From the earliest stages of civilization, bags and purses were practical everyday articles used by men as well as women. They were necessary for carrying money and other personal items, since clothes hadn’t yet been fitted out with pockets. We know what they looked like from paintings, prints and tapestries and the few historical handbags preserved in museums. Such antique bags are rare because they were mostly made out of perishable materials.
Bags and purses came in a variety of designs for a number of purposes, such as bags with clasps, leather pouches and purses with long drawstrings. With the exception of some rare shoulder bags, these were all worn attached to the belt or girdle. The introduction of pockets towards the end of the 16th century meant that the men’s bags slowly disappeared in the course of the 17th century. From then on, bags belonged almost exclusively to the women’s domain.
From the 16th century onwards, women often wore their purses on a chatelaine; a hook with chains to which small utensils could be attached, such as keys, knife cases, scissors and sewing tools. Since chatelaines were often crafted from precious metals they were also considered as jewellery and status symbols. The design and accessories of the chatelaine evolved in the course of the centuries, but it wasn’t until the beginning of the 20th century that the handbag finally replaced it.
In the 17th and 18th centuries and most of the 19th century, women’s clothing was so voluminous that one or two bags or “pockets” could easily be hidden underneath the skirt. Such pockets were usually worn in pairs: one hanging from each hip – hence the name thigh pockets. Thigh pockets remained en vogue for most of the 19th century.
When the Roman city of Pompeii was discovered in the 18th century, all things ancient Greek and Roman became immensely popular. This movement, Classicism, also had a profound impact on women’s fashion: dresses became straight and the waistline moved upwards. Underneath these delicate dresses was no room for thigh bags. Their content moved into the reticule, the first true handbag, carried on a chord or chain. Such bags were in fashion until the first decades of the 19th century. Reticules were handmade from all kinds of fabrics, often by the women who used them.
During the 19th century, the age of the Industrial Revolution, many new manufacturing methods and techniques were invented. New materials such as papier-mâché, iron and polished steel emerged and were used for the production of bags which resulted in new models and designs. New bags were developed for the modern traveller, who could then journey more easily by boat and railway. Hand luggage for railway travel were the precursors of today’s handbags; carrier bags which were practical for travel, but could also be used when shopping or visiting.
In the 20th century, art and fashion movements came and went in rapid succession and the handbag evolved alongside. However, women’s emancipation was the most influential factor in the shaping of the handbag. More and more women were employed and as they became more mobile, their handbags had to meet a growing variety of practical needs. This resulted in all sorts of bags for specific purposes such as leather document cases for going to the office, practical leather and plastic daytime bags for walking and visiting, elegant, sparkling bags and minaudières (metal clutches) for evening use.
Branding became increasingly important during the 20th century and the great handbag designers emerged. Designers known all over the world for their exclusive handbags and leatherware include Hermès, Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Prada. For fashion designers such as Chanel, Dior, Yves Saint Laurent, Versace, Donna Karan and Dolce & Gabbana, the handbag has become an important accessory. In contrast with the past centuries, in which design could remain unchanged for many decades, the handbag has now developed into a fashion accessory, changing with every season.