Women cannot do without their purses. Whether carried for utility or as a status symbol, handbags are essential to the modern woman. They carry our keys, our phones, essentially, they carry our lives. But as practical and necessary an accessory as it seems, the purse has not always been part of a woman’s wardrobe. Some women see it as a way to signify their wealth and others see it as a frivolous fashion item, but the history of the handbag reveals much about the history of woman, of her movement out of the home and into the world.
Pre 1800 Pouches and Pockets
The purse began as a symbol more than as a useful accessory. In ancient times wedding purses filled with money were often given to couples as a symbol of the womb, which would hopefully soon be filled as well. So from the beginning the purse has been associated with womanhood, femininity and female sexuality. Sigmund Freud in The Interpretation of Dreams remarked that the purse was a symbol of woman, and that putting something inside it represented sexual intercourse.
In the sixteenth century, wealthy individuals carried their money in pouches that dangled from a belt or girdle. These pouches were so easily stolen that soon the trend in pockets arose, which allowed a man or woman to hide his or her possessions on the body and out of thieves’ reach. A woman’s pockets might be hidden within the folds of her skirt or attached to a band under her skirt. This continued the idea of a woman’s pouch as a symbol of a her sexuality. It was something hidden and unreachable to all but those who had a very intimate association with her because to see what was in a woman’s pockets you had to literally be up her skirt.
In the late eighteenth century, women’s clothing silhouettes got sleeker and simpler and left no room for pockets so women began to carry reticules. These elaborately embroidered pouches allowed a woman to carry the necessary feminine weapons- perfume, powder, and a fan for flirting- but usually held no money, which was earned and controlled by the men. The level of decoration of a woman’s reticule was an indication of her family’s wealth and although not as private as a pocket, the reticule was still considered a woman’s hiding place whose contents were revealed to few. The comparison of a purse to a female’s most intimate parts continues throughout history and explains the origin of the phrase “old bag” used to describe woman who is past her prime.
Because men’s fashions of the time were much unchanged and still included the pockets needed for a man to store his things, the purse was seen as a purely feminine accessory that served to exhibit not only the increasing differences in men’s and women’s attire but also the distinct separation in the roles of men and women. Men were expected to dress neatly and respectably as was acceptable in the work place while women were permitted to dress sweetly and romantically in keeping with their fragility and role as a decoration.
1800-1930 Carpet Bags & Clutches
As new modes of transportation developed and people began to travel, the precursor to the modern handbag really came into being. To be away from home for long meant that men and women needed a way for their things to travel as well, thus suitcases, hatboxes, and dressing cases were created. Carpet bags were the travel bags of choice for much of the late nineteenth century due to their roominess and durability, but as practical as the carpet bag was, it was not elegant and did nothing to differentiate the wealthy from the lower classes.
A French gentleman named Louis Vuitton seized this opportunity. In 1854 he designed a trunk made from iron and a waterproofed canvas. This luxurious travel case was elegant, sturdy, stackable and able to withstand the rigors of travel. It was instantly a hit with the wealthy as it served to distinguish them as elite. In 1896 the Louis Vuitton monogram canvas was introduced and is the brand’s most recognized symbol to this day.
As upper class women became more mobile and found themselves away from home for longer periods of time, they needed a better way to carry the necessities. A shopping trip to the newly created department stores or to meet friends for tea required more than a dainty bag could hold. These new bags first came in the form of small suitcases, square with handles and locks, often made by companies that specialized in leather goods like saddles and luggage. To fulfill this new need, Companies like Gucci, Prada, Louis Vuitton and Hermes began to produce bags expressly for women and the designer handbag was born.
By the early 20th century when slim skirts came into fashion, pockets for women were totally passe and handbags were becoming more and more popular. During this time most middle-class women were homemakers and did not have much to carry so purses, as well as the women that carried them, were still often seen as decorative. After World War I much of this changed, as wealthy women were outnumbered by women with a more practical attitude toward life who aspired to do more than remain at home.
The 1920’s brought with them a new female sensibility: opposition to the unnecessary embellishment of Victorianism and to the demure and servile attitude of the Victorian woman. Modern women, or flappers, shed their flouncy curls and elaborate clothes in favor of a clean, boyish aesthetic and their handbag of choice, the clutch, was reflective of the 1920’s woman: sleek, sharp and without the frills and softness of her Victorian counterparts. Although clutches could not hold much and were difficult to carry, the streamlined look continued to dominate handbag design from new houses like Lanvin and Patou. In 1933 Van Cleef and Arpels took the clutch to the next level of glamour in their creation of the minaudiere. These small clutches, also made by Cartier, were crafted of gold or sterling silver an encrusted with jewels and quickly became popular among socialites and film stars. Today, Judith Leiber is the queen of minaudiere design and her crystal-encrusted clutches in the shape of things from animals to cupcakes are the evening bags of choice for the rich and famous.
1930-1945 Novelty & No Nonsense Bags
With the elaborateness of minaudieres and the popularity of surrealism in Europe, modernism was no longer the style in handbags by the early 1930’s. The clutch remained popular but was soon joined by the novelty bag as the notable style of the time. Italian designer Elsa Schiaparelli, inspired by the paintings of Salvador Dali, pioneered the making of these whimsical new handbags. She made purses in the form of a piano, an umbrella, a folded newspaper and a glass birdcage among others. Other designers followed suit, leaving the geometric lines of modernism behind in favor of more shocking and unusual creations. Modern handbags designer Lulu Guinness has continued this trend, making bags in the shapes of houses, flowers, and lips.
During World War II most fashion creativity in Europe came to a halt. There was no room for frivolity or excess in wartime so in handbag design, function won out over fashion. Clothing scraps, straw, raffia, yarn and any other available materials were used to make satchels based on military designs which were popular for their simplicity and utility. America was less affected by the conflict and during the 1940’s and into the 1950’s the large structured bag, usually made from alligator, crocodile, or suede, was all the rage.
1945-1960 Couture Handbags & Classics
When the war ended, French designers like Christian Dior and Cristobal Balenciaga reignited the fashion industry in Paris and with clothing designs of organza, satin and tulle, they brought opulence back to the fashion-starved women of Europe. During this time fashion houses began to realize that while not every woman can fit into a couture gown, a purse is one-size-fits-all. An accessory like a handbag would allow more women to buy into the fantasy that couture designs created and would make the designer products attractive to a much larger market than they had ever been before..
It was during this time in the mid to late fifties that many iconic designer bags rose to popularity.
The Chanel 2.55, so named because it was released in February 1955, was the first popular shoulder bag. Coco Chanel first made these bags from jersey, but seeing they could sell as luxury items, soon switched to leather. The original quilted design with long gilt chain has changed little since its inception.
The Hermes Kelly Bag, though originally released in 1935, gained unprecedented popularity in the 1950’s. Grace Kelly used the bag to hide her pregnant belly from the paparazzi and the bag become so associated with the actress that Hermes renamed it in her honor. The allure of the Kelly and the elegance associated with it continue today.
1960-1970 Snobs & the Swingin’ Sixties
A good handbag was now a sign of good breeding. The fashion editors advised a woman to invest as much as she could in a good handbag, which would last a long time and could help to hide the fact that her clothes were perhaps not as well-made. One reporter is quoted as saying, “A good handbag is something one can afford to be snobbish about; it is so very much a sign of good grooming.” A handbag was now part of a smart woman’s outfit and her outfit said a lot about her place in the world.
As rock and roll and op art began to change the cultural landscape, fashion followed suit. The fashion of the 1950’s was heavy and serious but the fashion of the 1960’s was fun, carefree and colorful. Teenage girls began to experience a new freedom and new companies sprung up making products that would be attractive to these younger consumers.The handbag was now not only a practical accessory but could be fun or even ridiculous, and could be changed easily to suit the wearer’s mood. Designers like London’s Mary Quant used bold graphic prints and odd materials like Lucite and tried to make fashion accessible to everyone regardless of age or social status. The bag of choice during this time was the “swinging” shoulder bag that kept the hands free and became a symbol of liberation for the sixties woman. The hippie movement soon ousted graphic PVC in favor of big, unstructured bags made from of textiles and natural materials like suede and wool.
1970-1980 Feminists, Falchi & Fakes
The 1970’s broke to unrest among women as feminists like Germaine Greer targeted the fashion industry as one of the cultural institutions that dominated and suppressed women with its unattainable beauty ideals. Many women began to reject bras, handbags, make-up and anything else with a clearly feminine connotation. As a result, bags of the early 1970’s were very serious, imminently practical and had little adornment. The bag had became a very utilitarian tool but as disco entered the scene, women wanted something a bit more flashy. Carlos Falchi stepped in making bags of pink crocodile, black python and red lizard skin that fit well into the sexually-charged atmosphere that disco created.
While Falchi’s unusual designs were very popular, branded bags still reigned and labels became more and more important. Simple structured handbags fetched high prices, not based on the materials, but based on the logo they carried. This new obsession with logos also led to the counterfeiting of designer products. Industrial advances caused many companies to move their manufacturing to poorer countries where there was less oversight and less concern over copyright infringement. Fake handbags flooded the market, tarnishing high-quality brands like Gucci.
1980-2000 Success & Simplicity
The 1980’s saw women climbing the corporate ladder and looking for items to show that they were moving up. The designer handbag proved a good way to exhibit wealth and good taste. Female executives were often encouraged to eschew the purse entirely since such a feminine item could prevent them from advancing in a male-dominated workforce, but many corporate women ignored this advice believing that femininity and business success could go together. Women began “power dressing” in shorter skirts, sharply tailored suits and killer heels. Their bags followed suit becoming large and flashy.
The 1990’s was a new decade with a new consciousness of spirituality, sensitivity, and eco-awareness. Prada followed these attitudes by releasing a small backpack made of nylon with modern lines and minimial logos. Unlike logo bags of the eighties, The Prada backpack was discrete and functional but still had a high enough price tag to be reserved for the wealthy.This minimalism spread throughout the fashion industry and designers like Kate Spade entered the market, making simple, stylish, practical handbags that were still luxury items. For a while designers focused on form and construction rather that large logos and decoration but the stylish crowd soon began to tire of utility. The next big bag success was the Fendi Baguette, so named because it fit snugly under a woman’s arm like a loaf of bread, The Baguette came in 600 different designs with pink snakeskin, crystals, Aztec bead-work and other decorations and all bearing the signature Fendi clasp. The Fendi Baguette was immensely popular because it came in so many styles that a woman who carried it could be an individual but could still have the status that comes with carrying a Fendi.
Other design houses revamped their wares and It bag after It bag began to fly off the shelves. During this time the Lady Dior from Dior, Vuitton Graffiti and Murakami Monogram by Louis Vuitton, and the Prada bowling bag made logos cool again. As handbags became more lucrative, designers began to create new bags each season to go along with their apparel. Handbags became the focus of many fashion shows, each designer house vying to make its bag the big hit. As a way to help publicize new styles, handbags were often sent to celebrities in hopes that they would be photographed carrying the bag to some big event. By 2006 people were accessories obsessed. Prices went up and availability went down as designers would make only a small number of each handbag a charge out the nose for it. A good example of this is the Hermes Birkin, which starts at around $8,000 and has a several year waiting list.
These days luxury designer bags are no longer just for the rich and famous as ordinary women pay extraordinary sums for the “must-have” bag of the season, allowing anyone with a credit card to buy into the fantasy that designer brands create. As the Chanels, Vuittons and Fendis of the world continue to make beautiful handbags and make truckloads of money, they still endeavor break into the final untapped market: the man-bag. Though designers continue to try, the man-bag has never really established itself as popular accessory. Perhaps many men have trouble looking past the feminine associations the handbag has had since its inception and would prefer to stick with their pockets.
Today the purse is the most important accessory in a woman’s wardrobe and you can tell a lot about a woman from her handbag: is she rich? serious? playful? sporty? And while no woman is defined by her purse, a glimpse at or into a woman’s handbag is a glimpse into her life. The handbag’s role and form have evolved as the roles of women have evolved yet it still holds the mystery of womanhood that it always has. As Kelley Styring says in In Your Purse, “…they open this bag sparingly, revealing only what they must to get the job done. Like good burlesque, you see less than you think and you’re left with your imagination to fill in the pasties.”
Cox, Caroline. The Handbag: An Illustrated History. New York: HarperCollins, 2007.
Gallagher, Winifred. It’s in the Bag. New York: HarperCollins, 2006.
Pedersen, Stephanie. Handbags: What Every Woman Should Know. Cincinnati: David & Charles, 2006.
Styring, Kelley. In your Purse: Archaeology of the American Handbag. Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse, 2007.