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Fashion 101: History of Handbags

Friday, July 23, 2010

Whether you know them as purses, pocketbooks, totes, or sac-a-mains, the handbag is an item lusted after by women worldwide. Born out of necessity in the Middle Ages, handbags have come a long way to the glitz and glam of the designer purses of today. When I traveled to Amsterdam the one thing I was very excited about seeing was the Museum of Bags and Purses (Tassen Museum Hendrikje in Dutch).

Clothing did not always come packing with handy little pockets for loose change and cell phones, as surprising as you may find it. The oldest remains of bags for personal items that have been found date back to the late Middle Ages, where men and women wore belts with hanging bags, much like external detachable pockets. By the 17th century they had evolved to hanging bags with long cords attached to the belt. For the wealthy they were a luxury good complete with ornate bead work and often used as the gift wrapping for the actual gift of money or jewels.


A variety of games were a hobby of the people of the courts in the latter 16th century England. Your money, chips, and cards would be carried in this bag waiting to provide entertainment. This stiff round base to provide upright support at the table was often decorated with the family coat of arms, and not knowing the stylish game of the moment would have been very frowned upon.


A traditional wedding gift to the bride from the groom in Italy, France, and some parts of England. Named after the French town of Limoges, famous for its special bridal bags in the 17th to 18th centuries. These flat oval purses would range in the design from the groom's coat of arms to enamal depictions of the bride and groom or saints. Traditionally money would be placed inside as well, such as 13 coins, signifying Christ and the 12 disciples. I'm glad we now get more than 13 cents from our grooms on our wedding day!

Remember, the late 18th century was a time when every worthy woman was expected to bide her time on fine needlework. This work bag became a constant ally to those women, as they worked away over tea together. Typically of white satin with a drawstring top, most women would have embroidered any extra embellishment themselves.


From the late 18th century to the early 20th stocking purses were commonly used. A long knitted or crocheted tube was folded in the middle where it had its opening with 2 rings. You could place items in either side which were often decorated differently to distinguish one side from the other and the small rings would slide over to secure the closure.


In the 18th century straw was a very common material for fashionable bags that was split, ironed flat and mounted onto wood, leather, cardboard, or cloth. Through the heating of the straw embellishments, there could be added granules of gold or stains of color to vary the style. Leather emerged with the need for a more durable bag due to the increasing frequency of train travel. Unique materials such as ivory were used in the 19th century to the first quarter of the 20th century for ornate carvings continuing the art and fashion of handbags.

Weaving in and out of popularity in the last 200 years, beaded bags can be truly looked upon as a work of art. Often made from about 50,000 beads and handstrung in a strict order to form the pattern, it would take an experienced knitter two full working weeks to complete one bag. Many were crafted from Bohemian or Bavarian glass beads in Czeckoslovakia and Germany, but these bags also came from France, Italy, and Austria. In the early 20th century they began being paired with silver framing for closures but by the 1930's beaded bags began losing their demand.

The silver frame bags started being fashionable to Dutch women in the last quarter of the 17th century and was typically placed under the apron and hooked to the belt or skirt. Because silver was a precious resource, these bags were often passed down from mother to daughter. Accompanying the silver framework would be fabrics of velvet, damask, silk, and leather. The knitted bead bags also began pairing with the silver frames at the start of the 19th century. With the arrival of the 20th century, handbags had staked their permanent claim in the wardrobes of women and therefore a silver chain was added to the metal frame for easy handling.

By the end of the 19th century, there became more and more experimentation with new materials, and also easier methods of some favored techniques. Metal mesh bags formed by the joining of many tiny silver metal rings were popular in the late 1800's. Germany and the US were major producers. A production innovation by American company Whiting & Davis made it possible to mass produce the popular style Disden Mesh affordably. The colored patterns on the metal were huge in the 20's and 30's prevailing with the art deco style.


Materials like marcasite, a mineral pyrite began being experimented in different cuts similar to diamonds to adorn the purses. Leather began disersifying as people experimented with the uses of many varieties. Luxury goods may have included options of snake, crocodile, toad, ostrich, armadillo, lizard and even shark! With the continuous advancing of technology the arrival of plastics in the United States in the 1950's also sparked a micro trend of plastic bags, desired for their sturdy form and new translucent quality.

As you know, nowadays what you carry on your arm can make a world of difference while walking your city streets. Women give nicknames to their purses and may even stick small dogs inside of them. In 1724 George Frederic Strass created the imitation diamond that became imenseley popular by Coco Chanel in bags of the 1920's and 30's. In 1896 the Louis Vuitton Luggage House created its famous canvas bag with the LV logo and designer bags have never been the same. In the 50's celebrities began having quite an influence on this industry. Whether it was the quilted Chanel, the Hermes Birkin (created for English actress Jane Birkin) or Jessica Simpson's decked out Louis, if a celebrity covets a bag, rest assured it will become the next 'it' bag.

(These bags pictured above were displayed in a special Swarovski room. I loved this room, and my girlfriends deemed this last black bag, "Me in Bag Form" apparantly ruffles, zippers, studs, and lots of fun sparkle are my fashion qualities...I can't say I was surprised)!

For men, the arrival of pockets gradually dismissed the handbag as an item of interest and excluding the briefcase and some gaming bags, this thriving market is now predominantly run by women. As every season rolls around, new colors, materials, and styles create a glimmer in the eyes of many lovely women, and so the story continues.


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