Handbags and purses

The handbag is much more than a functional alternative to the pocket. In the course of time it has become a design object in its own right, a signature mascot for the major French couture houses (surpassing the role of perfume as a brand identity) and a powerful symbol of growing female independence. Until the late 1700s, both men and women carried bags. When the directoire fashions of 1800 streamlined the female silhouette, the need for an exterior pocket created a permanent role for the woman’s handbag.

In antiquity, bags were used to carry weapons, flint, tools, food, and eventually money. Egyptian burial chambers of the Old Kingdom (2686-2160 B.C.E.) contain double-handled leather bags designed to be suspended from sticks, as well as bags made from linen and papyrus. The ancient Greeks used leather bags called byrsa as coin pouches; this is the source of the English word “purse.” The rise of coin currency gave birth to the drawstring purse, an item always worn close to the body and most often suspended from a belt or secreted within folds of clothing. Judas sealed the fate of Jesus with a purse full of silver coins. Roman women used net purses; the Latin term reticulum (meaning net) was revived in the 1790s. One of the earliest ornamented leather purses to be recovered from Anglo-Saxon Britain came from the burial mounds of Sutton Hoo in Suffolk, assumed to be the burial site of King Roewald, who died in 625 C.E. The leather body of the bag had deteriorated but its gilt ornaments remained intact. The purse had a lavish lid decorated with gold, silver, garnets, and millefiore glass. Containing forty gold coins and hung from hinged straps on a waist belt fastened by a large gold buckle, the purse was part of a suite of regal accoutrements.

Actress Charlize Theron holds a Fendi handbag, February 9, 2004. Major fashion accessories in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, handbags were originally conceived for very practical concerns, such as storing flint and money.

Actress Charlize Theron holds a Fendi handbag, February 9, 2004. Major fashion accessories in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, handbags were originally conceived for very practical concerns, such as storing flint and money.

The heraldic symbol for Saint Matthew, the tax-gatherer, was a ruched moneybag and this symbol was emblazoned upon the crests of treasurers and titled families with large landholdings. Ritual contents also made bags precious and many trends for the ornamentation of secular fashion began with bags made for the church. A Byzantine relic pouch of the ninth century stored at St. Michaels in Beromunster, Switzerland, was lined in red silk and worked with intricately embroidered lions on a blue silk ground. By the thirteenth century, the popular term for a bag in Western Europe was an almoner. This term referred to an alms bag, that is, a purse to hold coins to be given as charity. Almoners lent a rather showy side to Christian charity; the richer the purse the more generous the social image of the Lady who carried it. Such pomp gave rise to thievery, the term “cut-purse” came into use in 1362.

The purse was also an important offering in the ritual of courtly love. The most amusing and sophisticated bags of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries were made as gifts to lovers, decorated with allegorical scenes and mottoes alluding to the trials of romance. One bag dating from the mid-fourteenth century (housed in the Musée Historique des Tissues, Lyon) depicts a lady posing as a falconer and her lover as the falcon, a witty reversal of the roles of hunter and prey. On another fourteenth-century French bag (from the Troyes Cathedral Treasury) two female rivals are depicted sawing a human heart in half. The tradition of the wedding or betrothal bag originated in the medieval custom of a groom presenting his bride with a sack of coins. In art, the drawstring purse came to connote female sexuality. Albrecht Dürer, Lucas Cranach, and others depicted many a lascivious older man reaching for the drawstring pouch of a younger woman. Female genitalia were referred to in Shakespearean slang as a purse. The eroticism of the bag was heightened by the way almoners, purses, and “harmondeys” were worn, suspended from a girdle that tightly straddled the belly or swayed suggestively about the hips.

In the fifteenth century, large and elaborate bags with cast-metal frames became more common and were carried by men of the ruling class. In the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, the size and shape of bags diversified, and the tiniest bags denoted the greatest status. Small, square embroidered “swete” bags containing perfumed pomanders, rose petals, rare spices, and oils were worn to scent skirts and cuffs and used as containers for personal gifts. Over time, swete bags and coin purses assumed increasingly ornamental shapes. One small purse from the Museum of London is a life-sized crocheted frog that fits snugly into the palm of the hand. Made of cream silk with silver mesh, the mouth of the frog forms the opening of the bag just large enough for a tiny coin. The Elizabethans had a taste for visual conceits and allegory. A bag in the shape of an acorn symbolized thrift, but was likely to be worn in the manner of a precious jewel, wound about the wrist or bouncing against full skirts. Satchels and sacks worn across the body were for peasants and pilgrims; often made from recycled socks or scraps of cloth; these bags are now known mainly from paintings and etchings as few actual examples survived their heavy daily use.

The rise of the evening bag can be dated from the seventeenth century, when men and women used gaming bags to carry their chips and coins. Designed to sit flat upon a table, these bags reflected a new sophistication in form. With a shallow tightly ruched drawstring body attached to a circular base stiffened with cord or leather, the bases of these bags were often decorated with the initials or coat of arms of their owner to avoid any confusion over the night’s winnings. The square shape that had dominated bag design for two centuries or more was now sprouting into three dimensions. Bags were made of interlocking panels in the shape of crescents, shields, and pentagons and told little stories (of heroic colonial enterprise or secret love) on each individually embroidered panel. The idea of the bag as a narrative in itself or a formal social badge for its owner expanded in the eighteenth century when leather folding wallets featured one’s name and title boldly embossed on the front, usually in gold letters. By the middle of the seventeenth century, bags and purses for women became smaller and tended to be obscured within the folds of large skirts made even more voluminous by hoops and farthingales. Increasingly, the bag had to compete with its much more practical rival: the pocket.

At the beginning of the eighteenth century, the role of the bag for men and women began to divide. Men might resort to slipping a small, netted purse into their sleeve or slung over the belt buckle, but they no longer dangled leather or cloth bags from a long drawstring at the waist. The notion of an elaborate bag with a drawstring or handle became more and more feminized as the century progressed. As masculine fashion became even more streamlined with tight breeches and cutaway coats, men were forced to compress their needs into custom-made wallets that contained everything from a compass to nail scissors and a snuff bottle. Eighteenth-century women carried small purses on the wrist, toted large silk and cotton workbags for knotting and personal effects on the arm and had the additional storage space of large pear-shaped pockets worn laced around the hips beneath their petticoats.

All of this extra room gave birth to a culture of the handbag long before the handbag proper came into existence. Women grew accustomed to carrying their work-bags about socially, slipping extra items in for evening such as fans, smelling salts, cosmetics, and opera glasses. In their dimity pockets they carried small leather-bound pocketbooks whose printed pages included calendars, recipes, songs, and Saint days as well as engravings of the latest dress and hat models. A precursor to the modern fashion magazine, the pocketbook added depth to the idea that a woman carried the world in her pocket.

Despite the capacious generosity of pockets and knotting bags, small purses for women remained popular, and their decorations reached a peak of worldly topicality. A woman could advertise her love of science or a political allegiance with the elegant flick of a wrist. The fine sable beaded bags produced in Paris from the 1770s on, wove up to 1,000 tiny glass beads onto each square inch of the bag’s surface, lending a remarkable clarity to color, lettering, figures, and detail. One such beaded bag from 1784 was decorated with hot-air balloons and the face of Jean-Francois Pilâtre de Rozier, the French balloonist who made his maiden voyage the year before. Printed images on silk also offered swift production of commemorative and novelty bags.

By 1799, hand-netted bags were referred to in England as “indispensables” and in France as reticules, after the netted bag (reticulum) carried by Roman ladies. Handbags were in existence even before chemise-style dresses became fashionable, but bags became permanently established as a feminine accessory once the long, sheer and close-fitting dresses of the directoire eliminated the space for pockets altogether. As with all new fashions there was a period of adjustment, and fashionable women of Paris and London were reported to be secreting small coin purses into their décolletage or slipping important letters into the leaves of their fans. The need for an alternative to the pocket gave birth to early bags that looked very similar to the pear-shaped pockets of the late 1700s, simply grafted onto a silken drawstring. There was some social outcry at the notion of wearing such an intimate article in public but demand soon replaced dissent. The Parisian Journal des modes quipped, “One may leave one’s husband but never one’s bag.”

The prevailing shape of the first decade of the nineteenth century was the drawstring reticule but frame bags began to come into use. Bag size is always contingent on the shape, cut, and proportion of clothes; as skirts grow larger bags tend to shrink. In the mid-nineteenth century, alternative containers such as muffs, link metal chain purses, knitted miser bags, and chatelaines (a range of miniature domestic trinkets worn hung from a belt) competed with the hand-held bag for carrying coins and small personal articles. Unlike the deliciously worldly style of the eighteenth century, the Victorian era idealized domesticity and sentimentality. Bags reflected these themes with hand-beaded patterns of home and hearth (bought commercially or made at home), hand-painted scenes of mourning on black satin, and arrangements of flowers encoded with private messages for loved ones. Bags made at home advertised the skill of their maker and were given to eccentric almost esoteric detail, commercially made leather frame bags for shopping and train travel were far plainer, designed for security, respectability, and privacy. These two trends were to echo the split identity in handbags into the next century and beyond. The idea became established that a woman could own several very different bags for different occasions and different personae.

By the 1880s the handbag had become a fashion fixture. Based on the design of much larger luggage and the traveling carpetbag (first executed in tapestry fabric by Pierre Godillot in France in 1826), necessity had bred a very plain, useful bag that became the blueprint for all to come. Most of the classic bags known today were invented and developed by the great luggage and saddlery houses of Paris in the late nineteenth century. Louis Vuitton made traveling trunks for Napoleon III. In 1896 he had logos based on his initials hand-painted onto his trunks and hand luggage to defy counterfeiters. His steamer trunk of 1901, designed to hang on the back of a cabin door with a long canvas body and short, strong leather straps, is the precursor to the tote bag. Emile Maurice Hermès had the vision to transform feed and saddle bags into elegant travel accessories. The genesis of the Kelly and later the Birkin bags were in tall leather satchels designed to hold saddles: the Haut a Courroies. Hermès was also the first to apply the Canadian army cargo zipper as a modern fastening, bringing it back to Paris in 1923 to create the Bolide, a driving bag for his wife. Travel in the early years of the century was not about expedience but studied luxury, and the grand French houses created classics out of an ingenuity for stylish living. The Noe bag was designed by Vuitton in 1932 as a satchel to carry exactly five bottles of champagne. This design formed the basis of all shoulder strap bucket bags to follow. The Plume bag designed by Hermès in 1933 was based on a square horse blanket bag and updated with thin central straps and a zip that encircled the body of the bag. An heir to the Hermès Bolide of 1923, this simple square bag was the model for the gym bag including the Adidas tennis bag of the 1980s and the Prada bowling bag of the 1990s. The tote, the bucket, and the box are the geometrical foundations of twentieth-century design. Bags have gone to every extreme since but their origins always return to these three templates.

From 1900 to 1914 handbags swung like a pendulum between exotic fantasy and pragmatic reality. In one last nostalgic bid against the fully mechanized age, there was a brief vogue for tiny 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. The influences of orientalism and art nouveau spread the desire for bags cut from antique textiles, ecclesiastic velvets, tapestry, and handmade lace. Leather shoulder bags were pioneered by the suffragette movement, and when war came in 1914 this style gained serious ground. During the 1920s there was a trend for bags that were androgynous, sleek, and held close to the body. The Exposition of Decorative Arts held in Paris in 1925 influenced every aspect of handbag design from the geometric abstraction of their hardware and decoration to the streamlining of their form and function. Lancel, the French luxury leather goods firm, presented a sleek purse in 1928 that included a mirror, makeup case, and minuscule umbrella. The mesh bags of the 1920s echoed perfectly the sinuous lines of the chiffon and net dresses worn by the flappers, and were just large enough to contain a pack of cigarettes, a lipstick, and some coins. While the average office girl of 1930 was content with her enameled Whiting and Davis mesh bag decorated with a deco flower for $2.94, socialites carried bags studded with pavé diamonds, jade, and emeralds by Cartier, or Van Cleef and Arpels minaudières, evening box bags made of solid gold.

HOW THE KELLY BAG GOT ITS NAME

A Hermès Kelly bag takes over eighteen hours to create and is hand-stitched by a single craftsman. Based on a bag originally designed to carry a saddle, the original name for the Kelly was the Haut a Courroies (meaning literally “bag with tall handles”), and the first model was refined for use in car and air travel in the early 1930s. Famous women who have carried the bag include Marlene Dietrich and Ingrid Bergman, but these are not the women who made it a household name. In 1956 Grace Kelly was photographed getting out of a limousine holding her Hermès bag in a white-gloved hand. In fact, she was using the bag to shield her pregnant belly from prying photographers. The image ran on the cover of Life magazine in 1956 making the Kelly the most famous bag in the world. Luxury accessories were slower to catch the public’s imagination in midcentury America than in Europe, where an expensive handbag was expected to last a lifetime. In France it has long been a bourgeois ritual to present a Kelly bag on a young woman’s twenty-first birthday. In America, the Kelly has also come to represent a treasured prize for a rite of passage and has remained the last word in conservative chic for almost half a century.

By the late 1930s the spirit of surrealism and Hollywood screwball comedies infused handbag design with a last blast of witty sophistication before the war. Suddenly a bag could be shaped like a Daimler automobile, a Scotty dog, or a model of the SS Normandie, complete with miniature metal steam vents (this bag was sold as a souvenir aboard the ship in 1935). The designer who embodied this irreverent spirit best was Elsa Schiaparelli. She was the first designer to link the handbag to the concept of celebrity: She decorated a pochette in 1934 with a print of newspaper clippings about herself! Subsequent bags were shaped like bouquets and inverted balloons. During World War II, handbag design took a sober turn, with practical styles prevailing; the return of frankly masculine shoulder bags dominated the decade. Ingenuity and improvisation dominated this decade. Rationing saw women recycling nineteenth century bags for evening and using everything from men’s suiting to crocheted wool and upholstery cord to craft their own handbags at home. Stealth influenced style and bags were designed with secret pockets, stacked compartments, sliding metal panels and riveted mesh clasps.

As if in reaction to the solidity of 1940s bags, 1950s bags were small, saucy, and (due to the development of plastic technology) quite often completely see-through. Transparent bags were made possible by a new form of hard plastic Perspex known as Lucite. But the lifespan of Lucite as a luxury item was cut short by the invention of injection molding, a process that could make hard plastic bags quickly and cheaply. By 1958 the Lucite bag was available at chain stores and no longer a coveted status symbol. Wealthy ladies had moved on to luxury bags made of crocodile and alligator. The next generation would care for neither.

The handbag in the 1960s seemed eager to shrug off the hang-up of structure and tradition. Bags were made in simple shapes and elaborate inexpensive materials such as wood, straw, cotton, and PVC. Bags could be whimsical, like Enid Collins’ sequined baskets, or psychedelic as in the case of Emilio Pucci’s patterned handbags, but they were rarely staid. Bonnie Cashin’s design mantra “make things as lightweight as possible—as simple as possible— as punchy as possible—as inexpensive as possible” summed up the spirit of the era. The American sportswear designer spearheaded a return to soft, unstructured bags. She coined the term “Cashin Carry” for her 1967 shopper with a coin purse self attached; she made a lunchbox shaped bag with pockets that flipped open on either end, and a hobo bag that included an extra pouch—just in case. She took the everyday tote and dolled it up in acid-bright leather piping and Harris tweed. Designing for Coach from 1962 to 1972, her ideas spawned the slouchy egalitarian style of the 1970s and continue to speak to the preppy elegance of contemporary sports bags. The handbag in the seventies was influenced by the divergent forces of feminism, global travel, status fashion and sport. Unisex styling gave the ‘man-bag’ its brief moment and many rough hewn embroidered denim and handtooled leather shoulder bags were worn by both sexes. Utility style had an impact on materials and both the rip stop nylon ‘Le Sportsac’ tennis bag and the canvas L. L. Bean tote were worn as badges of egalitarian chic and career equality. Designer status bags by Gucci, Dior, and Fendi established jetset style but over-licensing and widespread counterfeiting diluted the power and exclusivity of the logo as the decade progressed. Luxury evening bags of the late seventies and early eighties were exquisite and small. The disco bags by Carlos Falchi, Halston and Judith Leiber were worn almost like jewelry. Prada, the Milanese leather house, was substantially revived when Miuccia Prada introduced a simple leather and rip-stop nylon backpack to their line in 1985. Monochrome and subtly monogrammed, the bag and its’ practical accessories (small wallets and purses) gave the designer bag a fresh dose of street credibility. The late eighties saw a return to the surrealist spirit in fashion with many French designers approaching the handbag as a witty found object or subverted status symbol. Jamin Puech suspended a marabou powder puff on a satin strap, Christian Lacroix fashioned a gold clutch into the shape of a Byzantine bible, and Karl Lagerfeld shrank the Chanel bag to the size of a bon bon to bounce off the hip. The nineties was perhaps the centuries richest decade for handbag design, almost every year saw the birth of an iconic new bag. In 1993 Lulu Guinness launched her flower pot, a surreal basket bag festooned with silk roses. The following year Kate Spade’s top handled square tote became an instant American classic. In 1995 Madame Chirac presented Lady Diana with a small bag of embossed leather with loose gold letters hanging like a charm bracelet from its handles, the ‘Lady Dior.’ In 1996 Moschino dripped rich brown calfskin over a pristine white handbag, effectively dipping the bag like a strawberry in chocolate. The most famous bag of the decade was launched the following year. The Fendi baguette tucked under the arm (inspiring its title) and was made of rich and unexpected materials: tapestry, handloomed velvet, embroidered denim and exotic skins. The bag changed the fortunes of the company and the face of the handbag in fashion history, as the first bag since the Kelly to become a household name, a cult object and a celebrity in its own right.

Designers have tried to predict what the bag would look like in the twenty-first century. In 1999 Karl Lagerfeld designed the Chanel 2005 bag: a vacuum-formed ovoid handbag with a hard body flocked in neoprene. The all-in-one design of this bag with a handle punched out of its body like a doughnut hole resembled both a laptop case and a futuristic cartoon character. Houses such as Fendi, Prada, Gucci, and Vuitton created dramatic sequels to their best-selling bags.

The logo itself came up for review with aggressive revision and reinvention. Marc Jacobs’s first contribution to his post as creative director at Louis Vuitton was to have the 1980s artist Stephen Sprouse tag the name of the house in graffiti lettering across a zip-topped structured bag. Released in 2000, this bag led the charge for staid houses to revise their image radically. John Galliano’s designs for Dior from 2000 on, have evoked Cadillac dashboards, car headlights, punk rock kimonos, and miniature riding saddles in arresting materials like red patent leather and acid-washed denim.

The impetus behind the capital and artistic risk of issuing radical bags for the classic labels has been both prestige and money. When a label launches a successful bag the corporation’s stock can rise dramatically in value. Handbags have also become the stylistic mascots for designer culture. In the 1940s one wore the perfume of Chanel; in the early 2000s one wears the bag to attain the same cachet. The quest for an “it” bag dominates the field. After the initial long-running success of the baguette since its launch in 1997, Fendi presented the croissant (shaped like a crescent moon) in 2000, followed in 2002 by the Ostrik, a 1970s-inspired shoulder bag with zipped side panels and a beaten metal panel something like a Roman breastplate, and a succession of bags that mimiced the bouffant folds of a chef’s hat or fanned outward in concentric tiers of leather, fabric, and skins. Out-landishly organic designs have vied for attention by creating a sexy alternative to the top handle bag. Tom Ford for YSL’s “Nadja” bag (2003) resembled a massive suede rosebud or ruffled labia depending on your view. The studded Domino bag by Sonia Rykiel (2001) squashed under the arm like a comfortable designer dim sum, and Marc Jacob’s “Veneria” with its massive buckles, chunky pockets, and top stitching set a powerful trend for utilitarian bags with cartoonish proportions in saturated colors.

The first four years of the twenty-first century saw the most intense diversity in handbag design and equally intense competition between designers. When Madonna, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Kate Moss began to carry the saddlebag designed by Nicholas Ghesquiere for Balenciaga, the rather plain distressed leather hobo with front zips and trailing tassels became a cult. When characters on the TV show Sex and the City obsessed about owning a red Hermès Birkin bag, the yearlong waiting list for the bag doubled and then tripled. In terms of fame, the Hermès Birkin bag has now eclipsed the Hermès Kelly or perhaps it has simply become the Kelly bag of its generation, being softer, larger, and slightly louder than its predecessor.

While famous designer label bags lead the trends for mass-market fashion, there is room for a backlash or a return to one-of-a-kind bags made by hand. In the Victorian era bags assumed a split identity. The formality of a leather shopping bag or traveling case and the eccentricity of a little silk evening purse stitched from remnants or decorated with a hand-embroidered poem struck the contrast between social duty and private pleasure, professional production and home crafts. As the handbag grows more and more commodified, streamlined, and hyped, a return to more individual shapes and materials seems increasingly possible. The bag began as a simple vessel for private needs. Despite the advances of technology and the far-reaching tentacles of advertising, this is where the handbag may return. A rejection of luxury culture might produce the most original bags of the twenty-first century, and the most personal.

See also Cashin, Bonnie; Europe and America: History of Dress (400-1900 C.E.); Ford, Tom; Hermès; Pucci, Emilio.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Ettinger, Roseann. Handbags. Atglen, Pa.: Schiffer Publishing, 1999.

Hagerty, Barbara G. S., and Anne Rivers Siddons. Handbags: A Peek Inside a Woman’s Most Trusted Accessory. New York: Running Press, 2002.

Johnson, Anna. Handbags: The Power of the Purse. New York: Workman Publishing Company, 2002.

Steele, Valerie, and Laird Borelli, Handbags: A Lexicon of Style. New York: Rizzoli International, 2000.

Wilcox, Claire. Bags. London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 1999.

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