Body Decorations 19001

In an age of extravagant dresses and immense feathered hats for women, and conservative suits and carefully chosen hats for men, body decorations and accessories faded in significance. It wasn't that such items were not important to people in the early years of the twentieth century; rather, they were simply overshadowed by the showiness of other parts of the outfit, as in the case of women, or were very understated, as in the case of men.

Women were certainly highly ornamented, especially in the first decade of the twentieth century. Their exquisitely tailored long dresses were topped off by closely fitting collars that accented the length of the neck, and their hats were among the most extravagant items ever to be worn. After about 1908, when skirts lifted to reveal the feet and ankles, shoes also became a way to show off one's fashion sense. Accessories, however, were downplayed. Most women carried a purse or small handbag, and the beaded purse, with its great versatility, was among the favorites. For evening wear a woman might slip on long gloves that extended as high as the elbow, and for colder weather a fur muff kept the hands warm. Most women wore jewelry but it was typically rather understated. Smaller earrings, rings, and a necklace of pearls were considered quite tasteful. Women might also carry a watch on a gold chain.

Women's makeup began to go through major changes around the turn of the century. Most women continued to use their own homemade makeup to lighten their faces or add color to their lips or cheeks. But modern manufacturers and distributors soon offered help. The precursor to the Avon cosmetics company was founded in the United States in 1886 and by 1906 had over ten thousand representatives offering a line of 117 different products to women across the country. Madame C. J. Walker (1867—1919) invented a line of cosmetics for African American women in the same decade.


The first woman in the United States to become a millionaire through her own work, Madame C. J. Walker (1867-1919) was a pioneer in the creation of cosmetics created specifically for black women. An African American woman herself, Madame Walker not only invented many products for black women's hair and skin, but, in the early 1900s, she also created a very successful business based on door-to-door sales of her products. Madame C. J. Walker cosmetics paved the way for later door-to-door cosmetics companies, such as Avon and Mary Kay. Walker was not only a successful businesswoman, she was also a leader in the black community and a lifelong supporter of women's economic independence.

Walker was born Sarah Breedlove in Delta, Louisiana, just after the end of the American Civil War (1861-65). Her parents were farmers who had been slaves for most of their lives, and Sarah's early life was full of poverty and hard work. Her parents died when she was seven, she was married at fourteen, and she was widowed by the age of twenty. In 1905 she moved to Denver, Colorado, where she married a reporter named C. J. Walker. Though they divorced in 1912, Madame Walker used his name for the rest of her life. Along with working as a laundress and a cook, she began to sell cosmetic products door-to-door for a company started by another African American woman, Annie Malone (1869-1957). By this time she noticed that her hair was falling out, which was not uncommon for black women, who often had stressful lives and poor nutrition caused by poverty. Walker was determined to find a solution to the prob lem, both for herself and for thousands of other African American women.

Some stories of Walker's life say that she had an aunt who knew how to use healing herbs. Others say she had a dream in which a black man gave her the formula for a hair tonic. However it happened, Walker took $1.50 she had saved from her laundry work and began to make and sell her own hair product, "Madame Walker's Wonderful Hair Grower." She traveled throughout the U.S. South, selling her products and building her business. By 1910 Walker had opened a factory in Indianapolis, Indiana, to make the many beauty products she developed with black women in mind. She also hired hundreds of women, most of them African American, to sell her products door-to-door. In 1908 she opened a school for "hair culturists" who would sell and teach women how to use Madame Walker's products.

Walker contributed a great deal to the cosmetics industry, which was just starting during the early part of the twentieth century. Her products and sales techniques were original and were a model for many companies that followed her. African American women were often forgotten by white businesses, but they too wanted to take part in the glamorous, more liberated fashions of the turn of the century. Walker not only offered a wide variety of products for women who had had very few beauty products before, she also offered jobs and financial independence to many black women. At the time of her death in New York in 1919, the Madame C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company was earning $250,000 per year and employed over ten thousand women. The company survived until 1985, when it was sold by her heirs.

Modern advertising made many more women aware of the "need" to wear cosmetics, driving the sale and use of such items to new levels among women of all social classes.

Men's costume in general was quite conservative during this period, which meant that accessories provided men with some small

element of personal expression. Several items were popular among men. Many men carried pocket watches on a chain, and the quality and style of the chain was a mark of distinction. Men might also carry a walking stick, and these sticks could be decorated with a carved gold or wooden handle, or have a decorative metal tip. Finally, the most distinctive items of male jewelry were all forms of fasteners: cuff links to hold shirt cuffs together; a stickpin to hold the tie in place; or studs and buttons to fasten the shirt. Such small items, when made in fine gold, could signal the wearer's wealth and taste.


Avon Products, Inc. "Avon Timeline." The Company for Women. (accessed on August

Bundles, A'Lelia. On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker. New York: Scribner, 2001.

Lowry, Beverly. Biography of Madame C. J. Walker. New York: Knopf, 1999.

Payne, Blanche, Geitel Winakor, and Jane Farrell-Beck. The History of Costume. 2nd ed. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.

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