Have you ever wondered about the origin of handbags and purses? Handbags have been essential to fashion history ever since people have had something precious to carry around with them and only the items have changed over time. The very first mention in written literature comes from the 14th century, even though Egyptian hieroglyphs show pouches carried around the waist. Bags were attached to what were called "girdles" which were fastened to the waist. Embroidery and jewels adorned these articles and were used to show status - the richer the person, the more elaborate the bag.
This drawing shows a woman with a drawstring work bag. In one hand, she holds a pair of scissors and a piece of gauze, which was very popular and expensive in the 18th century.
In the 16th century, handbags took on more of an air of practicality with the use of everyday materials such as leather with a drawstring fastener on top. During this period, cloth bags were used that were made larger and used by travelers and carried diagonally across the body. The 17th century saw more variety and both fashionable men and women carried small purses with more complex shapes. Young girls were taught embroidery as a very necessary skill to make them marriageable and we see the rise of beautiful and unique stitched artwork in handbags.
Neo-classical clothing became popular in the 18th century with a reduction in the amount of underclothing worn by women. Wearing a purse would ruin the look of this clothing so fashionable ladies started carrying their handbags which were called reticules. Women had a different bag for every occasion and every fashion magazine had arguments on the proper carrying of these purses. In reticules one would find rouge, face powder, a fan, a scent bottle, visiting cards, a card case, and smelling salts.
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!
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.
Copy is the most sincere form of flattery and, if so, Kate Spade, Gucci, Hermes, Coach and Dior must be very flattered! There are many replica handbags flooding the market (just visit Canal Street in New York City!). Some of these "designer fakes" even carry the label of the Company they are imitating while others just have the signature "C" or "G" without the label.
What's in the future for handbags? My personal prediction this fashion accessory will become more individualized with interesting textures and fabrics. New classics will come and go but the Dior, Gucci, Hermes, and Louis Vuitton bags will still continue to be on top.