Fashion: A western History of Handbags

Bags have got their importance and play a vital role in our lives all the time. One cannot imagine going to a party, on shopping, a gathering, to school, college, office, to an adventurous tour or anywhere else without carrying a bag with us. Bags are just like a magic box that provides us with whatever we want according to our needs. Bags are a symbol of ultimate glamour and luxury for ladies. Where ever you go, you will be the focus of people and get compliments from your near and dear ones. 

Purse Precursors
Ancient bag made using basketry techniques (from Egypt)
Ancient bag made using basketry techniques (from Egypt) 

The first mention of bags in literature was in the 14th century, Egyptian hieroglyphics showed pouches carried around the waist. Different jewels adorned these pouches which were used to show the person's status - the higher the wealth, the more elegant the pouch.

Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries: Girdle Pouches

Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries: Girdle Pouches
Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries: Girdle Pouches
In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, both men and women would attach pouches to the most important feature of medieval garb: the girdle. Because pockets would not be invented for several hundred more years, wearers would also attach other valuables to their girdle, such as a rosary, Book of Hours, pomanders (scented oranges), chatelaines (a clasp or chain to suspend keys, etc.), and even daggers (Wilcox 1999). The drawstring purse would hang from the girdle on a long cord and would vary according to the fashion, status, and lifestyle of the wearer. Women particularly favored ornate drawstring purses which were known as “hamondeys” or “tasques” (Foster 1982).

Medieval purses were not strictly used for carrying money, but were also associated with marriage and betrothal, often depicting embroidered love stories.

Purses, known as “chaneries,” were also used for gaming or for holding food for falcons. Ecclesiastical purses were highly significant and were used to hold relics or corporals (line cloth used in mass). The most important bag at this time was the Seal Bag which was made for the Keeper of the Great Seal, later known as the Lord Chancellor (Wilcox 1999).

Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries: Pockets and "Swete Bagges"

During the Elizabethan era, women’s skirts expanded to enormous proportions. Consequently, small medieval girdle purses were easily lost in the large amounts of fabric. Rather than wear girdle pouches outside on their belt, women began to wear their pouches under their skirts, and men would wear pockets (called “bagges”) made of leather inside their breeches (Foster 1982). Peasants and travelers might wear large satchel-like leathers or cloth bags diagonally across the body, as in Peter Brueghel’s painting, “The Elders Two Peasants” (Wilcox 1999).

Like their immediate predecessors, both men and women in the seventeenth century rejected the obvious use of bags and preferred to hang long embroidered drawstring purses under their skirts and breeches .

Purses were not only functional but they were also often used as conspicuous decorative containers for gifts, such as money, perfume, or jewels (Steele and Borrelli 1999). Toward the end of the century, purses became increasingly sophisticated, moving from a simple drawstring design to more complex shapes and materials.
Source: via Tatjana on Pinterest

Eighteenth Century: The Revolt against Underwear and Pockets

After the French Revolution, the full skirts of the ancient regime became less popular in favor of a more slender and narrow dress. 

These slender dresses left no room beneath for pockets and, consequently, pockets were discarded. Purses came back out into the open in the form of “reticules” or “indispensables” as the English tended to call them, suggesting that women had already largely developed a dependence on their handbags. 

Nineteenth Century: The Rise of the Handbag

The term "handbag" first came into use in the early 1900's and generally referred to hand-held luggage bags usually carried by men. These were an inspiration for new bags that became popularized for women, including handbags with complicated fasteners, internal compartments, and locks.
 With this new fashion, jewelers got into the act with special compartments for opera glasses, cosmetics, and fans.

The 1920's saw a revolution in fashion with varying hemlines and lighter clothing. Bags no longer needed to match the outfit perfectly and the rage was for the stylish lady to carry a doll dressed exactly like herself, complete with matching bag for her minature companion!

After WWI, and as more activities and travel opportunities became available for women, the long constricting layers and rigid corseting disappeared. Perhaps the most important development during this period was the “pochette,” a type of handle-less clutch, often decorated with dazzling geometric and jazz motifs, which women would tuck under their arms to give them an air of nonchalant youth. Rules for color coordination grew lax and novelty bags, such as doll bags, which were dressed exactly like the wearer became popular. The discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1923 inspired Egyptomania and purses began to reflect exotic motifs

The 1940's saw new austerity in clothing, including handbags with the war effort in mind. Metal frames, zips, leather, and mirrors were in short supply so manufacters used plastic and wood.
The 50's saw the rise of important designer houses including Chanel, Louis Vuitton, and Hermes and the 60's saw the breakdown of old notions of the classical and the rise of youth culture.

1960s-1970s: The Rise of the Youth Culture

Source: via Tatjana on Pinterest
During the 1960s, rules of “appropriate” dress relaxed in response to the women’s’ movement and the rise of the youth culture. As the rules of correct dressing began to breakdown, the narrow long clutch was one of the earliest types of handbags to make the transition into the age of informality and youth fashion because it had always been thought suitable for a youthful look.

The small and dainty shoulder bag with long chains or thin straps also began to dominate because it kept with informal child-like qualities of the miniskirt. Such handbags highlighted  the 1960 “swinging” fashion that was in stark contrast to the posed 1950s models.

1980s-1990s: Conspicuous Consumption and the Unisex Bag

Source: via Tatjana on Pinterest
The 1980s' handbags became associated with conspicuous consumption--and for the first time, a concern with health and fitness sports bags and shoes were an additional group of accessories that influenced high fashion. In addition, as technology introduced the calculator and filofax, work bags were designed for order and control. 

Twenty-First Century: Anything Goes...Even a "Man Purse"

Handbags are currently made in a bewildering array of styles and materials, such as waterproof canvas, space age synthetics, and faux reptile skins. Designers continue to play with the paradoxes inherent in the handbag with transparent materials that both expose and conceal the contents of the bag. And handbags, which for so long had been associated with the feminine are now becoming more popular with men. Both the modern man and woman can strap on or sling over a hands-free bag and go. Its variety and adaptability highlight the handbag’s extraordinary potency and staying power.

Fashion Is in the Bag A History of Handbags
A History of Handbags from the 14th century to present day handbag designers
Role of bags in present days
Vintage and Retro Handbags


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