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August 1999

From the Vault

Jeweled Vanities

These little luxuries are unique works of art that helped define a new generation of women

The Flapper and la Garçonne were names used to describe the 1920s woman who emerged in the aftermath of World War I. Drawn into the workforce to fill the void left by men killed or disabled at the front, women became completely different creatures from their pre-war counterparts. They adapted quickly to their new roles and, no longer hampered by restrictive social conventions, became assertive and independent, practical and pragmatic.

The profile for this new woman was slim and boyish with short cropped hair and streamlined and comfortable garments. Corsets were a thing of the past, and clothing down-played feminine curves. Emphasis was on the vertical line. Dress for day was casual and sporty and even included tailored pants. For evening, the look was sultry and exotic with sleeveless dresses cut low in front and back. Legs became the new erogenous zone as hemlines exposed them to the knee.

To further demonstrate their modernity, ladies of every social class openly wore make-up and smoked cigarettes, an affectation strictly limited to actresses and courtesans before the war. Jewelers were quick to produce containers for these new habits, and vanity cases of amazing variety proliferated in the 1920s. The Japanese Inro, a partitioned multipurpose box that hung from a woven silk cord, was the inspiration for some of these vanity cases.

Designed for the Individual
Each little necessairewas made to order to suit the needs of its owner. Some were made to hold only a lipstick, powder or cigarettes, while others were made with compartments to hold as many additional items as possible, including mascara, lighter, comb, pencil, card case or money. Mirrors usually lined the lid, and a watch was incorporated occasionally.

These charming accessories were made in the prevailing style of the 1920s, a meld of decorative ornamental motifs and primary color palette derived from the exotic Asian and Islamic cultures and the contemporary art movements of Cubism and Fauvism. Ancient Egyptian ornament was another influence, inspired by the excavation of King Tutankhamen's tomb in 1922. Known today as Art Deco, this style is characterized by geometric patterns and stylized naturalism in strong contrasting colors.

Visual Impact
Materials for jewelry and accessories were selected for decorative impact as much as intrinsic value. Vanity cases were produced in a juxtaposition of opaque and transparent, carved and faceted gem materials set in platinum and gold, often with additional enameling or lacquer. Jade, coral, amber, lapis lazuli and black onyx were integrated with diamond, ruby, sapphire, emerald and rock crystal in blazing combinations. Some boxes were fashioned from a single slab of jade, chalcedony or lapis lazuli that was carved, sliced and assembled with gold or platinum fittings and further embellished with additional gems.

These little vanity cases and cigarette boxes are unique works of art that conceal a meaning beyond their function. They represent the essence of luxury by cloaking mundane acts with precious materials. They also act as exquisite reminders of the dramatic social evolution for women in the early years of the 20th century.

This vanity case, or necessaire, combines a lipstick case and powder compact in black enameled gold with diamond and platinum accents suspended from a black onyx ring. By Cartier, Paris c. 1925. Courtesy of David Humphrey.

– by Elise B. Misiorowski

Copyright © 1999 by Bond Communications.


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