Capture Looks From The Great Gatsby to American Graffiti With Vintage Accessories
By Pamela Wiggins
From the swinging fun-loving ladies of the '20s to the glitzy glamour girls of the '50s, American women of decades past form a distinct picture of style. And although these decades spanned a generation, the keystone of fashion for these women remained constant because they knew how to accessorize. Whether casual or formal, whimsical or dazzling, their accessories allowed them to radiate confidence, holding their heads high with an air of sophistication, yet never forgetting how to have a good time.
As we're poised on the brink of the new millennium, we can learn how to develop our own remarkable personal style by taking a look at the history of fashion accessories from the 1920s through the 1950s. Through collecting and wearing vintage accessories, many women across the country are finding a way to rise above the masses and garner compliments that leave others standing in their wake. They incorporate vintage jewelry, purses, buttons and other classic items into contemporary wardrobes for looks that are all their own.
Anne Morrissey, a 5'3" collector from Uxbridge, Mass., says searching out vintage pieces is worth the time and trouble. To her, accessorizing vintage-style means "expressing myself in a way that's witty and fun." She remarks, "It's like a little secret that I want others to know about."
Unlocking the secret of vintage accessories often means experimenting with various pieces from different eras to find the look or looks that make you feel your best. Some women prefer to stick to one particular mode, such as tailored styles from the '40s. "I think I just like the era in general; the clean lines are very stylish," says Sara Peth, a sales consultant living in Ann Arbor, Mich.
Others have more eclectic taste and amass a varied collection of accessories to suit their day-to-day moods. Pat Seal, an antique dealer in Joshua, Texas, considers "vintage costume jewelry to be a work of art" and wears everything from a striking Victorian gold-filled lion's head bracelet to the glitziest rhinestone pins from the '50s. With cropped silver hair framing her face, Seal mixes and matches her jewelry infinitely to color coordinate with her casual wardrobe.
Any wardrobe or lifestyle, even the most casual, can be given a little pick-me-up with vintage flair. Part of the fun comes with finding an eclectic mix that suits your personality, a process that doesn't have to be complicated. Deb Schneider, a webmaster residing in Columbus, Ohio, whose baby blues would make even Paul Newman blush, admits, "I'm very down to earth and practical. I don't pay much attention to being 'just so.' I just pick out what suits my mood and put it on."
Roaring '20s and the Great Depression
For a quaint, romantic flavor, the accessory styles from the 1920s and 1930s can provide just the needed touch. Ranging from dainty to borderline-flamboyant, but always exuding feminine charm, almost everyone can find something from this era to compliment their contemporary wardrobe.
The purses of this era were often flapper-style and, in the '20s, were made with tiny seed beads and ornate fringe or delicate metal mesh, moving toward heavier meshes and fabric pouches in the '30s. The jewelry ranged from long strands of colorful beads to crystal "Y" necklaces that have been copied, manufactured and sold widely during the past few years. Today's longer flowing dresses or funky simple styles can both benefit from the tender touch of an accessory from these early years.
Many women prefer '20s and '30s accessories because of their versatility. Bee Gee McBride, antiques storeowner in Port Aransas, Texas believes that they "didn't take their accessories quite so seriously" back then. When she's wearing her Bakelite, a phenolic plastic also known as Catalin that hit peak production around 1930, it's nothing but fun.
Because the bangle bracelets made from Bakelite were produced in such a wide variety of colors, "you can stretch a small wardrobe because of all the combinations you can put together," says McBride. The brooches were often carved into wonderful figural shapes such as animals, fruit and flowers and are very popular as an accessory for casualwear - everything from skirts and sandals to jeans and T-shirts - but can brighten up a suit jacket just as easily when the time is right. These hot collectibles, originally sold in dime stores during the Depression era for next to nothing, are now all the rage.
Art Deco also influenced accessories from this era, and adorns all types of items. Deco designs on painted mesh handbags with chain handles and colorful geometric designs can be worn to complement almost any cocktail dress and look great for semi-formal occasions. Cloche hats with funky designs are also fashionable and fun.
Leigh Leshner, an independent producer in Los Angeles, finds herself wearing the biggest rhinestone Deco-styled pins she can locate. "I like 'em big," she laughs, her curly red hair bouncing. "They tend to bring the eye up to where you want the attention." These brooches were produced from pot metal, a base metal with no plating, and usually have brilliant, eye-catching stones. Wearing them with absolutely everything, Leshner's even been known to dress up a sweatsuit with one of her killer brooches.
In contrast, the sleek '40s styles, known for tailored suits, hold appeal for many confident women, who consider this to be the high style period in costume jewelry history as well. Due to the elegance and sophistication integrated into the objects, these designs were perfect for the clothes of the time, and still look great on jackets, sweaters and dressy blouses. The period during WWII saw many pieces of costume jewelry produced in sterling silver because other metals were being utilized in the war effort.
Other accessories from this era include genuine fur stoles, capes and collars that can be worn with evening attire or to dress up a plain sweater or coat for daywear. Most women who wear vintage items wouldn't buy a new fur, but find recycling an old one to be perfectly acceptable. "It's a part of history and I think other women should enjoy them like I do," store owner McBride says confidently.
Purse styles from the '40s often incorporate clean lines, such as envelope or clutch styles made from heavy crochet and corded fabrics. These durable bags look great with upscale business attire. Hats from this decade, often larger with wider brims, can make a real statement with a dinner suit or even a sundress for a dressy casual affair.
Rock 'n Roll '50s
Moving on to the '50s for inspiration, fabulous flashy items now find a place in many women's wardrobes. Susan Kern, 49, a rehab counselor in Bozeman, Mont., whose thick wavy hair often draws looks of envy, finds these accessories appealing "because they're usually bolder than those from other eras. I really like the shininess and glitz." She reveals, "I even wear rhinestone jewelry with my jeans and cowboy boots. They don't usually notice the jeans and boots anymore, but they always notice the jewelry."
Beyond costume jewelry, rhinestones decorated almost everything the '50s had to offer, from compacts to shoes and handbags. Some of the greatest fun with vintage purses comes in the form of plastic box bags made from Lucite, a popular hard plastic. Many of these purses were decorated with attractive carvings and large shiny, clear stones and come in a wide variety of shapes to suit any taste. As a bonus, the colors are usually neutral enough to match almost anything.
Faux animal prints were also popular during the '50s and coordinate nicely with current clothing and similar contemporary accessory designs. Hats, purses, shoes and scarves all bore animal prints during this time, and today we see history repeating itself.
Baubles & BBWs
Although most women have nothing but fun with vintage items, there can be a few challenges in making jewelry work for the ample physique. Yet clever plus-size women always learn to work around these obstacles.
While many vintage necklaces are choker-style and do not fit a larger neck, many women use chain extensions on their favorite pieces rather than miss the chance to enjoy them. Rhinestone extensions that add about 1 1/2" to a necklace can be purchased at many bridal shops.
Where fuller hands and wrists are the concern, the bracelets produced in the 1950s are not only bold and beautiful, but they are larger as well. For women who have hands that don't always cooperate when slipping bangles on and off, store owner McBride suggests using a leg cut from a pair of pantyhose or a silk scarf to ease this task. She keeps one of these useful tools in her jewelry box at all times.
Since most vintage clothing and shoes rarely fit today's fuller body types, many women who desire the vintage look add older touches to clothing they purchase from traditional resources. Sales consultant Peth advises, "Don't overlook vintage trims. You can decorate a plain sweater and get a vintage look that fits. " Many collectors shop thrift stores for vintage clothing in all sizes and conditions to utilize interesting buttons, lace collars and other salvaged items to spice up their wardrobes. Plain pumps can be given a lift by adding a vintage shoe clip. These clever accessories were made for many years and can still be purchased fairly inexpensively.
Where to Look
To the woman who has great ideas on how to use vintage accessories, but asks where to find them, silver-haired antique dealer Seal exclaims, "Everywhere!"
The first place to do a little "shopping" is in your own home. Check your dresser, closet and jewelry chest. Perhaps a relative or friend has given you an older item that you've forgotten about over the years. Look at it with a fresh eye, to see if there might be a way to incorporate it into your wardrobe.
Next, sit down at your computer and do a little online browsing. Any good online search engine will yield numerous resources to peruse at your leisure. Many women find this to be the preferable way to uncover vintage items. When someone asks about her favorite way to shop, webmaster Schneider replies, "Online by far. It's convenient and you can see a lot without a lot of travel."
Outside your home, the possibilities for shopping are virtually endless. There are antique shops and malls, shows, flea markets, estate and garage sales, and thrift stores to scavenge for wardrobe-boosting treasures.
For beginning accessory buyers, attending shows often provides the opportunity to get hands-on knowledge and personal service from the exhibiting dealers.
For others, the adventure of tracking down a dusty prize takes them to flea markets and tag sales. "I'm a scrounger, " admits Anne Morrissey. "I work a high-powered job all week and like to flea on the weekends. It's the 'thrill of the hunt' thing." Producer Leshner says that she shops everywhere, but loves "estate sales and flea markets. You never know what you can find, so it's always a surprise!"
Rehab counselor Kern even places advertisements in local publications and buys from individuals with collections of jewelry and other vintage items to sell. "The people that call me from the ads have cool stories to go along with the items I buy from them," she remarks. "People tend to want their things to go to someone who likes and will appreciate them."
Beyond the wardrobe lifts and thrill of the hunt, there are actually other benefits to wearing vintage items.
"It's a good ice breaker," says redhead Leshner. She finds that people will often comment on her jewelry in business and social situations thereby making the transition to other topics go very smoothly. Deb Schneider agrees, noting, "People are always checking out what I'm wearing. Whether at work or when I'm out antiquing or shopping, it's a real conversation starter."
The possibilities are endless in the vintage world, and so are the compliments. So what are you waiting for? It's time to get vintage, get style and get noticed!
- If an item isn't in particularly good condition or your size, look at individual components rather than the garment as a whole. Can you use the buttons on another blouse or coat? Can the lace collar be removed and re-attached? Think in terms of reusing older items whenever possible.
- Get to know sellers in your area or online so they can contact you when things that perfectly suit your style become available for sale.
- Don't overlook vintage trims and beads that are often bagged and sold separately at shops and shows. These can be used to decorate plain clothing and purses without spending a lot of cash.
- Check the condition of pieces closely, both inside and out, before purchasing an expensive item. Most antique shops and malls do not allow returns.
- Ask pertinent questions about age, condition and color when shopping online. It's often difficult to access these factors from a picture on a computer screen. Also, be sure that online sellers allow returns in case you are disappointed in the quality, color or size when you receive an item.
- Carry an old silk scarf in your handbag to help you slide bangle bracelets on and off easily while shopping.
- Utilize sellers at shows as a learning resource. Look at different items and ask questions about them to learn more about specific styles and the way items were originally worn.
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