Fashions of Handbags and Purses
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vintage 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.

Ancient Bags

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.

Precious Purses

The heraldic symbol for Saint Matthew, the taxgatherer, 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.

Advent of Elaborate Bags

Elaborate silver purse

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.

The Evening Bag

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.

Bags for Men, Purses for Women

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 draw-string 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.

The Handbag as Fashion Statement

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.

Early 1900s

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.

Mid-Century Handbags

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.

New and Future Designs

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.A rejection of luxury culture might produce the most original bags of the twenty-first century, and the most personal.