Handbags throughout history: the evolution of the humble purse

February 19, 2018

Your handbag is one of your most closely guarded items. Often it holds more than just your purse and cell phone, also your diary, organiser, lip gloss, face powder, face wipes, emergency gum, pens, lipliner… the list is endless. The history of the handbag is an interesting one, starting in the stone age and evolving into what we have now.

Handbags started out as men’s accessories

In the early 1900s, the idea of a ladies’ handbag was fairly non-existent. A “handbag” was a term used for a man’s briefcase and in art as far back as the Ancient Egyptians, there are depictions of men using pouches and carrying them around their waists.

The world’s oldest purse was found in Germany and is estimated to be around 2,200 years old and is decorated with dog teeth. Fashion moved on since then, in the 1300s, with handbags being decorated with gold and silver court scenes. They functioned as signifiers of power and wealth as well as being used for practical purposes.

Medieval purses were often used to carry money, including that used for betrothal gifts or dowries. They were embroidered with scenes depicting love, marriage and sometimes even heartbreak. The practical use included carrying smelling salts around the Medieval streets, which often had a strong, unpleasant odour. This lead to some women asking for specially made, delicate handbags in order to keep their smelling salts on hand in case they fainted or became ill from the smell.

Chatelaine bags

From the 16th century, many women wore an attachment known as a Chatelaine bag, which was a decorative clasp at the waist with several chains attached. These chains held accessories such as scissors, keys, and sewing tools.

Often these delicate accessories were crafted from precious metals and were considered as jewellery and status pieces. Perfumes and smelling salt containers were also seen on some Chatelaine bags. Ladies often had two or more of these bags which matched their daily outfits, and some were elaborately decorated for more upper-class clients.

Reticules or indispensables

In the 17th and 18th centuries women preferred to carry their essential items in small bags with drawstrings known as ‘indispensables’ in England and ‘reticules’ in France. These were used to carry items such as money, face powder, rouge for cheeks and fans.

More often than not, the women using these bags had made them themselves using their embroidery and sewing techniques. Many of them were intricately and elaborately decorated with scenes depicting nature, royalty and even animals. Some reticules were attached at the waist while others were attached at the wrist. This was due to the change in clothing style from elaborate dresses of the 16th century to the sleeker design of the mid 17th and 18th centuries.

The Industrial Revolution and travel bags

The dawn of the Industrial Revolution brought about steam trains, which made travel more popular with men and women. In 1841, Samuel Parkinson commissioned a set of different sized hand luggage for her travels, as he noticed her current handbag was too small and flimsy to deal with travel.

Besides durability, Parkinson wanted his wife’s bags to stand out from the lower-class passengers and so asked London-based luxury leather goods company H. J. Cave & Sons to design unique bags made from the same leather as his own. These bags rose steadily in popularity, and the original Osilite bag by H.J. Cave & Sons is said to have inspired Louis Vuitton (1857) and a young Guccio Gucci (1910).

Modern-day handbags

By the 1930s, handbags and purses had evolved significantly from their earlier counterparts. Many of the designs we see today were invented in this era, such as the satchel and clutch. Companies such as Chanel and Louis Vuitton were rising in popularity and making a name for themselves by marketing high-end, fashion handbags as they still do today.  

In the 1940s, handbags changed from being made with metal frames and clasps to plastic and wood. This was due to metal being in high demand during WWII. Women’s emancipation and differing roles led to the change in design, as their demands changed, so did the design of the handbags. These changes brought about ladies’ messenger bags, daytime bags for walking and visiting, elegant, sparkling bags and minaudières (metal clutches) for evening use. In the later 20th century, branding became increasingly important leading to the designer handbags we see today.

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