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Handbags

For as long as people have needed to carry things of value with them, there have existed forms of what we call “handbags.” While the earliest prototypes were merely crude pouches made from leaves or hide, after 1500 BC more sophisticated versions appear via the Babylonians and Assyrians. In their art we see priests and winged men holding richly embroidered small purses that likely contained holy unguents for religious ceremonies. (Shamans and priests of various cultures worldwide continue using bags and pouches for safekeeping religious and ritual articles.)

Egyptian hieroglyphics depict men carrying small sacks hung from around the waist that were used for carrying flint or money. The Greeks and Romans used small leather bags with drawstrings, often for carrying stone weights for scales. Another kind had slots for carrying coins. Hermes, the Greek messenger god for whom the Paris fashion house is named, and his Roman counterpart Mercury were commonly represented holding a purse—the first Hermes messenger bag, if you will. Note that early purses were used almost exclusively by men. When in the bible Judas Iscariot is called a purse carrier, it does not connote femininity, but suggests the attachment to money that would prove his weakness.

During medieval times pouches became paramount for both men and women because pockets were yet to be invented. These drawstring purses hung by long cords from the girdle, and could be made of silk, ornately embroidered (often with love stories) or adorned with jewels and tassels to indicate the status of the wearer. Women’s elaborately decorated purses were called “hamondeys” or “tasques.” Those used by men for gaming or falconry were known as “chaneries.” There were also seal bags for storing the official seals of important nobles, ecclesiastical purses for holding relics or items used in serving mass, and alms purses, used by Christians for giving alms to the poor.

The Elizabethan era (1558 -1603) saw women wearing such enormous skirts that they hid their pouches under them. Gentlemen, meanwhile, started wearing leather pockets called “bagges” inside their breeches, while commoners used large leather or cloth satchels slung diagonally across the chest. Aristocrats often also carried “swete bagges” that were filled with sweet-smelling herbs and flowers, such as lavender, or perfumed material as an antidote to poor hygiene. The period also saw the invention of the watch, prompting that of pockets for their keeping, and gradually men came to rely more on the latter as a practical alternative to external pouches.

Eighteenth Century

After the French Revolution (1789-1799), the full skirts of the old regime gave way to narrower silhouettes, leaving women no room for hidden pockets. Thus the eighteenth century saw purses come back out into the open in dainty versions suitable for the new dress styles. Called “reticules,” these purses were most often made of silk, decorated with tassels and held by long drawstrings. They were also known as “indispensables,” implying women’s dependency on their contents, which might typically include rouge, face powder, a fan, a scent bottle, visiting cards and smelling salts.

Nineteenth Century

The rise of industry during the Victorian era led to the making of purses in diverse arrays of fabrics and styles, so that women of fashion could now coordinate purses to their outfits. Even though pockets reappeared in garments, women continued to carry purses, often as showpieces for their embroidery, considered an indispensable skill in a potential wife.

Up until now, the manufacturing of purses and pouches had remained in the domain of dressmaking. With the advent of the railroad in the mid-nineteenth century, as more people began traveling by train, luggage makers responded by making hand-held luggage bags similar to today’s satchels or briefcases. Thus emerged the term “handbag.” While originally made for men, soon designers were making handbags to suit feminine needs, including compartments for gloves, makeup and the indispensable fan. Indeed some of today’s most famous handbag brands began as luggage makers—for example, Hermes (1837) and Louis Vuitton (1854).

Twentieth Century

The proliferation of handbag styles in the early twentieth century was phenomenal. Along with reticules, women could now choose from pochettes, Dorothy or “dotty” bags, Boulevard bags, leather shopping bags and shoulder-strap briefcases, to name a few. Handbags were also designed with folders for the newly invented pound notes, and compartments for just about everything else, including opera glasses.

After WWI, women’s newly acquired, corset-free mobility was implicitly symbolized by the “pochette,” a handle-less clutch, often decorated with jazzy geometric motifs, and held under the arm to affect the carefree air of the burgeoning jazz age, along with rising hemlines and flimsier dresses. The 1923 discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb inspired bags with Egyptian motifs. For a while it also became the rage for trend-following ladies to carry dolls dressed exactly like themselves, complete with matching miniature bags! In the 1930’s Art Deco gave rise to bags with geometric and abstract patterns, with Elsa Schiaparelli’s metal mesh bags being the non-plus-ultra.

1940’s

With WWII, bags took cues from military gear, becoming larger, squarer and more practical—in Britain they could even hold a gas mask! Shortages of leather and metal led to bags being manufactured in more materials, notably plastics and even wood. Meanwhile, as more French and American women joined the workforce, shoulder bags became increasingly popular. Once the War was over, shoulder bags were largely relegated to travel wear.

1950’s

The post-war economic boom of the 1950s saw handbags attain cult status, with designers such as Vuitton, Hermes, Channel and Dior its high priests. In marked contrast to 40’s military style, Dior’s long skirts and small waists heralded a new feminine look, making small bags de rigueur. Along with this new look came the near manic convention for color-coordinated accessories, with women dye-matching shoes and bags to every important dress!

1960’s-70’s

The women’s and youth movements of the 60’s countered restrictive dress conventions. Narrow clutch bags and dainty shoulder bags with long chains or straps survived the transition to miniskirts and “swinging” mod fashions. Soon young world travelers took up larger, fabric shoulder bags from India and other exotic destinations, popularizing patchwork, embroidery and psychedelic patterns. By the late 70’s shoulder bags would enjoy a major revival, this time featuring buckles and zippers as both practical and fashionable.

1980’s-90’s

The 1980’s saw the rise of label-conscious, conspicuous consumption, as well as the influence of fitness and sportswear in high fashion. In 1985 Miuccia Prada’s black nylon knapsack become a unisex sensation, and it remains iconic to this day. In the 90’s quilted handbags became a huge-selling classic, and small designer bags with giant initials ubiquitous. Designer replicas also grew profuse on the streets, many even bearing copies of the designer label!

Twenty-First Century

Today the range of handbag styles, materials, designer labels and prices is truly bewildering. What’s more, after remaining exclusive to women for so long, handbags are again becoming popular with men, coming full circle from their origins. Whatever the changing dictates of fashion and technology, it’s obvious that handbags aren’t disappearing anytime soon—neither as practical accessory or status signifier. And we haven’t even touched upon Freud!