The Victorian era is without a doubt one of the most influential time periods when it comes to fashion. An epoch of great pomp, style, and romance (perhaps even a combination of all three), the era aligned with the duration of Queen Victoria’s reign of England (1837 to 1901). During Queen Victoria’s 63 years on the throne, trends were often set by the young monarch. Her tastes and styles were all about highlighting beauty, and many of the events in her own life were reflected in items of the time, especially through art and jewelry. A time of enormous transformation, people of this era became obsessed with topics of new understandings like death and the natural. Victorians often experimented in curious practices to honor these new understandings, especially when it came to accessorizing. From oddly functional, to just downright strange, they created jewelry that left a question mark over our heads but also provided inspiration for some of the top designers in the decades to come.
Though it’s not the most animal-friendly fashion, this paradoxical trend began during the Industrial Revolution as a way for women to feel closer to mother nature in a time of rapid industrialization. As cities and factories grew larger and more prosperous, urban Victorians cultivated their obsession with the natural world, collecting plants and killing animals for taxidermy (both popular hobbies during this time). During the mid-1800s, it was quite fashionable to wear a live beetle displayed in a small cage around the neck, and bugs were often encrusted with precious metals and rare gemstones. Elsewhere, some put fireflies in their hair, while others went so far as to sew them directly into a dress. In 1891, a Mrs. DeJones strapped a diamond to the back of a beetle and trained it to fly across her neck tracing the shape of a necklace–talk about a fashion statement.
As crazy as this trend seems, it’s not the first time history has seen it. Victorian insect jewelry echos the habits of the ancient Mayans who adorned themselves in insect brooches called maquech. But this etymological trend was soon phased out. As more and more people were encouraged to decorate their look with natural splendors, the demand for insect jewelry quickly pushed many species to the brink of extinction. In the coming decades, examples of faux-insect designs would become popularized by designers like Elsa Schiaparelli who ascribed a whimsical tongue-in-cheek rendition of the creepy crawler style of the Victorian era.
Perhaps the most clever advancement in jewelry during the Victorian era, carriage covers were designed to conceal large gemstones for a lady when she traveled by carriage to avoid gathering the attention of highway robbers. Made in a variety of finishes from vibrant 18k gold to enamel, the ingenious orb was hinged onto a jewelry piece to disguise the true value of the gem from thieves. Today, coach covers represent an interesting slice of history, but these rare accessories come with a pretty price tag, if you can even find them.
Think of it as an early iteration of the modern day utility belt, the chatelaine was the Victorian-era answer for women to keep their everyday essentials at the ready. Waist-hung carriers were an early universal accessory trend amongst global cultures like the Japanese inro or netsuke, but the chatelaine is a force of it’s own. Named after La Chatelaine or the female head of the French household who was responsible for the keys to the chateau, the chatelaine became a practical accessory as a decorative hook worn on the waist and attached to appendages like scissors, button hooks, perfume vials, a watch, needlework tools, notebooks, pencils, and smelling salts. Many chatelaines had a a symbolic key representative of their namesake French origin, but the items were dependent on the wearer and their day-to-day life.
With men typically handling money and other heavier pocket-held items during this time, women’s purses and pockets were tiny or nonexistent, making the chatelaine the perfect combination of utility and fashion. Chatelaines were produced by top jewelry manufacturers like Tiffany & Co. and Lalique, and featured in an array of stylish finishes. As bags grew bigger over time, the chatelaine slowly moved out of popular trends. However, a recent resurgence of the Victorian style has appeared on many of the runways during fashion month, giving us a chic way to never loose our AirPods again.
When Prince Albert died unexpectedly in 1861, the effects on the UK were enormous. Queen Victoria sunk into a deep depression wearing black and sleeping next to an image of the prince for the remainder of her life. This event spawned the Victorian era’s obsession with sentiment, influencing the rise of commemorative accessories. The queen often wore a small gold locket containing Prince Albert’s hair around her neck, and even gifted a similar piece that encased portraits of herself and the prince, plus two locks of hair. This sparked the trend of hair jewelry during this time as an extremely personal and unique keepsake with exceptional longevity. Hairwork became an activity similar to crocheting with artisans making brooches, earrings, and even wreaths for the home.As mourning culture began to decline in the 1880s, the popularity of the trend followed suit. Mourning styles representative of Victorian era ideologies which influenced the work of various designers like Alexander McQueen. He famously put his own hair into a perspex label and sewed it on his garments not only as a nod to the era, but also as an act of bestowing a personal connection to his pieces.
They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder, which rings particularly true for Lover’s Eye jewelry of the Victorian era. As the story goes, Prince George of Wales had fallen lovesick with Maria Anne Fitzherbert, a Catholic widow. Royal laws at the time forbade widowed women of the faith from becoming a monarch, resulting in a disastrous courtship and Fitzherbert fleeing the country after the prince’s first proposal to avoid controversy. As an act of forbidden love, the prince penned a passionate proposal letter enclosing a captivating gift. “I send you a parcel,” Prince George wrote, “and I send you at the same time an Eye.”
The letter contained a miniature portrait of the prince’s eyes painted in an amorous gaze. Soon after, the two illegally wed and Fitzherbert gifted the prince her own eyes nestled into a locket. The mesmerizing accessory first gained popularity in the Georgian era and extended into the Victorian era with Queen Victoria having commissioned a number of the objects during her reign. Part portrait, part gemstone, the act of exchanging a miniature eye aligned closely with Victorian ideals in that people of this time were desperate to give a piece of oneself to another. But why just the eye? Art historian Hanneke Grootenboer points out in her 2012 book Treasuring the Gaze: Intimate Vision in Late Eighteenth-Century Eye Miniatures “It is the look of someone that the [lover’s eye] is a carrier of,” Grootenboer explained. “It is the look that someone wants to imagine, and wants to feel as resting upon themselves.”END
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