Adornments for the body that are made of precious metals and stones are called jewelry, and jewelry is given the name costume jewelry when it is not made from precious materials. Costume jewelry provides an inexpensive way to add glamour and sparkle to fashion because it is usually made of cheap materials, such as glass or plastic rather than diamonds and emeralds, and plain steel, brass, or copper, rather than gold and silver. Though costume jewelry has been worn during many periods, it had a major rise in popularity during the 1920s and 1930s.
For as long as people have worn jewelry made of precious stones and metals, they have also made false versions of that jewelry. Even ancient Greeks and Romans wore glass jewelry, which imitated the look of expensive precious stones. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries French and English jewelers worked to perfect new hard types of glass that could be cut to give the many-faceted look of a diamond. This glass was called paste, and paste became the name given to false jewels. Jewelry made of these paste jewels was usually called fashioned jewelry because the stones were made or fashioned by people.
During the early 1920s the creative French designer Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel (1883–1971) introduced many popular new styles. She moved away from the formal layers of clothing that had been popular during the 1800s, considering them old-fashioned and suffocating. Chanel's styles were simple, loose, and comfortable, and to dress them up with sparkle she designed a type of fashioned jewelry she named costume jewelry.
Chanel's costume jewelry was big and bold with long strings of glass beads, dangling earrings, and many plastic bracelets stacked up on the arms. The inexpensive flashy jewels fit right in with the sexy look of the 1920s flapper, or independent and rebellious woman, and soon costume jewelry adorned many stylish young women across the Western world. Other well-known designers, such as Elsa Schiaparelli (1896–1973) of Italy, began to design their own styles of costume jewelry.
The tremendous popularity of costume jewelry lasted through the 1930s, as many women imitated the glamour of Hollywood stars. Though women continue to buy costume jewelry as an inexpensive alternative to real jewelry into the twenty-first century, many of the costume pieces designed during the costume jewelry craze of the 1920s have become collectors' items, bringing prices almost as high as gold and diamonds.
Brower, Brock. "Chez Chanel: Couturiere and Courtesan, Coco Made Her Own Rules as She Freed Women from Old Fussy, Frilly Fashions." Smithsonian (July 2001): 60–66.
Haedrich, Marcel. Coco Chanel: Her Life, Her Secrets. New York: Little, Brown, 1972.
Miller, Brandon Marie. Dressed for the Occasion: What Americans Wore 1620-1970. Minneapolis, MN: Lerner Publications, 1999.
Schiffer, Nancy, and Lyngerda Kelley. Costume Jewelry: The Great Pretenders. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing, 1998.
Wallach, Janet. Chanel: Her Style and Her Life. New York: Doubleday, 1998.
Wallis, Jeremy. Coco Chanel. Chicago, IL: Heinemann, 2001.
Yarwood, Doreen. Fashion in the Western World: 1500–1900. New York: Drama Book Publishers, 1992.
[ See also Volume 3, Eighteenth Century: Paste Jewelry ]