Part 2: The Original Classics (19th Century to 1950s)
Most classics in bag design history were initially introduced to the market in the 19th and the first half of the 20th century. The industrial revolution and more specifically the introduction of public railways and steamboats made luggage manufacturing necessary which later inspired regular bag designs. In the Victorian era as skirts grew larger, purses got smaller. Women could either buy their bags or create their own at home. Handmade ones were as their way to show off their needlework skills to the world and mostly to men they were flirting with. The most impressive ones were beaded or embroidered with floral or prairie motifs. Few ladies still carried the drawstring reticule styles of the 18th century but they preferred to hold small frame handbags and tiny hand-held coin purses. Commercial frame bags crafted from leather were less personal and intricate. They were made for women who loved their anonymity and privacy. The most exciting thing is that 19th-century women had for first time bags for different occasions.
The First Statement Bags
It might have first been spotted on Dutch women during the Renaissance, yet the ‘chatelaine’ became an ‘it’ accessory in the mid-19th century. It attaches to a waist belt and can be described as a bejeweled hook or clasp with a series of functional items (lipstick, clippers, coin purse etc.) suspended from multiple chains like the Purse on Purse charm hangs from its keyring. Equally fashionable were the metal ‘chain-link purses’ that remind us of the 90s, and the knitted ‘miser bags’ with an elongated tubular shape and a special space for coins that were secured with sliding rings. Utility styles included shoppers and canvas totes.
Industrial Revolution and Luggage
The introduction of public railways and steamboats turned luggage into an essential. In the late 19th century you will see amazing examples of the so-called ‘carpet bag’ made of oriental rugs and great tapestry fabrics. This roomy double-handle top-frame handbag was the lightweight weekender or duffel bag of the times. Most iconic bag styles today are rooted in great luggage designed by the prestigious saddlery houses of Paris in the late 19th century. These tall practical handbags that elegantly carried saddles and riding boots, were the forerunners of modern totes and satchels like the timeless Modena bag. The same houses created artful wooden or metal suitcases hand-painted with the initials of the owner. They were so structured and heavy that they could only be lifted with the assistance of porters. The industrial revolution is credited for the creation of some fabulous ‘steamer trunks’.
Early 20th Century Stunners
Abundant resources and new materials turned handbags into mainstream accessories. Luxury bags crafted from antique fabrics (some them with oriental motifs and others with Art Nouveau details) were trending before WWI. In elite circles ladies were holding ornate purses such as tiny silver mesh frame bags, spacious velvet bags with hand-carved frames, and beaded bags with fairytale or Renaissance motifs. Leather shoulder bags came out of the suffragette movement (advocating women’s right to vote) and continued along with the canvas bags well into the WWI period. In the 20s sparkly beaded handbags and metal-chain shoulder bags were the perfect fit for the chiffon-clad flapper girls and the dazzle of the jazz culture. Drop-shaped wristlets were also a thing. Interwar cheer culminated in novelty shapes such as the birdcage, shell, and doll bags that will reach their surrealist maximum in the 30s. Yet in daytime most women were holding a flat envelope-style handbag quite similar to the amazing Jolie style. The 30s mark the birth of the purse as a fashion accessory. By the end of this decade most known bag styles, including the handbag (top-handle), the clutch (no handle), the satchel (long handle), and the tote (double-handle) have been invented. Hollywood was rising and its divas loved holding minaudière clutches, inspired by the cigarette boxes and adorned with precious gems in Art Deco style by acclaimed jewelers. Magnetic clasps, zippers, and sophisticated hardware were used. Prestigious brands created the first versions of the bowling bag and the cylindrical duffel bag in coated canvas. Bucket bags such as the stunning Rita have roots in a certain style designed in 1932 to carry champagne bottles. Men’s briefcases also inspired women’s handbag styles. Bags became real status symbols!
Wartime and Post-War Styles
In the 40s military messenger bags spoke of minimalism and utility. They inspired an array of roomy shoulder bags that could carry a lady’s cosmetics, accessories, money, and other essentials. The envelope shape got a shoulder strap such as the one in the sleek Open Letter style. It was made of leather, or recycled fabric and cardboard. Evening styles came in similarly structured shape yet in a smaller size. They were crafted from satin, silk rayon, velvet, and metallic brocade. Rationing in metal made manufacturers come up with alternatives for hardware such as plastic and bamboo. More elegant styles included the ruched-top ‘shell bag’ and the ‘wristlet’. The end of WWII and the 50s signaled the return to more aspirational and less practical styles, especially handbags and smaller shoulder bags. On-trend materials included posh exotic leathers and playful clear plastic. The rectangular ‘mailbag’ originating in the briefcase, and the quilted chain-strap shoulder bag became iconic. Accessorizing and color coordination were the priorities in styling.
Stay tuned for the last part in our three-part History of the Bag series: The Modern Bag Shapes and Revivals (1960s to today)!