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Fashion and Function: The Etui

Status and material accumulation were central to social standing in 18th century France where the accessories of the well-dressed upper classes took on new and significant importance. Along with snuffboxes and souvenirs, the étui became a must-have posession for women of a certain class. From the 17th century French verb estuier, to hold, and its nominal derivative estui, a holder/container, an étui is a small, decorative case that was used to hold and carry sewing items, sealing wax and toilet articles. Parisian artisans led the production of étuis in the 18th century, creating status-worthy examples in gold and, for ladies of lesser means, in silver, tortoiseshell, porcelain and domestically produced laquer. Luxuriously decorated gold and jeweled étui were given as royal gifts at Court, often to ambassadors in lieu of cash payment for favors and services rendered. Unlike its dressing table cousin la necessaire, the étui was designed to be portable, often with small compartments in the interior to hold each article in place. The popularity of étuis continued into the 19th century and their availability expanded through producers like Sèvres who made many versions in porcelain. Whether decorated with diamonds or carved out of bone, the étui was a fashion accessory whose function enabled women to spend time away from the home. The increasing emancipation of Western women in the 19th century would lead to the widespread use of what we now call the handbag, making accessories like the étui obsolete but creating an interesting collecting category for those interested in the history of fashion and objets de virtu.

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