A History of Handbag Fashion Through the Ages

Ancient Handbag Fashion

Since ancient times, humans have been fashioning bags to carry their personal items. In fact, what is believed to be the world’s oldest handbag was recently discovered in an excavation site in Germany. Dated at around 2,500-2,200BC, the bag features a painstakingly-crafted design of over 100 canine teeth… yes, you read correctly – the ‘It girls’ of the Stone Age adorned their purses with the remains of their furry friends.

Luckily for us, handbag fashion has evolved a lot since then, but you’ve got to admire the dedication.

The next glimpse we have of early handbag fashion comes from the 1300s, and it is gorgeous.

Early 14th century Courtauld Metal Bag (Source: courtauld.ac.uk)

Hailing from Northern Iraq, this 14th-century artefact is not too far removed from the sort of shape and intricacy you’d find in modern exotic bags (such as our Lucy Embroidered Bag!) The brass handbag, understood to have belonged to a noblewoman from the Mongol Empire, features delicate metalwork inlaid with gold and silver designs, and was sure to have made the lucky lady the talk of the town in her day.

But handbags weren’t just for women. Since pockets in clothes didn’t start making an appearance until the 17th century, throughout history men also carried their everyday items (predominantly coins) in purses that were tied to their waists or girdles.

18th Century Handbag Fashion

By the 18th-19th century, handbag fashion had started to emerge, particularly among the ladies of England and France. The ‘reticule’ (or ‘indispensable’ in England) was akin to what we would now recognise as a drawstring bag, and was a soft purse made from leather, silk or velvet that complemented the more slimline clothing fashions of the time. Large, voluminous skirts and petticoats were out, and it would have been a major faux-pas to wear bulky pockets (a whole garment by themselves) with the newly-fashionable high-waistline dresses of the late 18th century.

Due to embroidery becoming a necessary skill for marriage eligibility in young females around this time, ladies were able to create their own patterns and styles to suit their own tastes. Here are just a couple of examples of some exquisite designs from this period:

Early 19th Century French Reticule (Source: metmuseum.org)
1820s British Indispensable (Source: collections.vam.ac.uk)

By the 1840s, when the industrial revolution was in full swing in England, the handbag began to evolve again. We can trace the exact origins of the modern handbag to entrepreneur Samuel Parkinson – on noticing that his wife’s current bag was far too small and flimsy for regular train travel, he commissioned a custom set of durable leather bags and trunks from luggage supplier H. J. Cave. They were happy to oblige, and this travel set included what is now regarded as the very first luxury handbag.

Due to their exclusivity to the upper classes, this style of bag didn’t really catch on until the early 20th century; reticules were still the go-to for most women, who had no need for large, bulky accessories. In fact, the word ‘handbag’ wasn’t used until the beginning of the 1900s, used to describe hand-held luggage bags sported by the first male rail commuters – they were sturdy, practical, and featured various pockets and compartments to hold a variety of everyday items.

Despite the slow start, the travel-friendly designs of H. J. Cave and other high-end luggage brands would later have a huge impact on fashion house founders such as Gucci and Louis Vuitton (we’ll learn more about this in a bit). Their closest contemporary from the late 19th century came in the form of ‘carpet’ or ‘tapestry’ bags, a less-expensive alternative for female travellers across the globe.

1860s American Carpetbag (Source: metmuseum.org)

20th Century Handbag Fashion

While the practical travel bag continued to grow in popularity, in the early 1900s, smaller handbags also saw a significant change from an ‘indispensable’ necessity to a trendy accessory for the modern fashionista. With materials such as metal and glass becoming more widely available, items such as this clasped evening bag were the perfect add-on to any outfit (usually for parties or other social events).

Early 20th Century American or European Evening Bag (Source: metmuseum.org)

Handbags evolved rapidly during this period of wealth and social status, and as bags became more of a fashion statement in their own right, many of the styles we view as modern-day handbags (such as clutches and satchels) were also developed.

While all this was going on, a certain Italian was forgoing the ever-changing trends of the partygoers to cater to the upper classes’ needs – yes, here’s where Guccio Gucci comes in. Taking inspiration from the elaborate suitcases he saw carried by wealthy travellers, he established a fine leather goods store in the 1920s which sold to equestrian elites and other high-status clients.

The discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in the 1930s also prompted the rise of ‘Egyptomania’, bringing more exotic, colorful motifs into the wealthy revellers’ wardrobes.

But with the coming of WWII and subsequent material shortages, Gucci had to change tact. And so, the timeless canvas Gucci bag was born. If you look closely at this promotional photo from the 1930s, you can even see the iconic double-G logo:

1930s Gucci Luggage Bag (Source: crfashionbook.com)

Other common materials from this time were plastic and wood, which somewhat limited design flexibility. But this didn’t stop designers from getting creative, turning to more obscure materials such as animal skins. The drawstring bag even made a reoccurrence; something that the frugal wartime woman could easily fashion herself at home from inexpensive or repurposed fabrics.

Style-wise, functionality was king. Satchel and shoulder bags provided an on-the-go, practical look, and bags became squarer to maximise space for the working woman.

Once the war was over, many of the fashions that had been kerbed during this period sprung back into life, and with them came the founding of many of the modern fashion houses that we know today.

At first seen as a controversial and extravagant statement, Dior’s 1947 ‘The New Look’ collection took female fashion, including handbags, into a brand-new era. In a time where the world was only just recovering from the limitations of war, Dior concretely changed the purpose of a handbag from a practical accessory to a status symbol – a fashion that was popular throughout the ‘50s. As tends to be the case in fashion, trends spread quickly, and this decade brought forth some of the most iconic designs that are still widely appreciated today:

We were soon seeing pieces like this from emerging designers such as Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Hermès, to name but a few.

Coco Chanel with the timeless 2.55 Bag (Source: vintagefashionguide.com)
Elizabeth Taylor with the iconic Gucci Bamboo Bag (Source: thecarneliancloak.wordpress.com)
Grace Kelly with her Hermès Kelly Bag (Source: telegraph.co.uk)

Moving into the ‘60s, female fashion saw the resurgence of pockets in their current iteration, providing a lot more freedom and allowing handbags to become even more of a statement icon than a necessity. In line with increased economic freedom within the younger generations, a range of bold colors, fabrics and patterns became widely available at affordable prices for the partygoing early ‘hippie youth’, as well as designer pieces like those in the Paco Rabanne ‘Walborg’ metal disco design, complementing his similarly-styled fashion pieces of the decade like this 1967 ‘space-age’ dress:

Aluminium Micromini Dress, Paco Rabanne, 1967

The metallic trend harkened back to the fashion of the ‘20s, and is such a timeless classic it is still sold today, but interestingly, so did the style of bag – the need to be more portable for social occasions at bars and clubs resulted in a rise in cross-shoulder and box bags. Handbags trends continued to vary as the years went by. The ‘70s saw bigger, more practical bags with zips and pockets aimed at the liberal young woman. As well as decorative fringes, tassles and other ‘boho chic’ features, tapestry-style and exotic pieces not unlike our Embroidered range came into fashion:

Amazon Embroidered Tote, Fricaine
Amazon Embroidered Tote, Fricaine

From the ‘80s onwards, pretty much anything goes. The classic silhouettes, fabrics and styles of earlier decades remained popular for everyday use, such as the Hermès Birkin Bag. Among the raver youth, cross-body bags continued to be in high demand for their practicality from day through to night, but had stiff competition from the ‘fannypack’ (or ‘bumbag’ in the UK), which often featured Neon and Aztec patterns.

Small and cutesy shoulder bags reigned right through the ‘90s, in bold animal prints and quilted designs similar to the Chanel 2.55, and by the time the millennium hit, pretty much every bag imaginable could be spotted somewhere from the runway to the club, or on the shoulder of the working mother heading to the shops! Nowadays, we’re pretty spoilt for choice; we have access to a near-unlimited selection of textiles, styles, colors and patterns, with more becoming available every year to suit any taste or occasion.

In these handbags, and in constantly shifting fashion trends, we see not just how the innovative designs of years gone by have influenced modern culture around the world, but how the accessibility of resources and travel has brought countless cultures together to further develop the ultimate women’s fashion accessory.

Interesting articles read while researching this blog:

https://bagbirdy.com/the-evolution-of-the-bag/

https://bellatory.com/fashion-accessories/FashionHistoryPursesHandbags http://fiveminutehistory.com/the-history-of-handbags-a-5-minute-guide/ https://www.georgettemagazine.com/magazine/the-story-behind-guccis-iconic-bamboo-bag

https://www.harpersbazaar.com/uk/fashion/fashion-news/news/g34837/diors-new-look-revolution/ https://henriettashandbags.com/index.php?main_page=page&id=4 https://www.insider.com/how-handbags-have-changed-2019-1#2000s-bags-were-colorful-and-funky-18

https://www.loveyourleather.ca/leather-blog/history-of-purses/ https://vintagedancer.com/1950s/1950s-handbags-purses-styles/ https://www.vogue.co.uk/gallery/bag-trends-by-the-decade https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guccio_Gucci https://womensmuseum.wordpress.com/2017/05/31/the-history-of-the-handbag/

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