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A Decorative Past: Decoupage's Long and Storied History

Take notes from Queen Victoria and other illustrious ladies of the court: A snip here and a snip there can magically transform any run-of-the-mill item into something beautiful. Plus, watch our how-to video for decoupaging a girly diamond clutch that would have given Marie Antoinette the vapors.

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Photography by: Johnny Miller

The premise of decoupaging is a simple two-step art: Cut a collection of printouts and paste them into a polished, one-of-a-kind finish. Easy enough, right?

 

Well, it would be unfair to say that that's the whole story. Decoupaging is like the sophisticated older sister to the cut-and-paste crafts we learned in elementary school, and it's actually an aristocratic art that has wooed women of wealth for centuries.

 

Let's prep our project with a snippet of history, shall we?

  

Decoupage -– derived from the French word "decouper," meaning "to cut up" -– evolved as a decorative form of collage. It can be traced back to China during the 12th century, where it was an easy way for peasants to decorate their less-than-luxurious households. The traditional technique required applying between 30 to 40 layers of varnish over a colorful paper print to preserve the final design under a glossy, smooth finish.

 

But it was during the 18th and 19th centuries that Europeans fell head-over-heels in love with this technique and decoupage enjoyed a beautiful renaissance. The delicate art of decoupage was a popular pastime among well-to-do ladies -- a woman was tres chic only if she knew how to wield a pair of scissors.

 

Some notable decoupeurs? Mary Delaney, Madame de Pompadour, Beau Brummel, Queen Charlotte (and her granddaughter, the later-to-be-crowned Queen Victoria), and even Lord Byron were all aristocratic admirers of this art. And it's said that no artwork was safe from Marie Antoinette and her ladies -- they would spend idle hours cutting up original works by famous French painters Francois Boucher, Jean-Antoine Watteau, and Jean-Honore Fragonard. (Sounds like she had a pretty big budget for arts and crafts!)

Feeling inspired? Start snipping!

Looking for something of equal glamour (but not exactly on a queen's budget)? I love this clutch made by associate crafts editor Erin Furey for its over-the-top opulence -- dripping with faux diamonds on a backdrop of girly, bubble-gum-pink fabric. But you're not limited to our design. Make it your own one-of-a-kind clutch by decorating it with handpicked prints and patterns of varying shapes and sizes. That's the fun! Here are three standout tips to make yours a stunning statement piece fit for any occasion:

 

1. Have a vision: Lay out your printouts to play around with different designs before you glue them down with the decoupage glue.

2. Beware of bubbles: Remember to gently smooth out any pockets of air with your fingertips so the paper printouts don't wrinkle.

3. Polish your printouts: Make your gems really sparkle with a glossy finish (as opposed to a matte finish).

 

Once it's dry, tuck it under your arm as a last touch to your overall look. Erin says that it never fails to spark conversation. (And now you'll have lots to tell them about your diamond-inspired stunner!)

Check out our decoupage crafts and share your favorites with us!

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