Bags are not a new invention, as long as humans have had items to carry, we have created bags in which to carry them. As early as 38,000 BCE, hunter-gatherer, humans were using bundles and pouches made from fibers to store and transport food and tools. The drawstring purse was worn dangling from a belt by both men and women from at least the time of Ancient Rome to the Renaissance and beyond. The woman’s handbag as we know it, however, is a much more recent development in the long, humble history of the bag.
The Birth of the Handbag
Prior to the invention of the handbag, women carried necessities in pockets. But, unlike men’s pockets, which were part of a man’s garment, a woman’s pockets were an entirely separate garment, worn tied around the waist under her skirts. The large volume of women’s skirts made it easy to hide the bulk of pockets. This changed in the last decade of the eighteenth century, however, as high-waisted gowns gained popularity.
Because of the slimmer silhouette of the new style gowns, it became a grave fashion faux pas to wear bulky pockets beneath one’s gown. Pocket-lines were the panty-lines of the 1790s and no fashion-forward woman would be caught sporting them. With the death of women’s pockets, came the birth of the women’s bag.
The precursor to the modern handbag was the reticule or the indispensable, as it was sometimes called. The reticule was a small bag, only large enough to carry rouge, powder, a fan, perfume, and a few visiting cards, but women quickly took to carrying them whenever they went out. Not everyone viewed the indispensable as quite so indispensable, however.
The Argument Against the Handbag
The first handbags were essentially women’s pockets with handles attached to them, but women’s pockets, because they were worn under a woman’s skirts and close to her skin, were considered undergarments. So, when bags for women first became popular, many viewed them as vulgar or risque. As Caroline Cox notes in Bags: An Illustrated History:
These early handbags were also daring, one of the first examples of underwear as outerwear—and thus for many a rather absurd affectation. The idea of a woman parading her personal belongings in a visible pocket was an act akin to lifting up her skirts and publicly revealing her underwear.
Aside from the scandalousness of parading one’s undergarments about for everyone to see, some women viewed handbags as a poor alternative to pockets.
Early American feminists, in particular, fought the loss of pockets for women. They believed handbags would never be as practical as pockets and advocated for functional pockets built into women’s garments like pockets were for men. For these women, pockets for men and handbags for women became symbolic of the inequality between the sexes and the struggle for women’s equal rights, much in the way later feminists would view the bra.
Whether one was in favor of or set against the handbag for women, in the absence of functioning pockets, a functional bag would quickly become an inescapable component of a woman’s daily life. Although it would go through many changes over the years, its size, shape, or decoration shifting with each new decade’s sensibilities, by the late-nineteenth century the handbag was here to stay.
The Changing Form and Function of the Handbag
With the rise of the department store as a respectable location for women to meet outside of their homes, it became possible for them to stay away from home for much longer than they could previously. With this newfound freedom came the need to carry more than what would fit in an impractically small reticule.
At the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, much more functional bags began to replace the reticule. Made by luggage creators like Louis Vuitton, these utilitarian bags, the first actually to be called “hand-bags,” were essentially miniature suitcases. They featured sturdy handles, multiple internal compartments, and a snap closure. These changes in the bag itself also marked a change in the idea of a woman’s handbag- it became something entirely her own. As noted by Anna Johnson in Handbags: The Power of the Purse:
Unlike a flimsy mesh reticule or a decorative coin purse sealed by a string, this bag snapped shut, and for the first time, women could carry their things with some degree of privacy. Men, who had long carried a lady’s fan or her money, were supplanted by increasingly practical, brilliantly structured bags, and they have been mystified and excluded by the handbag ever since.
In the post-World War I era, a woman’s role in society was rapidly changing, as women won liberties previously denied to them, including the right to vote. As the decade turned and they strode boldly into the Roaring Twenties and then the future beyond, greater changes were on the horizon for women and for the bags they carried along with them.
The Handbag as a Reflection of the Times
As the years progressed and handbags became further entrenched in women’s daily lives, they became a barometer for the times, adroitly reflecting the sensibilities of the women who sported them and the culture in which those women lived.
In times of prosperousness and excess, women sported over-the-top bags. Jewelers in the 1930s created minaudières, small boxes carried like a clutch, which was crafted from luxurious materials, such as silver and gold. In the seventies, women carried bags made of shiny metals, made to reflect the bright lights on the disco dance floor. The conspicuous wealth and consumer culture of the 1980s produced large, flashy, highly-decorated status bags. The handbag, in these times, served as a status symbol, with the richest women carrying the most expensive bags.
In the 1940s, women’s bags were simple and functional, reflecting the more sober sensibilities and limited resources of wartime. Shoulder bags, styled after the military satchels men carried on the war front, were worn slung over the shoulder or across the body as women walked or cycled to and from their jobs in support of the war effort. Later, this same style of bag would be reclaimed by women in the sixties as a down-to-earth counterpoint to the popular plastics of the space age. The priorities of the age determined the priorities of the handbag, including whether form came before function or vice-versa.
In decades when women were breaking through barriers and boldly challenging social mores, they carried bags that reflected this. The brazen flapper of the 1920s carried a sleek, color-coordinated clutch with her she danced, drank, smoked, cut her hair short, walked the streets without a chaperone, and unashamedly wore makeup and pants. The nonconformist, sexually liberated hippies of the 1960s sported craftwork bags made of natural materials and personalized them with patches and artwork. Daring or dissident bags like these allowed women an additional way to express themselves during times of social change or upheaval.
As the scientists developed daring new synthetic materials, these materials were also used to create modern handbags. When plastics began to be mass-produced in the 1950s, women carried handbags made of transparent lucite, a type of hard plastic. Though this new plastic was exciting, lucite bags could be dangerous: they were known to melt in the heat and let off toxic gasses! Popular bags of the sixties were made from similar space-age materials, such as PVC and polyurethane, though they had become much safer by then. Fire-retardant fleece, ballistic nylon, nylon webbing, velcro, and even kevlar have all been appropriated from other industries and used in women’s handbags. No doubt the next great breakthrough in material science will be reflected in the next generation of women’s bags.
The Future of the Handbag
The handbag’s past may not be long, only a recent few hundred years out of many millennia, but the history of the handbag is the history of women: women’s changing tastes, priorities, and roles in society. Handbags have thrived in times of excess and survived in times of scarcity, and even defied repeated calls by feminists to replace them with pockets. We cannot divine the future of the woman’s handbag. But, if its past is any indicator, we can be sure the handbag of the future will reflect the values of the woman of the future.
Sara Danford, Women’s Museum of California Volunteer
The current exhibit at the Women’s Museum of California, One Hundred Years of One Hundred Handbags, explores the history of women’s purses. The exhibit runs from June 2- July 2