The authority on Handbags & purses

Utilized by men and women alike, bags and purses were practical everyday items which essentially made life easier. At the most basic level, a bag carries important personal effects that need to be mobile. In brief, it is a vital tool which helps in everyday life. It’s important to realize that the birthplace was necessity. Bags have participated in the “Supply/Demand” evolution; they reflect not only necessity but also personal style.

As a result of a person’s need to have their personal effects conveniently close, the bag came to be more than a transport tool. In sum, the bag developed to not only provide necessity and convenience but also to reinforce status.

different bag styles for women
The unique style and significance of a bag is an actual artifact and relic of yesteryear.

By and large, throughout history, the bag abided to the cultural norm of particular regions, morphing with each time period accordingly. Equally important is the influential status that a bag came to exhibit and imbue upon its wearer. Ultimately, whether it be a purse, a wallet or a handbag, the history of the bag and its legacy is epic, to say the very least.

Bags are notable works of art and history. For instance, significant designs were manufactured through elaborate craftsmanship with leather, embroidery, paintings, prints, and tapestries. All in all, the unique style and significance a bag has is, in fact, an actual artifact and relic of yesteryear. In this way, throughout history, bags have effectively preserved and pursed antiquity and value. To be sure, the bag continues to modernize itself, adjusting to every generation and the valuables they deem fit to carry.

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Transcending The Pages of History

In essence, a bag reinforces the security, privacy and allows for personal customization throughout the traveler’s journey. Overall, its characteristics evolved to distinctively serve and reflect its patrons. With this in mind, throughout its evolution, the bag has been repeatedly outrigged with variations of designs to serve multiple purposes as well as occasions. Bags reflect a contemporary sign of the times. Respectively, and each in their own right, reflect a small portion of history.

Clothes did not have pockets until the 17th century, thus men and women alike carried bags. While some bags were appropriate for the working class like messenger bags, others were specifically styled for the elite. The more specialized and customized bags were targeted for the aristocratic class. For instance, secret compartments and highly designed bags were ultimately prized and considered to be a high-status symbol.

brown leather bags for women
Highly-designed bags were a high-status symbol.

Another example of supply and demand is a historical bag from the 1500s. Originating in the Tassenmuseum Netherlands, this French purse was made out of a goat’s leather with an iron frame. In detail, they are 18 pockets with some located behind secret closures. Altogether, the time and detail put into such a bag demonstrates not only integrity and value in its craftsmanship but also that the wearer embodies these traits as well.

15th century French purse
A French bag from the 1500’s that is detailed with 18 pockets.

On the whole, bags specifically cater themselves to be as highly prized as they are functional. In this way, the invaluable nature of the bag makes it indispensable. Moreover, the value of a well-made bag historically became of the utmost importance in regards to quality as well as its aesthetic allure. To put it another way, a bag which rose from necessity, went on to supply a demand. In sum, the history of the bag was a call-to-action. One which answers necessity while upholding status as much today as it has in the past.

wicker bags for women
Bags rose from a necessity to supply a demand.

Tracing The Bag Through The Chapters Of Time

Notably, the bag which may be the oldest bag preserved in history is from “the Man from Hauslabjoch,” or “the Tyrolean Iceman.” This nickname was given to a well-preserved natural mummy. The man reportedly lived between 3400 and 3100 BCE.

He was found near the Similaun mountain on the border between Austria and Italy. The Iceman has the oldest known bag which dates back to more than 5000 years ago. With this in mind, the invention of the bag was as monumental as the invention of the wheel to be sure.

vintage bag with antelope fur
The oldest bag preserved in history is from “the Man from Hauslabjoch,” or “the Tyrolean Iceman.”

Before being mentioned in literature, the bag was found depicted in Egyptian hieroglyphs. Waist pouches were the style and it was trendy to carry a bag around the hip. While looking at the text of other ancient civilizations, the Bible specifically identifies Judas Iscariot as a “purse carrier.” Therefore, in ancient times, the bag was also known as a pouch. Constructed out of durable leather or precious cloth and overall, the pouch stored valuables such as coins.

vintage leather purse from LACMA
Storing coins in ancient times, the bag was also known as a pouch.

14th and 15th Century

In the 14th and 15th centuries, bags that exclusively carried coins were called ‘purses.’ These purses were essential, as pockets in clothing were not developed just yet. In the 14th century and without pockets in clothing, a purse was attached to a girdle belt and it dangled from the waist.

14th century waist purse
Attached to the girdle, purses dangled at the waist throughout the 14th and 15th century.

These girdle pouches were ultimately a collection of dangling valuables. These valuables were specific to the wearer. For example, one would carry the holy rosary, jewels, embroidery, a Book of Hours or a clasp or chain to suspend keys. Among some of the more eclectic dangling items were even daggers.

medieval girdle pouch
Girdle pouches effectively carried dangling valuables.

Throughout the 14th and 15th centuries, men and women attached ‘purse pouches’ to themselves at the waist. Also known as “Hamondeys” or “Tasques,” these ornate drawstring purses were very much in fashion. Ultimately, the drawstring purse distinctively hung from the girdle on a long cord. Each purse varied according to the fashion, status, and lifestyle of the wearer.

medieval kidney pouch bag
Purse pouches varied according to the lifestyle of and status of the wearer.

The Dark Times of the Medieval ages gave way to the manufacturing of curious portrayals on purses. Medieval purses were not only used as a coin purse. They also were closely associated with marriage and betrothal.

embroidered pouch
The manufacturing of the bag gave way to many interesting designs.

As a result, they commonly showed embroidered love stories. Interestingly enough, this connection is deduced from a parallelism between the handbag and the womb and fertility.

vintage reticules with embroidery
Embroidered love stories linked to betrothal and marriage was a popular theme.

Up until this point in history, pouches, purses, and bags were used primarily for practical reasons. One practical example would be holding food for falcons or gaming purses which were also known as “chaneries.” Even in regards to ecclesiastical matters, the bag or purse found a way to be of service. In church, purses held relics or corporals such as line cloth in mass.


The bag found a way to be practical in nearly all areas of life, even prayer.

The 16th and 17th Century

Fashion dramatically changed in the 16th and 17th century. Rather than wear girdle pouches outside and on the belt, women began to wear their girdle pouches under their skirts. Most notably during the Elizabethan era, women’s skirts expanded to enormous proportions. So much so that the pouch was inevitably getting lost in all that fabric and had to make a definitive move.

fabric bags
The fashion of bags deliberately changed from one generation to the next.

Notably, in this chapter of history, the fashion of bags strayed once again from the last generation’s preference, evolving to the next generation’s ideals. In this case, going from hanging purses on the outside to hanging long embroidered drawstring purses under skirts and breeches. Thanks to which, this step in the evolutionary process led to pockets.

Similarly, men picked up on the inside trend. They began to wear leather pockets inside their breeches which they called bagges. Somewhere in the midst of this switcheroo, pockets were developed! In sum, one generation’s change of perspective of where they thought to carry a purse, actually may have spurred the very idea of pockets being sewn inside of pants. As a result, the bag, in essence, continued to increase its range, versatility, and capacity as it went on to become more dynamic and innovative.

steampunk waist bag
The versatility of the bag made it adaptable to the changing times.

Again, necessity and demand invented a new form of the bag known as the sack. The sack was a bag that peasants and travelers might wear. These large satchel-like leather or cloth bags were worn diagonally across the body. The sack bag was specifically better suited for carrying larger items especially in regards to longer distances.


The sack was born out of necessity and demand helping travelers travel more.

In addition, messenger bags arose in this time period by distinctively catering to the needs of the working class. All in all, with the need to carry larger documents and items, the well-crafted messenger bag became in demand. Larger than any bag or purse up until that point, the messenger bag, as well as the sack, were chiefly bags of service.

Gucci Monogram Messenger Bag
Pictured above: Gucci Tian GG Supreme Messenger Bag; Messenger bags of the past catered to the needs of the working class.

Indeed, bags alter to serve their user therein optimizing their wearer’s way of life. At least, such was the case with “swete bagges” which are bags that are filled with sweet-smelling material. In a time when personal hygiene was grim and grimy, swete bagges were stuffed with sweet-smelling herbs and spices. For instance, lavender or perfumed balls of cotton. In the long run, swete bagges were also stored with clothes and linens and used for aromatherapy.

The bag continued to be highly functional and had many different nicknames and uses. Purses were often used as decorative containers for gifts, such as money, perfume, or jewels. Notably, toward the end of the century, purses became more sophisticated, evolving from a simple drawstring design to more innovative shapes with dynamic materials.

decorative vintage purse
Purses often held valuables such as money, perfume and jewels.

The 18th century

As the times change, so do the opinions and preferences of the people in that time period. While the 17th century had a hankering for fuller skirts and multiple layers, the 18th century had an acquired taste for more slender and narrower dresses. These more modern slender dresses meant that pockets were ultimately discarded. Consequently, the handbag sprang forth again and the English coined them “reticules” or “indispensables.”

industrial bag
The English affectionately nicknamed the handbag “reticules,” or “indispensables.”

Pockets did make a come back in the 1840s though, yet handbags and purses remained. The textilon th industry was booming with the Industrial Revolution and this fostered the manufacturing of many new fabrics and patterns. Thus, the bag experienced various make-overs with new styles and designs. The times also saw an immense amount of change with the introduction of the railroad.

The bag has always found a way to become relevant. With this in mind, the bag is an accommodating chameleon uniquely serving its wearer. For instance, in 1843, there were 2,000 miles of railway lines in Great Britain. The traditional purse had to adapt so as to become helpful to commuters too.

Saint Laurent Duffel Bag
Pictured above: Saint Laurent Classic Duffle Bag; Hand-held luggage bags held larger items and therein catered to commuters.

The needs of commuters essentially changed the overall design of the bag. For example, the bag now needed the capacity to hold larger items. The bag was indeed ever-evolving, uniquely taking into account the times and how best to serve them.

On the whole, the lexicon “handbag” emerged to describe the new hand-held commuter luggage bags. Notable modern bags that many people know and love today, in fact, started out as luggage manufacturers in the 18th century. For instance, the Hermes bag was founded in 1837 by Thierry Hermes, a harness and saddle maker.

Hermes Verrou Chaine Mini Bag
Pictured above: Hermes Verrous Chaine Bag, Many modern bags that people know and love today started off with origins from handbag luggage designers.

1900-1920s

From 1900 to 1920s, a variety of bags were of use and in high fashion. Amongst the most popular bags were small “reticules”, as well as Dorothy bags which were also called “Dotty” or “Marriage bags.” Overall, these bags most commonly accompanied women on fashionable outings like to a play or a date.


Bags typically accompanied women on fashionable outings.

In general, the bag served all socio-economic classes, especially in regards to working women who tended to use larger bags such as the Boulevard bag, leather shopping bags, and even briefcases. Worn about the shoulder, these bags were of high-fashion at this time. The features entailed inside the bags were depictive of the times, such as when the newly invented pound note replaced the gold sovereign in 1914. Handbags adapted and quickly featured folders for the newly invented pound note.

leather bags and satchels
The Boulevard bag, leather shopping bags and even briefcases were of high-fashion in the 1900’s – 1920’s.

After World War I, the bag notably saw a much more relaxed reform. For example, a type of handleless clutch bag called the “pochette,” became a thing. In this case, it was often decorated with dazzling geometric and jazz details. Most importantly, the way women carried the bag inherently changed. With this specific design, women had to tuck the pochette under their arms.

teal pochette with studded detailing
The way in which a woman carried her bag always seemed to change to accommodate their preference at the time.

In this time period, the rules for color coordination became more relaxed as well. With this in mind, novelty bags, such as “doll bags” became in fashion. With doll bags, the bag was dressed exactly like the wearer.

Current events also certainly influenced the evolution of the bag. For example, the discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1923 ultimately inspired Egyptomania. As a result, the bag began to reflect more exotic motifs.

exotic handbags for women
Egyptomania saw the bag reflect more innovative and dynamic patterns.

The 1930s

At this point in time, the bag has morphed from a coin purse to a handbag to a messenger bag to a briefcase. Most importantly, most of the bags that are in use today were already invented. Let’s do a review of the bags, up-to-date. There’s the classic handbag which had a handle and a clasp frame. Then, there was the clutch which was a variation of the pochette. There was the satchel, the shoulder bag and the briefcase along with occasional combinations of the above.

zippered bag
The clutch was a variation of the pochette and it was held under the arm.

Seemingly, texture and manufacturing attributes were the only details left to be stylized. For instance, the 1930s saw the Art Deco style arrival. This particular style specifically highlighted abstraction. Just like any time period which experiences new industrial materials, the bag integrates them as well within its design. In this particular case, plastic and zippers were introduced to the bag.

The 1940s

A more militarized look arrived in the interface of the bag directly as a result of WWII. Thus, the smooth contours of the past fell by the wayside and a more capable look developed. This improvement inspired an aura of self-sufficiency to the bag, as its dimensions became larger, squarer, and more practical. In the long run, frivolity features like mirrors, leather, and zippers were sparsely used due to rations.

Rather wood, plastic, and rayon become integrated into the bag’s design echoing the necessity to be frugal along with the times. For example, the homemade drawstring bag became so popular because it was a bag which could be inexpensively created. In the time of war, the bag was re-engineered to serve its fundamental baseline value of inexpensively serving necessity.

patterned drawstring purse
Homemade drawstring bags became popular as they could be made inexpensively.

Particularly on the battlefield, Great Britain utilized bags which therein matched their outfits. The bags chiefly carried their gas masks.

With men deployed at war, more and more women entered the workforce. Thus, reinventing the handbag to functionalize once again as a shoulder bag. After the war, the shoulder bag became elusive though patiently awaiting its reappearance in the 1970s.

Mansur Gavriel Bucket Bags
Pictured above: Mansur Gavriel Bucket Bag; The shoulder bag specifically supported women as they carried their items into the workforce.

The 1950s

By and large, the post-war economic boom of the 1950s saw a revitalization of the bag. The bag became a cult symbol, one that was toted around. In this time which saw more consumerism, chic designers were idolized: Vuitton, Hermes, and Chanel.

Retro Bags
In the 1950s, notable designers were all the rage and the bag became a cult symbol.

Moreover, accessorizing and color coordinating were coveted and held on a moral pedestal. Most certainly, this indicated a decade of femininity in which a very small bag implied beauty and sophistication. Post-war, women and their bags were therein encouraged to reassume the female status quo of femininity and submission. For further clarification, review Christian Dior’s style which was introduced in 1947. It mainly emphasized long skirts and tiny waists.

vintage mint green purse
Bags in the 1950s reflected the female status quo as it embodied femininity and submission.

1960s-1970s

Thanks to the ‘Rise of the Youth Culture,’ conventionalism and dress code was questioned. On the whole, long skirts dramatically shortened into mini-skirts. In addition, a small and dainty shoulder bag emerged which complimented the mini-skirt. Dangling on a long chain or a thin strap, the small handbag accommodated itself once again to the winds of change. Indeed, the “swinging” fashion was hip with the times as the bag essentially explored free expression at large.

Chanel Quilted Bag in Red
Pictured above: Chanel Boy Bag; The ‘Rise Of The Youth Culture’, saw the bag change to accommodate the ‘Swinging Times.’

Essentially, the style of bags and their fabrics are always being influenced by the times. With this in mind, the 1970’s fascination with India and Goa saw a unique cultural explosion in the evolution of the bag. As a result, larger satchels and fabric shoulder bags evolved. Notably, rather than manufactured designers, eclectic bags became more in fashion. For instance, Afghan coats and bags, patchwork and embroidery became big hits. Former army shoulder bags also became very popular, to say the least.

military green open tote
In the 1960s, rather than designer bags, eclectic bags became more in fashion.

Once the 1970s ensued, the bag experienced a rejuvenation of self-expression. As if being dynamic and versatile wasn’t already a part of a bag’s intrinsic composite, the bag experienced a bold, expressionistic awakening. Specifically, psychedelic patterns and “flower power” imbued an energy into the fabric of the bag which was unprecedented. The end of the 1970s saw the slung shoulder bag return and with it came lots of buckles and zippers. All of which indicated that women and their bags were ultimately fit and ready for the dawn of the age of feminism.

retro-inspired wicker bags
Women and their bags embraced the age of feminism.

1980s-1990s

All in all, the 1980s saw a surge in active consumerism. The bag quickly morphed to accommodate purchasing power, providing logos bold enough to indicate the priorities of the owner. For instance, health and fitness sports bags such as Nike duffel bags, book bags, and totes to match athletic shoes were all the rage at this time. In this time, the calculator was introduced as well. As a result, bookbags and even the briefcase specifically featured a pocket which was exclusively created to hold this new invention.

Chanel Quilted Flap Bag
The bag quickly morphed to accommodate purchasing power.

In 1985, the black nylon knapsack was the first totally unisex bag introduced and created by Miuccia Prada. In this bold move, a bag was, at last, discovered to be genderless. However, the brightest bag lady of the 1980s was the rise of Vera Bradley’s classic quilted handbag. In sum, the Bradley collection reached over $1 million in sales in just three years alone. So it seems, the more a bag distinctively caters and delivers, the bigger the return-on-investment is overall.


The 1980s saw the rise of Vera Bradley’s classic quilted handbag.

By the early 1990s, imposter bags or counterfeits became a thing. So much so that small designer bags with giant Hs and CCs were all over London and New York. So began the age of “knock-offs”, in which only a trained eye could really tell a real bag from a fake.

Crocodile Hermes Birkin Bag
The age of “knock-offs” meant that the buyer had to discern if the bag was a fake.

The Twenty-First Century

The styles and fabrics of the Twenty-First Century are particular to be sure. For example, bags are made with waterproof canvas, space-age synthetics, and faux reptile skins. Certainly reflective of the times, the bag continually mimics relevant trends with fashion.

Chanel Bag in White
Overall, the bag distinctively reflects the changing times.

Such as the transparent nature of social media exemplified in “see-through bags.” Overall, in a see-through bag, the purse both exposes and holds the contents simultaneously. In sum, manufacturers created a bag with transparent materials encapsulating the age of TMI or in other words, too much information.

In the 21st century, both men and women alike strap or sling a hands-free, genderless bags over themselves every day. On the whole, they may do so without knowing which time period in history the style hails from. Or moreover, how that bag is, in fact, entirely reflective of the times.

Goyard Saint Louis Tote
Pictured above: Goyard St. Louis Tote; The adaptability of the bag is versatile, to say the least.

Overall, the variety and adaptability of the bag are the very components which allow its evolution to creatively persist. By all means, the versatility of the bag and the span of history it has traversed fashions beyond currency. By and large, the bag is as valuable as the past, the present, and future that it adapts to carry.

Hermes illustration
From the handbag to hand luggage, the historical evolution of the bag is epic.

Sources

tassenmuseum.nl

About the Author: Lara Csengody is a bag lady at heart and her favorite bag is a Forest Green Osprey backpack. Catch a breath of her movement @Journeyisaverb. Marinate on her dynamic creative goodies at laracsengody.tumblr.com and www.lgccomedy.com. Furthermore, book her lyrical prowess as a freelance writer on Linkedin.

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