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The evolution of: the handbag

The evolution of: the handbag

We're taking a trip back in time to trace the history of the handbag, fashion's most practical accessory. 

Behind every great woman is a meticulously organised handbag.

Margaret Thatcher’s purse, for example, became iconic during her time in office. Hilary Clinton spoke of her own respect for the accessory when interviewed for Harper’s Bazaar.

“No one should make fun of anyone else’s handbag choices… handbags are a deep psychological need. It’s a desire to organise and contain that which is important to your daily life.”

The average British woman will spend £4000 on handbags in her lifetime. At any given moment, she will own 17, adding around three to her collection each year. 

“When negotiations stall, get out the handbag! The solution is always there, usually written on a small piece of paper deep within it.”

Former US Secretary of State, James Baker, on Thatcher’s handbag

A recent study on women with dementia found that they responded well to having handbags with them in their care homes, suggesting that after a time, we even begin to treat handbags as an extension of ourselves.

We’re looking back at the history of the humble handbag, from simple leather pouches to the ‘It bags’ of Fashion Week catwalks.


Stone age style

Despite their manifest popularity amongst women-kind, handbags actually started out as a man’s accessory. The term was first popularised in 1900 as a term for a man’s briefcase and as far back as Ancient Egypt, hieroglyphics depict men carrying pouches around their waists.

This makes sense when you consider that historically speaking, men have held the purse strings far more often than women.

The world’s oldest purse was discovered in Germany in 2012. It was studded with dog teeth and dated from between 2,500 and 2,200 B.C.

By 1300 however, fashion had clearly moved on. The world’s oldest handbag is a 700 year-old-clutch discovered in the city of Mosul in Northern Iraq. The beautiful bag is decorated with gold and silver court scenes.

Historically, handbags have always functioned as signifiers of power, status and beauty as well as their practical uses.

Medieval purses were not only used for carrying money, but also had great symbolic weight representing marriage and betrothal—they were thus often embroidered to depict love stories.


A sign of the times

During the Elizabethan Era, it was the fashion for women to wear huge, puffy skirted dresses. This meant that the small girdle purses they were previously carrying easily became lost amid all the fabric.

Purses therefore, began to increase in size. Peasants of the time were already carrying large satchel-type bags across their body.

With the introduction of pockets to men’s clothing in 1670, men discarded bags, and they began to be known purely as the domain of women’s fashion.

In their own small way, handbags had a role to play in the women’s equality movement, giving women a place to carry their own money and possessions, and not rely upon their husbands.

Men had long been responsible for carrying a lady’s fan or her money and they were supplanted by the invention of the sturdy, increasingly practical bag empowering women with greater privacy and control of their most personal items.


The dawn of the modern handbag

The introduction of public train travel in the Nineteenth-century revolutionised bags. More people were travelling across the country and the word ‘handbag’ was coined to refer to the luggage that these tourists carried by hand.

Some of today’s best-known designer names, including the iconic Louis Vuitton, started life as Nineteenth-century luggage makers.

The growth in available fabrics and demand for bags for the career woman led to an exponential increase in the accessory’s popularity in the roaring twenties. Workingwomen often used large handbags, such as the Boulevard bag, or even female suitcases, which were worn around the shoulder.

The Second World War saw a military look influence female fashions. Bags became larger and more practical and the drawstring made a comeback.

In the 1960s and 1970s, youth culture was in full bloom. The rules surrounding what constituted appropriate dress relaxed significantly and a plethora of bag designs became popular. Materials like PVC, wicker and even carpet were used, reflecting the carefree liberal attitude of the decade.

By the end of the 1970s, shoulder bags made a comeback, complete with pockets, zips and other functional features. These ultra-practical bags aimed to equip women for anything that the new feminist world might throw at them.


Handbags today

Now made of any material imaginable, both men and women carry today’s bags over their shoulders, under their arms or in their hands to store all the necessary accoutrements of modern life.

From satchels, backpacks and clutches to covetable ‘It bags’, what could the future hold for handbags? 


Feature image via Helmut Newton