I love to pop into vintage shops around town if I just so happen to be passing by and have a little extra time. It was one of those days. I caught a glimpse of the freshly decorated windows of a darling vintage consignment shop and was lured in.
As I took my time slowly looking under all the glass cases of sparkle, I spotted the most beautiful brooch from the 1920s. The style of the brooch was Art Deco. Suddenly, I was brought back in time to my student government office in college during the late ’80s where I hung modern Kandinsky prints of geometric shapes in bright, vibrant colors on the walls around my desk.
Art Deco, however, had quite a history well before the 1980s…
The Art Deco Movement
It was April 28, 1925, the day of the inauguration of the International Exposition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts, a World’s Fair taking place in Paris, France. Four thousand guests came through that day and thousands more attended over the next six months where the Art Deco style was first exhibited.
The Art Deco movement, originally referred to as Style Moderne, symbolized modern luxury, glamour, and sophistication in decorative art, architecture, graphic arts, industrial design, and even fashion. This style is easy to recognize with its bold colors and geometric shapes as seen in this 1923 painting by Wassily Kandinsky (Circles in a Circle):
You can also see it in this 1920s Art Deco shoe clip design which I repurposed into a stainless steel chain toggle bracelet:
Art Deco emerged during the interwar period between WWI and WWII as the culture was being completely transformed during rapid industrial growth. Art Deco architecture represented the boost in commerce, technology, and speed. Combined with its modern image, Art Deco designs were perfectly suitable for towering skyscrapers such as the Chrysler Building in New York City:
Designed by William Van Alen; built: 1928–1930
A New Look for Women
During the First World War, women’s fashion went through major changes. After taking up physically hard jobs in the absence of the men who had gone off to war, women cut their hair, threw out their corsets, and wore shorter sleeves. When the war ended, women had no desire to wear their pre-war, constrictive clothing. Short, low-cut dresses with a drop waist became the new look as women switched to wearing simple, looser clothing with straight lines. This required a new look for jewelry styles as well.
The 1920s, also known as the Roaring Twenties, became a time of continued economic prosperity in major cities throughout the U.S., Canada, and Europe. The French called it the années folles meaning “crazy years.” A new energy spread through lively jazz music, flappers redefining the modern woman, and the luxury style of Art Deco influencing designers in every field around the world.
The King & Carter Jazzing Orchestra, 1921
The History of the Cocktail Ring
Along with this new energy came a new law prohibiting the sale of alcoholic beverages. This caused a major revolution, as you can imagine. People began having underground cocktail parties and illegal alcoholic drinks were sold in establishments called speakeasies. Until speakeasies came about, women did not venture into public bars.
The alcohol during the Prohibition years (1920-1933) was very strong tasting and low quality. This led to the creation of cocktails that were much more palatable. A few of the cocktails of this era included the Mary Pickford, the Gin Rickey, the Tom Collins, the Whiskey Sour, and the Sidecar.
Women would dress in their most glamorous evening wear, accessorizing with a big, bold, sparkly ring which was considered the ultimate accessory of excess and independence.
This oversized ring flaunted the fact that it was not a wedding ring as it was always worn on the opposite hand – the hand that held her illegal cocktail. The “cocktail ring” was a ring she bought for herself, expressing her autonomy.
Jewelry Trends of the 1920s
Money flowed more freely now that the war was over, and women who were newly prosperous were becoming more interested in spending their money on jewelry to wear as they lived without restraint, drinking cocktails, smoking cigarettes, and dancing till dawn.
The new machine age offered the capability to mass-produce jewelry, making it much more affordable. No longer was there pressure from society for women to have to flaunt their wealth by wearing expensive gemstone jewelry. Plastics such as bakelite, and semi-precious stones like jade, coral, and onyx were perfectly acceptable.
Dangling earrings, dress clips, long beaded necklaces, and multiple bangle bracelets worn on both wrists (the more the better) were popular accessories which could all be mass-produced. However, the Art Deco movement was also sensitive to art and design.
Convertible jewelry was another Art Deco trend. Earrings could often be converted to brooches and separate dress clips could be joined as one larger brooch. A sautoir (a French term for a long necklace that has a tassel or ornament suspended from it) was also able to be converted to bracelets, shorter necklaces, and even head ornaments.
Long strands of pearls were extremely fashionable and were seen worn around the neck down the front or back of a woman’s dress, day or night. They were a favorite of well-known fashion designer Coco Chanel. The quality and affordability of cultured “fake” peals during the decade made them an item every woman could afford.
This is a fabulous photo of one of my relatives from Sweden during the 1920s, wearing a stunning headpiece made of pearls on her wedding day:
The End of an Era
The Art Deco style continued through the years of the Great Depression as it conveyed the message that better times were just ahead. But the beginning of WWII in 1939 was the end of the Art Deco era. The style was then perceived as too flashy and extravagant during a time of frugality and restraint.
Interest in Art Deco resurged in the 1960s. This is when the term “Art Deco” was made popular by art historian and critic Bevis Hillier in her book titled, Art Deco of the 20s and 30s (1968). It became fashionable once again in the 1980s, influencing the styles of jewelry and contemporary art.
As much as I absolutely LOVED the ’80s, I have a feeling I would have thoroughly enjoyed the life of a 1920s girl dudding up in a glamorous black fringe dress, long pearls, and a sparkly cocktail ring to hear some good whangdoodle while doing the Charleston with my goof. Now, that would be the cat’s pajamas!
(Interpretation for those who did not grow up in the 1920s: Dressing up to hear some good jazz music while dancing with my sweetie. Now that would be totally awesome!)
*Art Deco brooch courtesy of Echo Boutique in Dallas, Texas.
*Chrysler Building – photo credit: User: Leena Hietanen
Kimberly Moore is a vintage costume jewelry expert, blogger, speaker, and author of Beauty in a Life Repurposed. To learn more, visit her website at kingdomsparkle.com
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