Body Decorations, 1900โ€“18

In an age of extravagant dresses and immense feathered hats for women, and conservative suits and carefully chosen hats for men, body decorations and accessories faded in significance. It wasn't that such items were not important to people in the early years of the twentieth century; rather, they were simply overshadowed by the showiness of other parts of the outfit, as in the case of women, or were very understated, as in the case of men.

Women were certainly highly ornamented, especially in the first decade of the twentieth century. Their exquisitely tailored long dresses were topped off by closely fitting collars that accented the length of the neck, and their hats were among the most extravagant items ever to be worn. After about 1908, when skirts lifted to reveal the feet and ankles, shoes also became a way to show off one's fashion sense. Accessories, however, were downplayed. Most women carried a purse or small handbag, and the beaded purse, with its great versatility, was among the favorites. For evening wear a woman might slip on long gloves that extended as high as the elbow, and for colder weather a fur muff kept the hands warm. Most women wore jewelry but it was typically rather understated. Smaller earrings, rings, and a necklace of pearls were considered quite tasteful. Women might also carry a watch on a gold chain.

Women's makeup began to go through major changes around the turn of the century. Most women continued to use their own homemade makeup to lighten their faces or add color to their lips or cheeks. But modern manufacturers and distributors soon offered help. The precursor to the Avon cosmetics company was founded in the United States in 1886 and by 1906 had over ten thousand representatives offering a line of 117 different products to women across the country. Madame C. J. Walker (1867โ€“1919) invented a line of cosmetics for African American women in the same decade. Modern advertising made many more women aware of the "need" to wear cosmetics, driving the sale and use of such items to new levels among women of all social classes.

Men's costume in general was quite conservative during this period, which meant that accessories provided men with some small element of personal expression. Several items were popular among men. Many men carried pocket watches on a chain, and the quality and style of the chain was a mark of distinction. Men might also carry a walking stick, and these sticks could be decorated with a carved gold or wooden handle, or have a decorative metal tip. Finally, the most distinctive items of male jewelry were all forms of fasteners: cuff links to hold shirt cuffs together; a stickpin to hold the tie in place; or studs and buttons to fasten the shirt. Such small items, when made in fine gold, could signal the wearer's wealth and taste.


Avon Products, Inc. "Avon Timeline." : The Company for Women. (accessed on August 18, 2003).

Bundles, A'Lelia. On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker. New York: Scribner, 2001.

Lowry, Beverly. Biography of Madame C. J. Walker. New York: Knopf, 1999.

Payne, Blanche, Geitel Winakor, and Jane Farrell-Beck. The History of Costume. 2nd ed. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.

Walker, Madame C. J.
Beaded Handbags

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