The young woman sitting behind Polish actress Loda Halama, wears a row of bangles along her slender arm. By Willem Van de poll, circa 1934.
It goes without saying that the 1920s was a pivotal decade in fashion history. It was a period of rapid social and political change that gave birth to a new woman whose free-wheeling sensibilities refused to be confined to restrictive corsets and floor-length dresses of the previous eras. Loose-fitting shapes and clean lines were introduced as waistlines dropped and hemlines rose to scandalous lengths (for the time, anyway).
These daring new styles called for equally dramatic accessories. Inexpensive materials gave visionaries like Chanel and Schiaparelli the freedom to create bold and trendy statement jewelry. One of the most popular materials of the time was a cutting edge industrial plastic known as Bakelite. Solid and lightweight, Bakelite mimicked the look and feel of natural materials like ivory, tortoise shell, and even gemstones, without the price tag.
Bakelite was produced in a multitude of colours and intricate designs for chunky bangles, beads, rings, brooches, and much more. By the 1930s, Bakelite jewelry grew increasingly popular as Depression era women sought affordable means to rejuvenate their tired wardrobes. The trend continued throughout the 1940s, but by the post-war period, more cost-efficient plastics entered the picture and Bakelite became a thing of the past.
Today Bakelite is highly collectable. A classic chunky bangle might run you a couple hundred dollars, while the rarer pieces have been known to go for thousands. What baffles me the most is that as popular as it was during its heyday, there are so few original images of women wearing Bakelite jewelry. I spoke to a collector who confirmed this fact for me. So I thought I’d share with you the images I’ve managed to collect over the years, along with some breathtaking pieces from the Bakelite Museum I’ve discovered along the way.
Writer and political activist, Nancy Cunard in stacked bangles. Photo by Man Ray, circa 1926.
A colourized photo of actress, Fay Wray sporting a butterscotch bangle and light green pin. Photo by William Mortensen, circa 1930s.
(L) Young flapper wearing a set of bangles on the illustrated cover of Lady's Home Journal, August 1932. (R) Woman wearing heart and key brooch on World War two era. Life magazine, April 28 1941.