Van­ity flair

A su­perla­tive col­lec­tion of Art Deco van­ity cases has just been promised as a gift to the V&A and the ac­com­pa­ny­ing book de­scribes how these minia­ture master­pieces cap­ture the glam­our of that age, says Caro­line Bu­gler

Country Life Every Week - - Contents -

A new col­lec­tion of van­ity cases promised to the V&A charms Caro­line Bu­gler

THE Roar­ing Twen­ties were a decade of glam­our, bril­liance, change and ex­hil­a­ra­tion—at least for the wealthy and so­phis­ti­cated. As the world be­gan to re­cover from the dev­as­ta­tions of war, the rich and fash­ion­able left be­hind years of mis­ery to em­brace Mod­ernism and he­donism, in­dulging in the new plea­sures of cock­tail par­ties, jazz clubs, avant-garde art, Hol­ly­wood films, trips on ocean lin­ers and mo­tor­ing.

On both sides of the At­lantic, for­tunes were made and spent with the kind of lav­ish aban­don por­trayed in The Great Gatsby. The ex­cite­ment of a new way of life was felt in ev­ery Western cul­ture and so­ci­ety, but Paris be­came the city to which ev­ery­one grav­i­tated, with Lon­don and New York fol­low­ing close be­hind. It was a thrilling time to be a woman, as new free­doms gained dur­ing the war fil­tered into peace­time. Lib­er­ated from con­strict­ing corsets, young women were ac­tive and sporty and some were even seen at the steer­ing wheels of cars and in the pilot seats of aero­planes. Em­brac­ing the spirit of in­de­pen­dence con­veyed in Victor Mar­gueritte’s novel La Garçonne (The Tomboy), they short­ened their hem­lines, cut their hair, danced the Charleston and smoked in pub­lic. Makeup be­came an in­creas­ingly es­sen­tial part of the fe­male look, partly in­spired by Hol­ly­wood screen icons. No longer con­sid­ered vul­gar and best kept to the pri­vacy of the boudoir, it could now be touched up at the din­ner ta­ble in full view of ev­ery­one. In­deed, the act of ap­ply­ing pow­der and putting on lip­stick be­came part of an in­tri­cate pub­lic rit­ual of se­duc­tion.

To ac­com­pany the new fash­ions and be­hav­iour, women needed a new ac­ces­sory, a con­tainer to hold their pow­der, lip­stick, comb and cig­a­rettes that was as stylish as their out­fits. Jewellers were quick to spot

an op­por­tu­nity. They be­gan to make ex­quis­ite van­ity cases, or néces­saires, small boxes that were clev­erly de­signed with sep­a­rate com­part­ments to hold ev­ery­thing a wealthy, fash­ion­able women might re­quire while out on the town. The one thing they never needed to con­tain was money.

Be­fore the ad­vent of the van­ity case, women might have car­ried their per­sonal items in a small draw­string bag or retic­ule, but these new cases had more in com­mon with the tra­di­tional Ja­panese inro—a neat stack of lit­tle boxes for small ob­jects held to­gether with a cord and sus­pended from the waist. Like the inro, they tran­scended their purely util­i­tar­ian func­tion and de­vel­oped into minia­ture works of art. The women who owned these ex­quis­ite ob­jects would have en­joyed flaunt­ing them in restau­rants, night­clubs, at par­ties or at the the­atre or opera.

Al­though de­signed by master jewellers, their man­u­fac­ture was of­ten out­sourced to spe­cial­ist crafts­men and they fre­quently took hun­dreds of hours to per­fect, mak­ing them ex­tremely ex­pen­sive to buy or com­mis­sion. Most were cre­ated in Paris in the 1920s, when some 1,000 work­shops were busily turn­ing out lux­ury goods for the home and for­eign mar­kets.

Van­ity cases came in a va­ri­ety of forms. The first ones were fairly sim­ple, crafted in yel­low gold, per­haps em­bel­lished with a mono­gram or dec­o­rated with Rus­sianstyle enam­elling. Flat or pos­si­bly cylin­dri­cal, they might be up to 5in in length. They soon de­vel­oped into highly so­phis­ti­cated and em­bel­lished cre­ations, set with pre­cious stones, carved plaques, elab­o­rate Chi­nese lac­quer pan­els or mo­saics of moth­erof-pearl in­lay. Some cases had a sim­ple lid that was opened with a push piece and oth­ers were at­tached to a fin­ger ring or lip­stick case by a silk cord and tas­sel, giv­ing them a more ob­vi­ously Ori­en­tal look.

The elab­o­rate dou­ble-sided, multi-com­part­ment cases had a space in the lid for cig­a­rettes and pow­der and rouge were housed in the base com­part­ments. All were de­signed to fit the max­i­mum num­ber of items into the min­i­mum amount of space and were in­tri­cately en­gi­neered, with ev­ery­thing con­densed into a tiny area.

These new ac­ces­sories were in­vented at the pre­cise mo­ment Art Deco burst upon the scene, a new style that reached its apogee at the 1925 Ex­po­si­tion in­ter­na­tionale des Arts Dé­co­rat­ifs held in Paris. This ex­trav­a­ganza pre­sented a panoramic over­view of the dec­o­ra­tive arts the like of which had never been seen be­fore. More than 130 pavil­ions spread along a vast site cen­tred on the Grand Palais dis­played the cre­ations of in­ter­na­tional ar­ti­sans and de­sign­ers to 16 mil­lion vis­i­tors.

Art Deco was not a uni­fied style, but a dis­tinctly mod­ern sen­si­bil­ity char­ac­terised by lux­ury, glam­our, ex­u­ber­ance, supreme crafts­man­ship and a be­lief in tech­no­log­i­cal prog-

‘The one thing the van­ity cases never needed to con­tain was money’

ress. It drew upon a mul­ti­tude of in­flu­ences: the art of Ja­pan, China and Africa; the Bal­lets Russes; and the ab­stract shapes of Mod­ern art and the in­dus­trial forms of the ma­chine age. The fa­mous high-end jew­ellery houses based in Paris, such as Cartier, Van Cleef & Ar­pels and La­cloche Frères, bor­rowed the dec­o­ra­tive themes and bold colour com­bi­na­tions of Art Deco for their jew­ellery and van­ity cases, still us­ing the pre­cious gems they had al­ways em­ployed, but now in­cor­po­rat­ing some semi-pre­cious ones and hard­stones into their de­signs, such as onyx, coral, jade, lapis lazuli, mala­chite and turquoise.

Flo­ral and fig­u­ra­tive mo­tifs re­mained peren­nial favourites for jew­ellery and van­ity cases, as they had been for decades, but now they were sim­pli­fied and stylised in keep­ing with the Art Deco taste for stream­lined forms. Birds, in­sects and an­i­mals all ap­peared, al­though the an­i­mals were se­lected for their speed and grace, such as the gazelle and deer, or the pan­ther that be­came a Cartier trade­mark.

Jewellers who cre­ated van­ity cases were con­jur­ing up ob­jects of de­sire for well­trav­elled clients who were in­trigued by the ex­otic cul­tures they had ei­ther ex­pe­ri­enced at first hand or seen rep­re­sented in mag­a­zines, films and ex­hi­bi­tions.

De­sign­ers scoured the globe for mo­tifs. Egyp­tian ones were pop­u­lar, fed by the Egyp­to­ma­nia that fol­lowed the dis­cov­ery of Tu­tankhamun’s tomb in 1922. Pharaohs, gods, lo­tus flow­ers, scarabs, sphinxes and hi­ero­glyphs be­gan to fea­ture on these ac­ces­sories, cho­sen for their dec­o­ra­tive ef­fect rather than for any sym­bolic sig­nif­i­cance. Lapis lazuli, turquoise, car­nelian and coral were com­bined in an at­tempt to con­jure up an Egyp­tian pal­ette that was at­trac­tive but com­pletely in­au­then­tic.

China and Ja­pan were grad­u­ally be­com­ing more ac­ces­si­ble to Western tourists, who brought back sou­venirs of their vis­its.

Far Eastern wares could also be seen at trade fairs, so it was only a mat­ter of time be­fore jewellers be­gan to plun­der the dec­o­ra­tive lex­i­con of these two coun­tries for their own work. Pago­das, drag­ons and vaguely Ori­en­tal land­scapes de­picted in mother-of-pearl, Chi­nese char­ac­ters and carved jade plaques were par­tic­u­lar favourites.

A taste for Indo-per­sian or Mughal mo­tifs had been ig­nited a decade ear­lier by Léon Bakst’s de­signs for Di­aghilev’s bal­let

Scheherazade and an ex­hi­bi­tion of Is­lamic art in Paris in 1911. Louis Cartier was a par­tic­u­lar fan of Is­lamic art and amassed a su­perb col­lec­tion of Per­sian minia­tures and manuscripts and his firm bought many of its gem­stones in In­dia.

The arabesque de­signs of Is­lamic book­bind­ings trans­lated par­tic­u­larly well onto the flat sur­face of van­ity cases and the del­i­cate colour com­bi­na­tions of yel­lows, pinks, blues and greens that echoed those seen in Is­lamic minia­tures or car­pets pro­duced a subtle, fem­i­nine ef­fect.

A younger gen­er­a­tion of for­ward-think­ing artist-jewellers, in­clud­ing Ray­mond Tem­plier, Gérard San­doz, Jean Fou­quet and Jean Du­nand, pro­duced a very dif­fer­ent kind of work from the high-end jew­ellery houses. They chose ma­te­ri­als for their dec­o­ra­tive char­ac­ter rather than their in­trin­sic value and shunned su­per­flu­ous dec­o­ra­tion.

They also ex­per­i­mented with mod­ern plas­tic and met­als, such as Bake­lite and chrome, to pro­duce cases with sleek, stream­lined forms, me­chan­i­cal pat­terns and dar­ing colour com­bi­na­tions. Their cre­ations re­flect the fas­ci­na­tion with tech­ni­cal progress that was ac­cel­er­at­ing dur­ing the in­ter-world War pe­riod, as well as the thrill of Mod­ernism and the ma­chine aes­thetic and the free­dom of ab­stract art.

Sim­ple, colour­ful geo­met­ric forms were par­tic­u­lar favourites: squares, cir­cles, rec­tan­gles and tri­an­gles were of­ten jux­ta­posed, over­lapped or re­peated to cre­ate more com­plex con­fig­u­ra­tions. Fig­u­ra­tive dec­o­ra­tion was min­i­mal—per­haps fea­tur­ing a stylised fig­ure of a jazz mu­si­cian—but, more of­ten, there was no ad­di­tional em­bel­lish­ment.

The van­ity case was an ob­ject that cap­tured the essence of a plea­sure-seek­ing decade and its hey­day was short-lived. When the Amer­i­can stock mar­ket crashed in 1929, the reper­cus­sions re­ver­ber­ated through­out the world, af­fect­ing all lev­els of so­ci­ety and sound­ing a death knell for the lux­ury mar­ket. Clients stopped buy­ing as many ex­pen­sive items and the pro­duc­tion of van­ity cases tailed off.

Any­how, by the mid 1930s, it was be­com­ing in­creas­ingly hard to find sup­pli­ers of un­branded loose cos­met­ics to fit into the com­part­ments of the cases and many women found it eas­ier to buy cos­met­ics from the large com­pa­nies that were now de­sign­ing their own at­trac­tive semi-per­ma­nent pack­ag­ing.

The van­ity case had been a bril­liant ex­pres­sion of the glam­our, style and he­donism of Art Deco, but, by the out­break of the Sec­ond World War, it was no longer the smart ac­ces­sory of choice. These daz­zling cre­ations sur­vive in our own more som­bre age as sought-after col­lec­tor’s items— glit­ter­ing re­minders of an era of op­u­lence and adorn­ment.

‘These daz­zling cre­ations sur­vive as re­minders of an era of op­u­lence’

Open and closed view of a cylin­dri­cal van­ity case with onyx pan­els on the ends. Cartier, Paris, 1925

Ad­ver­tise­ment de­signed by Ge­orges Lepape for Coty pow­der, which ap­peared in Harper’s Bazaar in 1924

Open and closed views of a van­ity case in enamel, with a cen­tral mother-of-pearl panel in­laid with lapis lazuli and gold flow­ers. Van Cleef & Ar­pels, about 1930

Van­ity case and lip­stick holder in striped white enamel within a black enamel border, with a cen­tral plaque of a coral and di­a­mond urn. Cartier, Paris, about 1923

Van­ity case with multi-coloured enam­els on an ivory enamel ground. Strauss Al­lard & Meyer work­shop, about 1925 The height of fash­ion: guests gos­sip­ing at a smart cock­tail party cap­tured by Fouet to ac­com­pany a poem in The By­stander of May 1929

An ex­tremely rare Mod­ernist van­ity case in sil­ver with black lac­quer dec­o­ra­tion, and a slide-ac­tion lip­stick holder. Jean Fou­quet, about 1928–30

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