The Denver Art Museum’s exhibition Brilliant: Cartier in the 20th Century features about a dozen examples of vanity cases, an item largely foreign to modern women. Also called nécessaires, vanity cases were designed to hold just that: a fashionable lady’s necessities, often including a mirror, powder and a puff, cigarettes, rouge (blush), a comb, and an inset lipstick case.
The exhibition’s array of cases exemplifies the range of styles Cartier produced in the twentieth century, from the most streamlined gold to exuberant jeweled cases with Egyptian revival motifs, Persian arabesques, Chinese lacquer, and jade plaques.
The golden age of the vanity case began as the cosmetics industry got off the ground. After World War I, attitudes toward women wearing make-up began to change. Previously, cosmetics were relegated to the dressing tables of actresses; they were considered vulgar and unacceptable for wear by a proper lady. As society transformed during the 1920s, women began to wear lipstick and rouge as sign of their new-found freedom. They flocked to cosmetic counters and to designers like Cartier for vanity cases to hold the newest cosmetics.
The proud owner of a Cartier vanity case would take it to the cosmetic salon to choose cosmetics. Vanity cases were customized based on what the woman wanted it to hold and with special designs. Whether done in classic formed gold with a single sapphire cabochon clasp or generously decorated with gems and sparkling diamonds, the vanity case offered bountiful space for ornamentation.
Image credit: Egyptian vanity case purchased by Ira Nelson Morris. Cartier Paris, 1927. Gold, platinum, Egyptian calcite plaques, enamel, coral, lapis lazuli, emeralds, diamonds; 9.9 x 5.2 x 2.1 cm. Cartier Collection. Photo: Nick Welsh, Cartier Collection © Cartier.