History of the Bag: The First Bags

Part 1: The First Bags and Forerunners of Modern Bags

Bag design has evolved through the centuries to cover diverse needs and preferences. Since antiquity, bags have played an array of roles from that of mere utility and carrier of essentials to that of fashion treasure and status symbol. The necessity and charm of each bag style ranged among historical periods and cultures. Different bags styles were emerging as results of experimentation with old and new materials and as a response to social changes. By the end of the 18th century the bag in the way we understand it today – as a fashion accessory – was fully developed. Exquisite examples of early design are now exhibited in museums or kept in private collections. The forerunners of modern bags were often crafted from perishable materials and so our other way to see how they looked is via ancient, medieval, and pre-19th century works of art. What is extremely fascinating is the relevance of these shapes and the inspiration they still offer to many bag designers.


Ancient Times

It seems that mankind has been carrying bags since, well, ever – way before recorded history – and the most educated guesses are sack-like Prehistoric bag styles made of animal skin and destined to carry fruits and other raw commodities. Thousands of years ago (earliest example from 11,000 BC) engravings on ancient ruins found in Turkey, Iraq (Assyrian-Sumerian), New Zealand (Maori), and Central America (Olmec) depict shapes totally similar to that of a basket or a handbag with an arched handle often held by deities and translated as symbols of the universe. There is a theory that these purses were carrying ‘magic dust’, whatever that meant for these early civilizations! Otzi the Iceman who lived 5,000 years ago was found in 1991 in the Italian Alps next to his cowhide belt bag carrying the essentials. Ancient Egyptians attached bags to their belts and Greco-Romans did the same for coin purses. There is also a reference in the Bible of Judas carrying a similar pouch. Mysteriously enough in most ancient religions and civilizations you will find the image of a handbag. This charming 50s-style Stefania handbag has its actual design roots way back in history!


Middle Ages & Renaissance

In patriarchal societies, medieval bags were designed mostly for men. The commonest type was the coin purse, which in Europe was also described as an alms bag for the coins affluent people were giving to the poor. A drawstring was used as closure and protection from street theft. The majority of the bags belonged to the category of girdle purses, a version similar in function to today’s belt bags. These small square, rectangular or trapezoid pouches were suspended from a girdle with one or two loops or just tied around the waist. Some of them had flaps yet the most exquisite of all were the pouches that had a cast-iron, brass, silver, or gold top frame and suspension. The smallest a bag was, the greatest the status of the man who owned it. Another cool design was the ‘bundle’ with multiple pouches for different currencies, attached to a belt. Besides leather, linen was used as a budget-friendly option. Shoulder bags were only made for artisans, traders, farmers, hunters, beggars, or pilgrims who carried a lot. The only – and most ornate – pouches that were made for women were gifts of love or lust to either brides or women in the royal and aristocratic circles. These are the first examples of purses having an aspirational tone that reached new levels in Renaissance with various pouches detailed with tassels such as in this eye-catching Hanging by a Hair bag charm.




Early Modern Styles

In the 17th century men’s girdle pouches evolved into pockets sewn into their clothing, while women started to wear pockets tied on and hidden under their big skirts. From this point onwards men started seeing free-hanging purses as ‘feminine’ and pockets as masculine; although some aristocrats and royals continued to carry large framed bags and commoners had coin purses closely attached to their belts well into the 18th century. Prominent men and women were often hiding under their garments ornate ‘swete’ bags containing rare spices, flower petals or ethereal oils as scent. In the Elizabethan era this concept inspired the creation of small bags in fun shapes worn by women around their wrist or over their billowy skirts like jewelry. Evening bags first appeared in the 17th century as gaming bags carrying chips and coins for men and women. They were designed with a base that could sit flat on the game table and a shallow body that was ruched via a drawstring. The bases were coming in different shapes and were embroidered with initials, coats of arms or other social status details. Bags were for the first time three-dimensional. In the 18th century personalization took also the form of embossed golden initials and titles on leather folding wallets for important men. As menswear became more and more tailored, netted wallets, hidden into their sleeves, were the way to go for men. At the same time women started loving their wristlets and got used to carry an extra cotton or silk tote – definitely forerunner of the comfy-chic Franca style – for more storage space – additional to that of their pockets. It gave them the confidence of walking the streets or hitting the next occasion with all they needed, including fans, cosmetics, and opera glasses!


The 1st Modern Bags

With a wristlet, a tote, and hidden pockets the 18th century woman felt self-sufficient. In her pockets she had tiny leather-bound pocketbooks similar in shape to the Chicklet wallet filled with calendars, recipes, songs, and fashion drawings of the latest styles, hence she became fashionable. Her evening bag turned into a precious accessory decorated with fur, glass beads, prints and embroidery. Hand-netted metal-strap variations inspired by the ‘reticulum’ styles Roman ladies had, were trending. The ‘reticules’ are regarded to be the first shoulder bags although often still tangling from wrists. They were matching the fluid pocketless dresses inspired then by the discovery of the Roman city of Pompeii. By the end of the century the increased visibility of the pouches ladies previously hid into their décolletage or under billowy skirts was a scandal that gave birth to the bag as fashion accessory.   





Stay tuned for the next part in our three-part History of the Bag series: The Originals - Classic Shapes (19th Century to the 50s)


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