Whiting & Davis: More Than A Pretty Purse

Whiting & Davis Art Glass Earrings, c. 1970s
Whiting & Davis Art Glass Earrings, c. 1970s. Photo by Jay B. Siegel for ChicAntiques.com

Whiting & Davis most certainly has a reputation for creating beautiful, quality metal mesh handbags. But there’s more to this company than a pretty purse. Rosann Ettinger notes in her book Handbags (Schiffer Publishers) that Whiting & Davis made cigarette cases and lighters, cosmetic clutches, key rings, wallets, and picture frames in addition to handbags. Among the other products made by Whiting & Davis to explore: jewelry, clothing, and, believe it or not, safety equipment.

Costume Jewelry by Whiting & Davis

When Whiting & Davis started out as Wade, Davis & Company in 1876, they were actually in the business of producing jewelry and continued in this field even after the production of their mesh handbags began in the late 1800s. One of the company’s early contributions to the jewelry industry is particularly noteworthy. In 1903, Edward Davis received a patent for the hinged bangle bracelet and made jewelry history, according to the Whiting & Davis website.

Until the 1950s, however, Whiting & Davis wasn’t well known for jewelry production. The mid-century tide turned when they began making costume jewelry en masse once again. But rather than using metal mesh, most of these pieces are comprised of heavy metal work, and many are set with large, interesting glass stones or glass cameos. Some have an Art Nouveau or Victorian revival feel to them, and the hinged cuff was used in a big way. Whiting & Davis marks used during this period include stamps directly into the piece and oval metal hang tags.

Some of the company's costume jewelry styles appear to have been made over a number of decades. For instance, the popular coiled snake bracelets made of rigid metal mesh have been found in 1950s wholesale catalogs and also documented in fashion magazine advertising in the 1960s. 

The company’s metal mesh scarf-like necklaces were very fashionable during the disco era of the 1970s, and matching earrings were made to go along with them. These were produced in flat linked gold- and silver-tone mesh.

Also in the ‘70s, some of the Whiting & Davis machinery used to produce fine metal mesh bags was retooled to manufacture Elsa Perretti’s knitted mesh lines of fine jewelry sold through Tiffany & Co. In 2011, the company was selling its own line of gold and sterling silver mesh jewelry through its website to commemorate the company’s 135th anniversary.

Clothing by Whiting & Davis

Whiting & Davis metal mesh “fabric” has been used for decades to craft clothing including caplets with matching tam-style hats, full dresses, and a number of top styles including halters. These unique items caught the eye of Hollywood costume designers of yesteryear and are still favorites with fashion designers and stylists of today.

For example, mesh costumes were worn in Cecil B. DeMille’s productions of The Crusades and Cleopatra in the 1930s. Ingrid Bergman wore aluminum (to lessen the weight) mesh costumes in Joan of Arc in 1948. And Jane Russell wore a 21-pound gilt mesh gown made by Whiting & Davis in the 1951 film Macao. In more recent times, mesh fabric was used in garments worn in the 1996 rendition of Romeo & Juliet starring Leonardo DiCaprio.

In 1989-1990, Anthony Ferrara designed a $500,000 18-karat gold mesh dress and a $100,000 sterling silver dress made of Whiting & Davis mesh for an Absolut vodka campaign. Richard Tyler and Michael Kors also used the company’s metal mesh fabric in their 1996 collections, and later Catherine Malandrino designed a metal mesh dress and a metal mesh top, just to name a few notable examples.

Whiting & Davis clothing has also graced the covers of magazines such as Cosmopolitan, and Sports Illustrated. Actress Demi Moore wore a metal mesh dress on the cover of W and singer Rhianna made the cover of Rolling Stone wearing a bottom-baring pair of short shorts fashioned of Whiting & Davis metal mesh.

Other Uses for Whiting & Davis Metal Mesh

Whiting & Davis was at the height of their early purse production in the late 1920s when the company’s metal meshes were recognized for capabilities beyond their decorative nature.

For instance, the Flat Creek Mink farm solicited a metal mesh glove to protect workers from being bitten by its animals. This type of glove was also sold to Armour Meat Packing Company to protect workers from cuts, and Whiting & Davis mesh safety gloves were born. These gloves are still being used in industry today, along with metal mesh body protection.

Much later, in 1986, the company made a metal mesh diving suit for National Geographic’s Rod and Valerie Taylor to be worn during the underwater filming of sharks. The suit weighed 15 pounds and was comprised of 150,000 stainless-steel rings.

While this company may be forever associated with their beautiful handbag designs, it’s clear that they never refuse a challenge to expand the use and capability of their durable metal mesh.