Handbag and Purses, A History of Fashion

The handbag is far more than just a practical pocket substitute. It has become a fashion object in its own right over time, a signature mascot for the major French couture houses (overcoming the role of perfume as a brand identity) and a strong symbol of increasing freedom for women. Both men and women bore bags until the late 1700s. The need for an external pocket produced a permanent function for the woman’s handbag when the directoire models of 1800 simplified the female silhouette.

Ancient Bags

Bags were used in ancient times to hold weapons, flint, tools, food, and eventually cash. The Old Kingdom Egyptian burial chambers (2686-2160 B.C.E.) contain double-handled leather bags that are designed to be hung from sticks, as well as linen and papyrus bags. Leather bags called byrsa were used as coin pouches by the ancient Greeks; this is the source of the English word “purse.” The rise of coin money gave birth to the drawstring purse, an item often worn near the body and most frequently suspended from a belt or secreted within clothing folds. With a purse full of silver coins, Judas sealed Jesus’ fate.

Net purses were used by Roman women; the Latin word reticulum (meaning net) was revived in the 1790s. The burial mounds of Sutton Hoo in Suffolk, believed to be the burial site of King Roewald, who died in 625 C.E., were one of the earliest ornamented leather purses to be recovered from Anglo-Saxon Britain. The leather body of the bag had aged, but it remained intact with its golden ornaments. The purse was adorned with a luxurious lid of gold, silver, garnets, and glass of millephiore. The purse was part of a suite of royal accessories and featured forty gold coins and hung from hinged straps on a waist belt fastened by a large gold buckle.

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Precious Purses

A ruched moneybag was the heraldic emblem for Saint Matthew, the taxgatherer, and this symbol was emblazoned on the crests of treasurers with large landholdings and titled families. Bags were often made precious by ceremonial material and many patterns in the ornamentation of secular fashion started with bags made for the church. A ninth-century Byzantine relic pouch preserved at St. Michaels in Beromunster, Switzerland, was lined with red silk and painted on a blue silk floor with intricately embroidered lions. By the thirteenth century, Western Europe’s common word for a bag was an almoner. This term refers to an alms bag, i.e. a purse to be donated as a charity to carry coins.

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Gifts of Romance

In the rite of courtly love, the purse was also a significant offering. As gifts to lovers, adorned with allegorical scenes and mottoes alluding to the trials of romance, the most humorous and sophisticated bags of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries were made. A mid-fourteenth-century bag (housed in the Musée Historique des Tissues, Lyon) portrays a woman posing as a falconer and her lover as the falcon, a witty reversal of the hunter and prey roles. Two female rivals are depicted sawing a human heart in half on another fourteenth-century French bag (from the Troyes Cathedral Treasury). Many were portrayed by Albrecht Dürer, Lucas Cranach, and others as a lascivious older man reaching for a younger woman’s drawstring pouch. In Shakespearean slang, female genitals are referred to as purses. The eroticism of the bag was intensified by the wearing of almoners, purses, and ‘harmondeys,’ suspended from a girdle that straddled the belly closely or swung around the hips suggestively.

women bags
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The advent of Elaborate Bags

Large and intricate bags with cast-metal frames became more common in the fifteenth century and were carried by men of the ruling class. The size and shape of bags diversified in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, with the smallest bags denoting the greatest status. For scented skirts and cuffs, small, square embroidered ‘sweet’ bags containing perfumed pomanders, rose petals, rare spices, and oils were worn and used as personal gift containers. Nice bags and coin purses have taken on increasingly ornamental styles over time. A life-sized crocheted frog that fits snugly into the palm of a hand is a tiny purse from the Museum of London. The mouth of the frog, made of cream silk with silver mesh, forms the bag’s opening just wide enough for a tiny coin. The Elizabethans had a taste for allegories and visual conceits. Thrift was symbolized by a bag in the form of an acorn but was likely to be worn in the manner of a precious diamond, wound on the wrist or bouncing against full skirts. For peasants and pilgrims, satchels and sacks worn around the body were mostly crafted from discarded socks or scraps of cloth; these bags are now mainly known from paintings and etchings as few real examples have survived their heavy daily use.

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The Evening Bag

In the seventeenth century, when men and women used gaming bags to hold their chips and coins, the emergence of the evening bag can be dated. These bags were designed to sit flat on a table and represented a new formal sophistication. The bases of these bags were always adorned with their owner’s initials or coat of arms to prevent any uncertainty about the night’s winnings, with a shallow, tightly ruched drawstring body attached to a circular base stiffened with cord or cloth. Now sprouting into three dimensions was the square shape that had dominated bag design for two centuries or more. Bags in the form of crescents, shields, and pentagons were made of interlocking panels and told little tales. In the 18th century, when leather folding wallets displayed one’s name and title prominently embossed on the front, typically in gold letters, the meaning of the bag as a story in itself or a formal social badge for its owner grew. Bags and purses for women became smaller by the middle of the seventeenth century and appeared to be obscured within the folds of wide skirts made much more voluminous by hoops and farthingales. The bag had to contend gradually with its much more realistic rival: the pocket.

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Bags for Men, Purses for Women

The position of the bag for men and women began to break at the start of the eighteenth century. Men may resort to slipping a thin, netted purse into their sleeve or slung over the belt buckle, but from a long drawstring at the waist, they no longer dangled leather or cloth bags. As the century progressed, the notion of an intricate bag with a draw-string or handle became increasingly feminized. Men were forced to compress their needs into custom-made wallets that held everything from a compass to nail scissors and a snuff bottle as masculine fashion became ever more streamlined with tight breeches and cutaway coats.

Large silk and cotton workbags for knotting and personal effects on the arm were worn by eighteenth-century women carrying small purses on the wrist and had the extra storage space of large pear-shaped pockets worn laced around the hips under their petticoats.
All of this extra space gave birth to a handbag culture long before the proper handbag came into being. Women have become accustomed to socially wearing their work-bags, slipping extra items such as fans, smelling salts, cosmetics, and opera glasses for the evening. They kept small leather-bound pocketbooks in their dimity pockets whose printed pages contained calendars, recipes, songs, and Saint days as well as engravings of the newest styles of dress and hat. The pocketbook was a precursor to the current fashion journal, adding nuance to the notion that a woman was holding the world in her pocket.

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Handbag as Fashion Statement

Small purses for women remained popular amid the capacious generosity of pockets and knotting bags, and their decorations reached a peak of worldly topicality. With the elegant flick of a wrist, a woman might advertise her love of science or political allegiance. The fine sable beaded bags made in Paris from the 1770s onwards wove up to 1,000 tiny glass beads onto each square inch of the surface of the bag, giving color, lettering, figures, and detail a remarkable clarity. Hot-air balloons were adorned with one such beaded bag from 1784 and the face of Jean-Francois Pilâtre de Rozier, the French balloonist who made his maiden voyage the year before. Printed silk photos also offered swift development of bags for commemoration and novelty. 
By 1799, after the netted bag (reticulum) borne by Roman ladies, hand-netted bags became known in England as "indispensables" and in France as reticules. Even before chemise-style dresses became popular, handbags were in nature, but bags were permanently established as a feminine decoration until the long, sheer and close-fitting dresses of the directoire completely removed the space for pockets. There was a time of adaptation, as with all new fashions, and fashionable women of Paris and London were stated to secrete small coin purses into their décolletage or slip essential letters into their fans' leaves. The need for a pocket alternative gave birth to early bags, which looked very similar to the late 1700s pear-shaped pockets, simply grafted onto a silken drawstring. There was some social outrage at the thought of publicly wearing such an intimate article, but demand rapidly replaced opposition. The Parisian Journal des Modes joked, "One may leave one's husband but never one's bag."

The prevalent form was the drawstring reticule of the first decade of the nineteenth century, but frame bags began to be used. The size of the bag often depends on the form, cut, and proportion of the clothing; larger bags appear to shrink as skirts expand. Alternative containers such as muffs, link metal chain purses, knitted miser pockets, and chatelaines (a series of miniature domestic trinkets worn hanging from a belt) competed in the mid-nineteenth century with the hand-held bag for holding coins and small personal objects. The Victorian era idealized domesticity and sentimentality, unlike the deliciously worldly style of the eighteenth century.


Bags represented these themes with hand-beaded home and house patterns (bought commercially or made at home), hand-painted mourning scenes on black satin, and flower arrangements encoded with private messages for loved ones. Bags made at home promoted their manufacturer’s skill and were given eccentric almost esoteric detail, leather frame bags made commercially for shopping and train travel were much more simple, designed for protection, respectability, and privacy. The split identity in handbags was to echo these two patterns into the next century and beyond. The idea was that a woman should own many very different bags and different individuals for different occasions.

The handbag became a fashion fixture in the 1880s. Based on the design of much larger luggage and the traveling carpet bag (first made by Pierre Godillot in France in 1826 in tapestry fabric), necessity had created a very simple, useful bag that was the model for all to come. The great baggage and saddlery houses of Paris in the late nineteenth century invented and produced most of the classic bags known today. For Napoleon III, Louis Vuitton produced traveling trunks. In 1896, to defy counterfeiters, he had logos based on his initials hand-painted on his trunks and hand luggage.

The vision of Emile Maurice Hermès was to turn food and saddle bags into stylish travel accessories. The genesis of the Kelly and later the Birkin bags were designed to carry saddles in tall leather satchels: the Haut a Courroies. Hermès was also the first to use the new fastening of the Canadian army cargo zipper, taking it back to Paris in 1923 to create the Bolide, his wife’s driving bag. Travel in the early years of the century was not about expedience, but about comfort, and out of an ingenuity for stylish living, the great French houses produced classics. In 1932, Vuitton designed the Noe bag as a satchel to hold exactly five champagne bottles.

The cornerstone of all shoulder strap bucket bags to follow was this style. The 1933 Hermès designed Plume bag was based on a square horse blanket bag and redesigned with thin central straps and a zip that enclosed the bag’s body. An successor to the 1923 Hermès Bolide, this plain square bag was the inspiration for the gym bag that featured the 1980s Adidas tennis bag and the 1990s Prada bowling bag. The geometrical foundations of twentieth-century architecture are the tote, the bucket, and the case. Bags have gone to the extreme, but these three templates still return to their roots.

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The early 1900s

Handbags moved between exotic fantasy and pragmatic fact from 1900 to 1914, like a pendulum. There was a brief vogue for small silver mesh bags, large velvet chatelaine bags with hand-carved silver frames, and elaborately beaded German and Italian bags depicting fairy-tale castles, Renaissance landscapes, and rococo ladies in hoop skirts in one last nostalgic bid against the completely mechanized era. The passion for bags cut from antique textiles, ecclesiastical velvets, tapestry, and handmade lace is spread by the influences of Orientalism and art nouveau. The suffragette movement pioneered leather shoulder bags, and this style gained considerable ground when war came in 1914.

There was a trend for bags during the 1920s that were androgynous, elegant, and kept close to the body. Every aspect of handbag design was inspired by the Exhibition of Decorative Arts held in Paris in 1925, from the geometric abstraction of their hardware and decoration to the streamlining of their shape and function. In 1928, a stylish purse featuring a mirror, cosmetics case, and minuscule umbrella was presented by Lancel, the French luxury leather goods company. The 1920s mesh bags perfectly mirrored the sinuous lines of the flappers’ chiffon and net skirts, and were only big enough to hold a pack of cigarettes, lipstick, and some coins.

leather purse

Although the typical office girl of 1930 was pleased with her enameled Whiting and Davis mesh bag adorned for $2.94 with a deco flower, socialites held Cartier, or Van Cleef and Arpels minaudières, evening box bags made of solid gold studded with pavé diamonds, jade, and emeralds.

The spirit of surrealism and Hollywood screwball comedies filled handbag fashion with a final burst of witty sophistication prior to the war in the late 1930s. A bag might suddenly be shaped like a Daimler car, a Scotty dog, or an SS Normandie model, complete with miniature metal steam vents (this bag was sold as a souvenir aboard the ship in 1935). Elsa Schiaparelli was the designer who embodied this irreverent spirit the most. She was the first designer to associate the handbag with the notion of celebrity: she adorned a pochette with a print of newspaper clippings about herself in 1934! Like bouquets and inverted balloons, subsequent bags were shaped.

Handbag design took a sober turn during World War II, with utilitarian trends prevailing; the decade was dominated by the return of downright masculine shoulder bags. This decade was characterized by creativity and improvisation. Rationing saw women recycle evening bags from the nineteenth century and use everything from men’s suits to crocheted wool and cord to make their own handbags at home. The style and bags were built with hidden pockets, stacked compartments, sliding metal panels and riveted mesh clasps inspired by stealth.

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Mid-Century Handbags

As if in reaction to the solidity of 1940s bags, 1950s bags were thin, saucy, and most often completely see-through (due to the advancement of plastic technology). Transparent bags have been made possible by a new form of Perspex hard plastic known as Lucite. But Lucite’s lifetime as a luxury commodity was cut short by the invention of injection molding, a method that could easily and cheaply produce hard plastic bags. By 1958, the Lucite bag was no longer a prized status symbol and was sold at chain stores. Wealthy ladies have moved on to crocodile and alligator luxury packs. The next generation won’t care for any of them.

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How the Kelly Bag Got Its Name

It takes over eighteen hours to build a Hermès Kelly bag and is hand-stitched by a single artisan. The original name for the Kelly was the Haut à Courroies (literally ‘bag with tall handles’), based on a bag originally designed to hold a saddle, and the first model was refined in the early 1930s for use in cars and air travel. Marlene Dietrich and Ingrid Bergman are well-known women who have carried the purse, but these are not the women who made it a household name. In 1956, Grace Kelly was pictured getting out of a limousine with a white-gloved hand holding her Hermès purse. She used the bag, in truth, to shield her pregnant stomach from prying photographers.

The photo was on Life’s cover in 1956 making Kelly the world’s best-known sac. In America in the half-century, luxurious accessories were slower to capture the imagination than in Europe, where a costly handbag was supposed to last a lifetime. For a young woman’s 21st birthday, France has long been a patriarchal custom for offering a Kelly purse. In America, too, the Kelly is a reward for a rite of passage and the last word remains for almost half a century in the conservative chic.


In the 1960s, the handbag appeared ready to hang away structure and tradition. Bags have been rendered in simple form, and cheap materials such as wood, stroke, cotton and plastics have been elaborated. Bags may be whimsical, like sequin baskets of Enid Collins or psychedelic, like patterned handbags by Emilio Pucci; however, they were seldom staid. The spirit of the age was summed up by the design motto of Bonnie Cashin “make things as lightweight as possible-as simple as possible-as punchy as possible-as inexpensive as possible”

A return to soft, unstructured bags was led by the American designer of sportswear. In 1967, she invented for her 1967 shoppers the word “Cashin Carry” with a purse attached to her own coat; she made a lunchbox shaped bag with opened pockets and a hobo bag with a pouch-only one in addition. She took the tote every day in acid-bright leather pipes and tweed Harris. Her ideas for the coach were created in 1962-1972 and her inspiration contributed to the slouchy egalitarian style that originated from the 1970s.

Different strengths of feminism, world travel, state mode and sport were the influences of the handbag in the seventies. Unisex styling offered a limited period for the “man-bag,” and many roughly sliced, toothpicked denim and handle bags were worn by both sexes. The style of the useful has an influence on the fabrics and both the tennis bag and the lining nylon ‘Le Sportsac.’ L. Bean tote was worn as egalitarian chic badges and equality throughout the profession. Gucci, Dior and Fendi designer bags have grown jetset elegance but over-licensing and generalized counterfeiting have diminished the strength and exclusiveness of the mark as the decade advanced.

Exquisite, small evening bags from the late 70s and early 1980s. Disco bags were almost wear as jewelry by Carlos Falchi, Halston and Judith Leiber. In 1985, Miuccia Prada introduced a basic leather-and-rip rip-stop nylon backpack into her collection, rekindled Prada, a Milan leather home. The bag and its functional supplies (small wallets and sacks), monochrome and subtly monograms, gave the designer bag a fresh dose of legitimacy on the street. In the late 1880s, a lot of French designers returned to the surrealist spirit as witty item or subverted status symbol approached the handbag.

Christian Lacroix put in the form of a Byzantine bible the gold clutch, and Charles Lagerfeld shrank the Chanel bay to the size of a good bon bon to bounce off his hip. He hung the Marabo polvder on a satin band and fashioned a Golden Clutch. The 1990s was undoubtedly the richest decade to design handbags, with the birth of an iconic new bag almost every year. Lulu Guinness began her flower pot in 1993, which was a surreal basket bag with silk roses. The top treated square tote of Kate Spade was an instant classic in America. Lady Diana was presented in 1995 by Madame Chirac with the ‘Lady Dior,’ a small bag of embossed leather with loose gold letters hanging from her handles.

Moschino dropped rich brown veal on a flawless white handbag in 1996 and tumbled down the bag like a chocolate strawberry. The next year was the most renowned bag in the decade. Crafted with rich and unexpected fabrics, tapestry, handlooming velveteen and browned denim, the fendi was tucked underneath his arm (which inspired his title. The bag changed the fortunes of the business as it became the first bag to become a household name, an object of worship and an individual celebration after Kelly became a fashion history face.

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New and Future Designs

In the 21st century, the designers tried to foresee how the bag would look. The 2005 bag was designed in 1999 by Karl Lagerfeld: a vacuum-shaped ovoid handbag with a rough body, blown in neoprene. This all-in-one style with a punched handle from its body resembled a laptop case and a futuristic cartoon character. Their best-selling sacks were sequenced dramatically from the homes of Fendi, Prada, Gucci and Vuitton.

With an aggressive redesign and reinvention, the logo itself was reviewed. In the 1980s, the artist Stephen Sprouse had to mark the name of the house in graffiti on a zip-topped organized sack, the first contribution Marc Jacobs made to his role as creative Director at Louis Vuitton. This bag was published in 2000 and contributed to a drastic revision of their reputation by staid houses. John Galliano’s Dior concept from 2000 evoked dashboards from Cadillac, car headlights and punk rock kimonos in arresting materials, including red patent leather and acid-washed denim.

Prestige and money have been both the motivation behind the capital and creative danger of creating radical bags for classic labels. The corporate stocks will increase dramatically in value when a label launches a popular bag. Handbags have also been the designer culture’s stylistic mascots. One was wearing Chanel’s perfume in the 1940s; one wore the bag to achieve the same cachet during the early 2000s. The quest for a “it” bag prevails.

Following the baguettes’ long-term success, Fendi introduced a croissant in 2000, followed in 2002 by the Ostrik, a 1970s-inspired shoulder bag with zip panels, and a beaten metal panel, something like a Roman breastplatte, with a series of handbags imitating bouffant folding the hat of a chef and fanning out in concentric materials. In addition, the croissant was shaped like a crescent moon. Outlandishly organic designs were especially fascinating because they provided a glamorous alternative to the top bag. Tom Ford was a massive suede rosebud or ruffled lip, which depends on your view, for YSL bag “Nadja” (2003).

The stuck Domino bag by Sonia Rykiel (2001) squashed like a cozy dim designer under his belt, and the “Venetia” Marc Jacob sets a pattern for functional bags with cartoon-like proportions in saturated colours. She has huge buckles, chunky purses, and high stitching.

In the first years of the 20th century, handbag design and the same intensive rivalry between designers were the most strong diversity. The very strained leather Hobo with front zips and trailing tassles became a cult when the Madonna, Gwyneth Paltrow andKate Moss first took the saddlebag designed by Nicholas Ghesquiere for Balenciaga. The long waiting list for the bag doubled and tripled when characters in the TV show Sex and City became obsessed with getting a Red Hermès Birkin bag. With regard to its prestige, the Hermès Birkin bag has now overshadowed Hermès Kelly, or maybe just became the Kelly bag of its generation.

Although the trends in mass-market fashion are led by popular designer label bags, a backlash or a return to a single-specific bag made by hand is possible. Bags assumed a fractured personality during the Victorian period. The formality of a leather shopping bag or a traveling case, and the excentricities of a silk bag stitched from remnants or hand-bound poems, contrasted social obligation and privacy, technical production and housework. As the handbag becomes more commodified, simplified and hyped, it seems increasingly possible to return to more individual types and materials. The bag started as a simple private ship. Given the technical advancements and the vast tentaculations of ads, the handbag can be returned here. The most original and most personal bags of the 21st century could create a rejection of the luxury culture.

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  1. […] From filing folders to market totes and gargantuan carryalls, we’ve already seen this season’s handbags take shape in several diverse forms. But of course, it’s not just the silhouettes that […]

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