Accessories are a vital part of fashion. They are what completes an outfit, brings it right up-to-date, spices it up just enough to make it fun. And fashionable. The ‘must-have’ accessory varied markedly from one era and century to another. In the 18th and 19th centuries it was the fan. There were folding brisé fans and rigid fans, the size, colour and decoration depending entirely on fashion. Women would sometimes use their fans to send messages to each other – ‘no’, ‘follow me’ etc. – in a kind of fan ‘sign language’.
By the 19th century the guild system had been abolished and trade in luxury goods was growing, partly thanks to the many luxury retailers and fashionable department stores that were opening. Fans were still popular, and a whole range of stockings, bags, shawls, gloves and, later in the century, hats and hairstyles, ribbons and bows, and pocket watches flooded the market. Of course the wealthy wore expensive jewellery, but cheaper costume jewellery made of modern materials like early plastics, jet and bakelite was also introduced later. Other popular items included opera glasses and the fashionable walking stick for gentlemen. Costly cashmere shawls were popular with women. The first ones came from India, but they were soon copied in Europe, and remained an important fashion item from the start of the century into the 1860s.
In the early 20th century the hat was the most distinguishing accessory a fashionable woman could wear. By around 1910 women’s hats had assumed huge proportions. The modern world also presented fashion with new challenges. The advent of the car (open-topped at first) brought a whole set of new problems that required a fashionable solution. Motoring hats had an attached scarf that held them in place during a car ride, and motoring goggles ensured that the eyes were also protected from dust. In the 1920s, a growing range of handbags were marketed, often with in-built vanity mirrors. As cars became more common in the 1950s and 60s, hats and walking sticks became less popular, for where could they be conveniently stored in the car? Nylon stockings were a godsend for women from the 1920s onwards, and in the 1960s the panty hose arrived, just in time for the fashion in mini skirts. By the late 20th century shoes and bags had overtaken hats in the popularity stakes. Handbags, in particular, became a hugely important fashion accessory, and nowadays some designer bags are even regarded as an ‘investment’.