Behind every great woman is a meticulously organized handbag. From the ancient beaded reticules to the Seventh Avenue tote of the modern woman – handbags have historically been both – carriers of secrets as well as signifiers of power, prestige, and beauty.
Keepers of everyday necessities, technology, and ever-changing trends have played crucial roles in influencing handbags. Ancient, symbolic and indispensable – the handbag tends to transcend time and its wearer. They’re not only used carry one’s needs but also express the taste of both.
Take a trip back in time as we trace the history of fashion’s most practical accessory.
In the 14th and 15th century, both men and women would attach pouches to the most important feature of their clothing: The Girdle. Women, in particular, preferred ornate drawstring purses which were known as ‘hamondeys’ or ‘tasques’.
During the Elizabethan era, women’s skirts expanded to enormous proportions. Consequently, small medieval girdle purses were easily lost in the sea of fabric. Rather than exposing girdle pouches on their belts, women began wearing them under their skirts.
Post the French Revolution, full skirts of the ancient regime became less popular in favor of narrower and slender dresses. These slender dresses left no room for internal pockets and hence they were soon discarded. As a result, purses made their way back into the open in the form of ‘reticules’ or ‘indispensables’.
While the 1930s were all about exploration of aesthetics pertaining to handbags and purses, the 1940s focused more on innovation and functionality. This approach resulted in, what was perhaps the first truly practical set of bags for women, of which many styles are still prevalent even today.
The birth of the handbag or purse as a fashion accessory was witnessed during the 1930s. While bags from 1910 onward may have included short handles, bags were not generally carried on one’s shoulder until the 1940s. The strap moved from the wrist to the forearm marking a change from practicality to pure fashion that inspired most of the 1950s designs. However, in the 1940s, bags became an essentiality, deemed functional on a much larger scale.
One of the key factors of bags from the 1940s was the inclusion of shoulder straps. Small handheld clutches were too impractical for women during the years of war. Large handbags and shoulder bags found themselves in high demand as they were much easier to carry especially by working women. During this time, the plain and practical leather bag grew into a vibrant synthetic style statement. The messenger and suitcase bag returned to mainstream fashion, making choices plentiful for vintage 1940s inspired looks.
Prior to World War 2, women only needed to carry a few essential items on a daily basis. Their makeup, a coin purse, perhaps a cigarette case if so inclined. However, Post World War 2 things changed. The use of cosmetics spiked in the 1940s. A handkerchief, a pair of gloves, perfume, a coin and key purse along with a mirror were some of the items carried at all times.
Inspired by the style designs from wartime, uniform messenger bags, deep purses with long handles grew in popularity. It was desirable and practical to have a bag that could be slung over a shoulder and out of the way. These bags were about 12 inches wide and mostly flat like those of clutch bags that were in vogue during the 1930s. Black or brown leather was preferred and these large clutches were renamed to envelope bags that opened up with a click of a metal frame. However, materials such as metal and leather were soon reserved for war efforts and alternatives had to be sought for fashionable, functional bags. As a result, unusual materials and fabrics became popular. Various animal skins such as buffalo, pigskin, goatskin, alligator, and snakeskin became a popular choice in handbag production with the zipper also found use during this time.
Knitting and crochet were popular pastimes, and many bags of this era were actually crocheted. Beautiful crochet designs could be made using minimal sources – handles, lining, yarn and a fastening. Shell or scalloped shaped bags were a more elegant option as compared to the rectangular envelope bag. The shell or scalloped bags had a wide round bottom, gathered to a smaller top with or without handles. Ruching pleats echoed the shell texture and added to the elegance of the design. Envelope and shell bags were cornerstone styles of most large handbags in the 1940s. The wrist bag was a smaller design that emerged in the early ’40s. It featured a wide single strap worn around the wrist. These little bags did not stay small for long, for as the years progressed, they grew to be larger.
In place of metal handles and fastenings, bakelite and plastics were often used. These made not only a functional substitute but also an attractive design. A craze for woven plastic purses swept the nation in the late ’40s. Popular styles were rectangular and fan-shaped clutches that also came with straps. Other common bag styles made of plastic or synthetic fabrics were made to look like patent leather, suede, and textured reptile skins. Plastic also made it possible for bags to come in lighter and brighter colours.
During the 1960s, rules of ‘appropriate’ dressing relaxed in response to the women’s movement and the rise of the youth culture. The small and dainty shoulder bag with long chains or thin straps also began to dominate, as it portrayed informal child-like qualities of the miniskirt. Such handbags highlighted the 1960 ‘swinging’ fashion.
In the late 1960s, larger satchels and fabric shoulder bags suddenly increased in popularity. As opposed to machine-made goods, afghan coats and bags, patchwork, embroidery and former army shoulder bags also saw a spike in popularity. By the end of the 1970s, slung shoulder bags returned with lots of buckles and zippers, suggesting that women were equipped for anything in the new age of feminism.
Shoulder bags are currently made in a bewildering array of styles and materials. Some of these include waterproof canvas, space-age synthetics, and faux reptile skins. Designers continue to play with the paradoxes inherent in shoulder bags with transparent materials that both expose and conceal the contents of the bag. The variety and adaptability offered by the shoulder bag exhibits extraordinary potency and power.