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Return of The Dress Clip
An obscure accessory creates instant glamor

What is a dress clip? I first encountered these strange artifacts of fashion while in search for some rhinestone earrings several years ago at Reminiscence in New York City. I was instantly attracted to some intricate floral sparklers in the counter case, but was disappointed that the ear clips on the back had broken—or so I thought. Excited that the “earrings” were otherwise in good condition, I removed the damaged clip from the back and replaced it with a post. I proudly wore them to an event that evening, bragging about how I had rescued those poor tarnished things with Windex and superglue. Like many casual collectors of vintage costume jewelry, I had mistaken a pair of well-preserved dress clips for earrings, and performed some unnecessary surgery. After I won an interlocking pair of convertible Duette dress clips in an online auction a few weeks ago—this time believing that they were an ordinary brooch—I decided that I must discover the origins of these unusual accessories and learn how to wear them.

To achieve the first goal, I enlisted the help of Doris Raymond, vintage clothing guru and owner of The Way We Worea vintage couture boutique in Los Angeles. Doris’ private collection of books, fabric, trim, accessories, and clothing is an incomparable resource for designers searching for information and inspiration. Doris’ collection included several spectacular examples of vintage dress clips, and I was able to find some of the answers I was looking for in her library.

Contrary to what the term suggests, dress clips were not used as fasteners, but as ornaments. Popular costume jewelry items from the 1930s through the 1950s, dress clips could be used to add sparkle to necklines, collars, pockets, and cuffs, transforming a drab day dress into something much more glamorous. These chic et économique accessories would have helped the average woman make the most of a limited wardrobe.

While dress clips may resemble pins or clip earrings on the front side, they can be identified by the fastener mounted on the back. The clip is a flat piece of metal connected to a hinged mechanism. There is usually a row of dull teeth on the inside face of the clip that serves to grip the fabric without damaging it. They were most often sold as matching pairs, but some larger pieces were intended to be worn alone as the centerpiece of an outfit. Dress clips are only a single species of a larger family of “extinct” accessories. Fur clips, often larger than dress clips, can be identified by two long prongs on the back of the fastener. Chatelaines, or sweater guards, are a pair of clips attached with a decorative chain. DuettesSmart Sets, and Clip-Mates, are twin clips that transform into a large brooch when they are attached to a specially designed frame. The Duette clip I purchased is marked with a patent number and signature that identifies it as a design by Coro from the mid-1930s.

Even though most dress clips were made of inexpensive materials, they likely have origins in late 1920’s Paris couture lines. According to All That Glitters: The Glory of Costume Jewelry by Jody Shields, the first dress clips were created with precious stones in Paris, and were eagerly copied as costume jewelry when they crossed the Atlantic. By the 1930s Chanel was showing fur collars adorned with clips. During this period in fashion, women’s evening dresses were “a mess of complicated drapery," and an ornate clip could be attached without damaging the fragile fabrics or disturbing the line of the dress.

Not all of the trendsetters were European. Following Doris’ advice, I began to research American ready-to wear clothing lines that featured these continental interpretations. I contacted Diane Hanselman, owner of Past and Present Jewelry, to find out more. Chicago-based Eisenberg, one of the first American fashion houses, was known for its conservative, elegant day wear in shades of black, gray, and navy. In order to promote their designs, the company began to show their plain dresses and suits with exclusive jewelry pieces and sew-on embellishments, including dress clips and fur clips. These accessories became more popular than the clothing, and the company eventually transitioned to producing primarily costume jewelry. Eisenberg jewelry was only offered at upscale boutiques and department stores, but the just-add-glamor approach to women’s fashion was quickly embraced by a much larger audience, and was again imitated by other manufacturers. Through the late 1930s and '40s the costume dress clip took on a life all its own, and was produced in every shape and material, both for evening and casual wear.

Although they are a bit mysterious, vintage dress clips and variations thereof are surprisingly easy to find. A quick Google search reveals dress clips of every type are available for purchase—some valued at a few dollars, and others for several hundred. Eisenberg’s Ice Clips, encrusted with Swarovski crystals are exemplars of the luxe aesthetic, but other designers developed signature styles that reflected the wide spectrum of consumer taste. Miriam Haskell’s dress clips are known for ornate metal filigree combined with delicate flowers and colored stones. Trifari and Coro produced ornate art deco and floral clips set with pave rhinestones. Doris Raymond’s collection included a pair of geometric coral-colored Bakelite plastic clips and a golden-spray adorned with green-grape orbs. My favorite piece was a Trifari Clip-Mate set with colored molded glass cabochons shaped like fruit and leaves. I admired the juxtaposition of elegance and whimsy in this unusual design.

It is true that dress clips are no longer a necessary part of the modern woman’s wardrobe, but it is still possible to use these intricate ornaments in new ways. A large single dress clip can transform a rolled-out-of-bed hairstyle into a Renaissance masterpiece or add instant glamor to a crisp collar. The popularity of menswear styles for women offers the opportunity to create dramatic contrasts—small rhinestone dress clips can add a surprising touch of delicacy to lapels and breast pockets.

My discovery of dress clips and their history has caused me to reevaluate my frivolous attitude toward clothing. At the height of dress clips’ popularity, clothing and accessories were far dearer than they are today. The availability of disposable clothing prevents us from having to consider how we can wear the same “good” dress, jacket, or suit over and over again in different ways. In the 1930s and 1940s fashionistas found a way to adapt to the challenges of economic recovery and a country at war while keeping keeping style alive. Finding ourselves in a similar place today, perhaps we can still benefit from both the glamor of dress clips as well as the values of the fashion culture they represent.                

Watch Doris and The Way We Wore on Frock Stars at 8 pm ET/PT on the Smithsonian Channel.