement for men, with the glass “calibré cut”. This means that all the “stones” are shaped to fit snugly together into standard mounts. Precious gemstones are treated differently, with their natural shape determining the cut and mount to reduce wastage.
The Alsatian jeweller Georg Friedrich Strass pioneered the paste imitation of diamonds in his Paris workshop in the 1730s. He used a range of chemical elements as well as metal foil bases to enhance and diversify colour and sparkle.
Following his invention, glamorous accessories made of artificial gemstones became affordable for the masses. This is where bling began, in the mid-18th century. And these buckles show us that it was enjoyed by both women and men.
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Hooked on a feeling: the Victorian mania for buttons
Button hooks were ubiquitous in the Victorian world, helping men – and especially women – get in and out of their tightly fitted, highly buttoned garments. They came in a range of sizes and materials: large ones of silver and ebony, for example, were used for boots, gaiters and spats (buttoned spatter guards worn by both adults and children); while smaller examples – made from various metals, Scottish agate, bone and guilloché enamel – were used for buttons on tight-fitting bodices or gloves.
Through these items, we can imagine the physical sensations of being encased in unyielding garments, and the ritual of dressing and undressing before the age 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 regard as unacceptably restrictive today. Comfort is as much psychological as physical.
East meets West: 20th-century western designers took inspiration from across the seas
Since the 18th century, there has been a fascination in the West with objects from the East, and in the early 20th-century European and American designers borrowed from the imagery and techniques of Africa and Asia to forge new trends in the modernist styles of the west. The decorative arts, jewellery and fashion they created were imbued with the glamour of what was then seen as the exotic.
At the time, a sense of exoticism could help to sell a mass-produced commodity, but cultural borrowing was often only skin deep. A surviving example of a belt buckle from the 1920s, for example, is in the shape of Chinese characters of an ancient script unintelligible to modern readers, and may have been copied for their looks alone, or maybe even invented. It may have been made in a small workshop specialising in artisan creation in plastic: from a world where the machine and the handmade were less rigorously separated than today.
Facing the future: the compact at the centre of socially acceptable cosmetics
Compacts emerged in the early 20th century, part of a revolution in women’s style that saw cosmetics become not just acceptable but even socially necessary. Until then, wearing makeup was suggestive of immorality and was widely disapproved of.
It 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 in essence a small dressing table, the compact produced a further behavioural shift, allowing women to apply their cosmetics not only on the move, but in public too.
Cordula van Wyhe is senior lecturer in the history of art and Susan Vincent is a research fellow at the Centre for Renaissance and Early Modern Studies, both at the University of York
This article was first published in the July 2022 issue of BBC History Magazine