Today's vintage look includes accessories like those grandmother wore


June 25, 1992|By Robin Updike | Robin Updike,Seattle Times

Hemlines are plunging below the knee and fashion magazines are showing summer and fall dresses of feminine, flowing rayon crepes, with princess seams and button-down-the-front styling. Suits, meanwhile, are broad-shouldered, man-tailored and fitted. Platform shoes are making a comeback with a vengeance.

Welcome to the retro look in fashion -- a nod to the '30s and '40s that started a couple of seasons ago with '40s tailored suits and berets and has this summer moved back another decade to embrace the romantic dresses and pajama-styled trousers that fashionable women wore in the '30s.

With the fashion flashback has come an accompanying interest in period costume jewelry, which was often fantastically designed and made of glass, base metal and plastics. The jewelry was obviously fake -- glass "gemstones" were the size of cherries -- and the period marked the first time in history that mass-produced jewelry was considered so chic that even women who could afford the real thing flaunted faux baubles designed by such fashion makers as Coco Chanel, Hattie Carnegie, Boucher and Nettie Rosenstein.

Chanel is usually credited with coining the term "costume jewelry." It is descriptive since she and other haute couture apparel designers created faux bijoux as accessories to be sold with specific outfits.

Costume jewelry from the '30s and '40s in recent years has become highly collectible, and pieces that sold for under $100 50 years ago today can bring 10 times that much. Pieces signed by famous names such as Elsa Schiaparelli -- Chanel's cross-town fashion rival and arguably the most innovative costume jewelry designer of the period -- are in great demand. Collectors comb vintage clothing and jewelry shops and flea markets to find them.

Though costume jewelry glittered, it was never made of gold. Some was made of sterling silver and semiprecious stones; but more frequently it was, and still is, made of glass, foil, base metal and plastic. What made it chic then, and what makes it collectible now, is the design. The most fashionable was detailed, extravagant and unabashedly glamorous.

New "retro look" jewelry is easier to find. Venerable U.S. costume jewelry makers as Trifari, Napier, Eisenberg, Swarovski, Miriam Haskell and Monet are all producing costume jewelry for department stores that has a deliberate retro appeal. Though today's faux retro rarely has the intricate detail that went into the original designs, the new jewelry is far more affordable. New animal brooches by Trifari reminiscent of the '40s start at $35.

Those who follow fashion trends say it's not surprising that retro is in.

"I think a lot of baby boomers are going back to their mothers' jewelry boxes and their grandmothers'," said Rose Sayyah, owner of Rhinestone Rosie, a Queen Anne vintage jewelry shop in Seattle. Ms. Sayyah specializes in rhinestones, foil-backed glass "gems" that are one of the hallmarks of retro jewelry. She also has a good selection of Bakelite, an opaque plastic that was commonly used for chunky jewelry of the period.

"The old looks are new to younger women and then there's the whole recycling thing," Ms. Sayyah said. "Why throw it away when it is beautiful and can be worn?"

Nancy Farrell, who specializes in authentic '30s and '40s costume jewelry at her Seattle shop, Michael Wm. Farrell Jeweler, says when she first started buying it three years ago there were few collectors. She found signed pieces by famous makers at flea markets. Now she works mostly with other specialty dealers in Europe and Japan, where she says prices paid for high-end retro jewelry are dazzling.

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