A brief history of functional and decorative handbags

Early Beginnings

Crude pouches, as illustrated in Egyptian hieroglyphs, were made of leaves or animal hide and worn by men. However, it wasn't until the Fourteenth Century that handbags were referred to in literature. These earliest bags were called 'pockets' and were hung on a girdle around the waist and used mainly to carry flints or coins.

They began to develop as a status symbol and were embroidered or be-jewelled. The more elaborate the pouch, the richer the person!

Sixteenth Century Styles

In the Sixteenth Century bags became purely practical and were made from common materials such as leather or cloth. A drawstring at the top was added to keep contents safe.

During this time large cloth bags were made and these were particularly suitable for travellers to carry across the body.

Seventeenth Century Styles

By the beginning of the next century different styles of bags were being made as both men and women began to carry them. More intricate purses were developed in the hope of being fashionable. As a result of this upsurge in interest, young girls were taught embroidery skills and, so, bags became excellent examples of fine needlecraft.

At this time, purses were commonly carried under a woman's skirt. But with the reduction in the amount of underwear a woman wore it became unsuitable for the purse to be worn unseen as this would have spoilt the look of the closely fitting garment. So a new style of bag called a reticule was developed. This reticule was carried by the lady and, therefore, it was visible. And so began the handbag as a fashionable item.

Women began to choose a different bag for every occasion and so the problem arose about the best way to carry these bags that would typically contain face powder, a fan, scent, visiting cards and, perhaps, smelling salts.

Nineteenth Century Styles

By the Nineteenth Century the word 'handbag' was adopted and all manner of handbags emerged. There were mesh bags, cut-steel and velvet bags with steel beads embroidered on to velvet, sometimes in a heraldic style. Chatelaine bags were introduced and these were dangled from a belt worn at the waist. Their hook fastening usually found at the apex of a chain handle could easily identify them.

Also common were Miser's purses that were hand- knitted and used for coins. Each end had a metal slider. The purse was used by both men, who slung it over a belt,  and by women who carried it in a pocket or a larger bag.

 Protocol in the Victorian Era also demanded that a woman in mourning wore black. Therefore their accessories also were black. So black bags, sometimes covered in black beads, were used.

Twentieth Century Styles

The Twentieth Century became increasingly industrialized and commercially produced bags became common. Hand-held luggage for men became the focus for intricate fasteners, internal compartments and locks. Companies vied for attention as women began to wear more than one chatelaine at a time! There became a huge variety in the sizes of bags, now known as Edwardian during Edward VII reign [1901-1910]

Bags could now be metal framed, made of leather, be in the shape of an oblong purse, be heavily embossed, have needlepoint scenes of cottages or gardens, be crocheted or made of lace. All types of imagination or social influences could spark an idea for the handbag with a difference.

Metal finger-ring purses were made of silver, gold or silver plate. The woman's finger would fit into the ring to enable her to carry this small metal purse.

Art Deco Style

By the 1920's the flapper embraced the Art Deco style and the flattened, streamlined look saw the birth of the clutch bag. The waistless dresses and chic, bobbed hairstyles demanded less feminine bags. The oblong clutch bag was made of cloth or leather and complemented the 'look' of the period.

Art Deco evening bags took on a variety of geometric shapes. But it was the quality of the clasp that gave value to the bag. Semi-precious stones in contrasting colours were used to enhance the stylishness of the bag.The flattened bag was often embellished with enamel, giving a glassy, translucent finish.

Vanity cases were also popularized in this Art Deco period. previously, women had used make-up sparingly but now in this post World War One period, women were becoming more overt in their appearance. These tasselled vanity cases on long silk cords contained powder puff, lipstick holder and mirror.

Wartime Styles

The fashion extravaganza ended abruptly with the outbreak of World War II. Supplies were short and the glamorous, expensive trends were curbed. Now materials were needed for more important reasons. Instead of metal frames, zips, leather and mirrors, manufacturers used plastic and wood. Many women made their own bags or re-used old ones. Some used twine-like cord to make envelope or fan-shaped bags or used material from plastic tiles, fabric remnants or draperies. 

The relief after the war was immense and the post-war period saw optimism and prosperity in ladies' fashions, such as Dior's 'New Look'. It was a time for the emergence of accessories including costume jewellery, gloves and shoes. The handbag was back!

1950's Styles

By the 1950's daytime bags were fashionable. Basket bags and box bags were popular. They were made in both plastic and metal and were available in many colours, shapes and styles. Bags now had compartments for lipstick, money and cigarettes. Although needlework was a less popular pastime, needlework bags continued to be manufactured. Sleek elegance stood alongside modern tapestry or vinyl, and novelty bags shaped like dolls or poodles or even telephones hit the fashion scene.

Expensive, exotic skins, like crocodile, alligator or lizard became available. Bags from the fashion houses of Gucci, Chanel, Hermes and Dior became the must-haves of the wealthy.

1960's Styles

Soon a new style emerged, the grown-up look being overtaken in favour of the vibrancy of youth. The King's Road and Carnaby Street and the name of Mary Quant were at the forefront of psychedelic fashion. Then, that too was taken over by the more natural handmade products of the hippie era. Beads replaced plastic and  cloth bags had  fringed bottoms. No sooner had one style emerged then another followed it. The customer was overwhelmed with choice.

1970's Styles

Pop Art of the 70's did not exclude the Hippie look but developed different influences. Bags became a profusion of bright coloured, abstract patterns and disembodied lips, a theme that Prada revived in their millennium clothing collection.

Also embossed leather, flashy glam glitter and the denim 'jeans look' were popular. Then fashion designers developed a starker style of clothing in the minimalist masculine-style trouser suit and, of course, bags reflected this image with the return of the clutch bag.

1980's Styles

Moving on a decade, the 'more is more' mentality adopted the logo-patterned, large travel bags of Louis Vuitton or the style revived by Dior from its 1950's collection. Now lots of fake bags were on the market because the real ones were prohibitively expensive. Real fake is very difficult to check but the inside of the bag should be leather or suede and the stitching on the straps and trims should not be unravelling.

Future Collectables

If looking for a future collectable that will increase in value then it has to be a one-off eccentric bag that is totally impractical or a logo bag that has been designed by a new, young designer. Prada and Fendi are already highly sought designs. Anya Hindmarsh reflects the vogue for glitzy beads and sequins. 

Expensive bags today mean they are higher quality and there are fewer of them made.

Therefore, fewer will survive and those remaining will be tomorrow's valued collectable treasure!


Various styles of handbags

Handbag Assortment
Credit: Terrie Plowman