There was a time when men’s jewelry was made for practical reasons, which over time, led to more decorative and fashionable pieces, which is how the dress set came to be. A dress set is a suite of matching cufflinks, shirt studs and sometimes buttons. At one time dress sets were a must have for the fashionable gentleman, but today these jeweled treasures are generally reserved for special occasions. So how did dress sets become part of men’s fashion and when are they worn? Believe or not, starch was a major contributor to the early use of men’s dress sets.
In the mid 1800s men’s fashion was more formal and strict rules dictated what was worn. The Industrial Revolution was well underway and a burgeoning wealthy middle class society was emerging. Those two factors shaped how men dressed as they made an effort to show their new found wealth without flaunting it.
In the middle 1800s, it was fashionable for men to wear collars so highly starched that they stood at attention and were immovable. The collars were detachable from the rest of the shirt so they could be properly cleaned and of course, starched. Once the collars were starched and reattached to the softer fabric, the shirt looked unacceptably rumpled.
To correct the situation, men began to have their shirt fronts starched to create a crisp look to the entire shirt. These overly starched shirt fronts presented a new challenge: They were so stiff that it was next to impossible to button the shirt. So what was the well-appointed man supposed to do? The answer: shirt studs, which were used in place of buttons. By the mid 1800s shirt studs were a trending style for men.
What is a Shirt Stud?
A shirt stud is comprised of a decorative button style module attached to either a flat disk by a small link chain or to a rigid metal bar, which were then inserted into two slits in the shirt, where they acted as a closure. In the Victorian era, men’s shirts pulled over their heads and only had two or three buttons which is why shirt studs come in sets of two or three. It was a rather conservative time and men wanted to look put together, but not flashy so early shirt stud designs were classic and restrained.
During the Edwardian era, in the early 1900s, which was a very formal time, shirt studs continued to be an important part of a gentleman’s wardrobe when they attended balls and other social events. By now the dress set was introduced and it included two or three shirt studs, a matching set of cufflinks and sometimes buttons. These accessories had also become more decorative incorporating gemstones into the design especially pearls, mother of pearl and moonstone, sometimes accented with diamonds, rubies or sapphires.
Dress Sets Boom in Art Deco Era
During the glamourous Art Deco era of the 1920s and 1930s people dressed up to go to nightclubs, speakeasies and cocktail parties. Men had to have the right clothes and accessories to accompany women who were dazzling in satin gowns, furs and loads of jewelry. As a result, men were expected to wear their tuxedos or other formal attire that fit into the sumptuous décor and dress codes of some of these venues. The dress set was a necessity for the well-dressed man. During the Art Deco years, platinum or white gold, sometimes embellished with gemstones, were considered “proper” materials for these sets. Pearls were a popular choice for shirt studs as they blended into white shirts. As the 1930s approached black enamel, rock crystal, onyx and colored gemstones became more fashion forward. These matching sets of evening jewelry became even more important because they were promoted by the New Jersey-based jewelry manufacturer Krementz, a major producer of men’s jewelry at the time.
Dress Sets and Other Accessories
In some instances, in more recent years, when men were wearing formal clothes, they were advised to match their cufflinks and shirt studs to another matching set: their bowtie and cummerbund. By having the accessories match, it created a more formal look.
After World War II, pearls continued to be popular for dress sets for white tie events, but black tie called for mother-of-pearl or onyx. By the 1960s fashion had loosened up. The matchy-matchy look of earlier years was being replaced with a freer mix and match style. Yet dress sets, remained just that a matching set.
While we don’t see dress sets worn all that often anymore, who can forget the debonair Fred Astaire twirling his leading ladies around the dance floor without a wrinkle or a movement in his shirt that was beautifully held in place by one single shirt stud.
Featured image (top of page): Fred Astaire, in “Royal Wedding”, studio publicity still, 1951.
First: Diamond, mother of pearl, 18-karat gold and enamel dress set, circa 1930s; Second: Edwardian dress set comprised of moonstone, diamond and platinum topped 18-karat gold; Third: Moonstone, pearl and gold dress set, signed Cartier, circa 1930s; Fourth: Sapphire and platinum dress set, circa 1940s; Fifth: Patinated steel, 18-karat white gold and cultured pearl dress set, Marsh & Co., circa 1950s.
Authored by Amber Michelle