Webmaster's choice








Costume jewelry has a long history, dating back nearly 300 years, but the history of costume as it is today has its origins in the manufacture of low cost jewelry during the 1920’s. It is considered by most historians to have come into its own during the middle of the 20th Century. This history spans from the 1920’s through the 1970’s, with its “golden age” being the 1940’s and 1950’s.

In the United States and Europe there was a demand from the emerging middle class for increasingly luxurious goods at increasingly lower prices. With this came the market for what is now called costume, or fashion jewelry.

The emergent “street style” that these pieces catered to in the 1920’s and 30’s was typified by sartorial experimentation through an excessive layering of necklaces, stacking of bracelets, and donning of multiple brooches, etc. These styles are interwoven with depictions of jewelry during Hollywood’s Golden Age that showcased large, elaborate pieces in film. 

The use of inexpensive materials alleviated designers from the necessity of maintaining a clientele inclined to spend large sums on rare stones and metals to produce each piece. Without these constraints, designers were able to, at lower cost, experiment with less traditional constructions, eventually leading to increased production of figural jewelry. 

Costume jewelry has, in a sense, cast off the material histories associated with jewelry—of mining camps, of geological pressure, bourgeoisie market forces, &c.—in favor of the image. Within the context of photographic representation, there is an irreconcilable distance between the beholder and the object which precludes any possibility of scientific inspection from attempting an account of its mineral composition. A photograph of a diamond appears to be the same as one of a rhinestone. Any closer look is halted by the surface of the print or the projection screen—an image for eyes alone to behold.

In addition to contributing to the economic aspirations of the middle class towards the bourgeoisie, the inexpensive cost of costume jewelry can be said to not only to catalyze sartorial experimentation but experimentation of presentation and negotiation of identity and its expression. Evidenced in the terminological distinction between “jewelry” and “costume jewelry,” which does not refer solely to rarity of materials and their monetary value but of an intention and capability for its constellation with other elements as part of an “outfit.” Whereas jewelry made from rare and expensive materials is intended to elicit a desire attached to the object, costume jewelry (even as great skill is often employed in its production) refocuses on the wearer’s body as the support for variable presentation. The move towards common materials can be interpreted as liberatory, wherein bonds to the marketplace are diversified ad infinitum (anything may become jewelry), if not dissolved completely. The nimbleness of economics and materials provides a fertile ground for continued renegotiation.

As trends for specific costume jewelry designs shifted and less desirable pieces were realized, a glut of material came to both the secondary and primary markets, resulting in increasingly lower prices. One of the reactions to this situation comes from vernacular artists who began collecting large quantities of costume jewelry, deconstructing them and ritualistically reconfiguring the gems into their own artworks. In many cases, the artists bejeweled larger household objects including mirrors, nightstands, chests of drawers, vanities, &c. Here the negotiations, while historically constellated around identity, are not only attached to the body in the sense that there must be a wearer, but expand to attach themselves quite literally to the “settings” of daily life. 

This identification of costume gems as raw material by these artists reverses the process of commodification with which rare stones are intertwined. Artists instead “mine” the material excess of capitalism—an area of culture without rarity—to assemble their artworks. Their handling of materials is without a doubt skillful, yet it is at once deskilled in terms of setting stones the way a jeweler does, as the settings which carry the plastic and glass gems are not subject to the same requirements as their precious counterparts. In practice, this shift in handling constitutes an acknowledgment of difference in the material realities and directly influences how the image is constructed. 

The primary intent when setting a precious stone is to allow enough light to pass through it, to grant visual access to the beauty of its interior composition. The treatment by artists working with costume gems is more directly related to collage, or even painting practices. Without the presence of a rarified interior, the gems themselves become the smallest unit of an image, and it is by their constellation that the image is formulated.

An emergent tradition in vernacular artmaking during the 1960’s is the depiction of Christmas trees by mounting costume jewelry pieces to upholstered panel. The costume jewels beset in the image of the Christmas tree have a similar pictorial function as traditional glass ornaments, garlands, string lights, flocking, that ensconce a living room tree. This is, to a degree, to replicate the effects of a fresh snow, glittering with a fine surface of ice in the winter landscape. The encrusting of a living room tree is an additive process emulating the accumulation of snow on a tree’s branches. The frontal images of Christmas trees produced from an excess of costume jewelry contain a significant difference in the way the image materializes. Namely, it does not rely on the support of the Christmas tree as its bounding edges, but instead it opts for a more vague, recognizable shape, one that is adhered to a rectilinear, upholstered ground of buckram, satin or velvet. It is not encrusted but is itself the crust without a bodily armature to attach to. The wearers themselves disappear, leaving behind a series of fictions and culturally ascribed visual languages.

Chelsea Culprit’s and Joan Shannahan’s installation Thank Your Lucky Stars is formulated in part as a tribute in memoriam to Margaret Frances Donnellly Shannahan and her daughter-in-law Mary Frances “Honey” Luebker Shannahan. Margaret Frances, who ran a boarding house in Connecticut, maintained a substantial and dynamic collection of costume jewelry. By the artists’ accounts, she wore it regularly, conveying a sense of graceful formality, means, and solacement to her guests amidst the austerity measures of the World War II era. Her jewelry became an outward expression of agency—life interweaving her own adornment, profession and personage.

During the 1970’s, upon her passing, Margaret Frances Donnellly Shannahan’s jewelry was reconfigured by her daughter-in-law, Mary Frances “Honey” Luebker Shannahan, to produce a series of monochromatic, framed Christmas trees for each of her six children as part of the vernacular tradition described above. The composition of the image of a Christmas tree in the sextet of works produced by Honey Shannahan was in part a ritual process providing for the gifts to be given, similar to her mother-in-law’s professional life which manifested a stage on which to project her own image by way of adornment.

Through the reflection on family history, Thank Your Lucky Stars is the site of multiple disappearances. The residue from each of the disappearances informs the piece--it is the conceptual material from which the work is produced, which is composed of those parts. The first is that of the wearer in general, with their bodies become the support for the image of excess; the second, Margaret Frances Shannahan whose life is memorialized and embodied, instructed by the image of the Christmas tree (the works which in turn disappeared through happenstance, leaving behind only their photographs); and finally the image of the Christmas tree has been conceptually reconfigured as an abstract form, encrusting the gallery’s walls.

The full-field composition of the work produced by Culprit and Shannahan for Oleksandr’sssssss proposes a flexible treatment of the image and its parts. It is without depiction. They instead opt for total encrustation of the exhibition space—the image is everywhere and is the space itself. This same strategy is evident in Culptrit’s canvases, wherein its identifiable parts—each with varied degrees of abstraction—are constellated into a swirling whole. Culprit’s “unsetting” and reconfiguring of fabric patches, body parts, shoes and painterly forms, are put on the same footing visually. Each identifiable piece the smallest possible unit for signification.



I. Christmas Tree produced by 'Honey' Mary Shannahan from the costume jewelry of Margaret Shannahan, circa 1970's.
II. Jewelry featured in a Kenneth Jay Lane advertisment, circa 1970.
III. Emmons Jewelry advertisment, circa late 1960's. Eleanor Musser Archives.

Exhibited works:

Chelsea Culprit and Joan Shannahan
Lucky Star Portal for Interdimensional Travel, 2020
Costume jewelry, upholstery on panel
24 x 26 centimeters

Chelsea Culprit and Joan Shannahan
Lucky Stars Forming Unity With Chaos, 2020
Costume jewelry, upholstery on panel
24 x 26 centimeters

Chelsea Culprit and Joan Shannahan
Counting Lucky Stars to Infinity, 2020
Costume jewelry, upholstery on panel
24 x 46 centimeters