Even though purses have been around since the 16th century and bags known as reticules were popular in late-18th-century France, it was not until the Victorian era that the purse evolved into the sort of women’s accessory we’d recognize today.

In the middle of the 19th century, colorful, geometric-design Berlin woolwork purses were often decorated with chenille tassels and gilt beads. Women hung flap-fronted châtelaines from their waist belts, filling them with coins and other small items that had no home in their matching, pocketless dresses. In the U.K., silk-and-satin purses with tartan designs were popular, as were knitted, crocheted, and embroidered purses, many of which were also covered with glass beads. In cold climates, muffs made of Siberian fox and lined with moiré were a winter necessity. Larger, so-called "purse muffs" had handles so they could be carried like a purse; other muffs held compartments for the storage of a small purse.

By the latter half of the 1800s, handbags finally came into vogue. At first, the term "handbag" referred specifically to a small piece of luggage that was hand-carried by a man while traveling, but the term was soon understood to describe the larger cousin to a woman’s purse. Thanks to its roots as a luggage bag, the earliest handbags designed for women featured compartments inside the bag, a sturdy handle, and metal frames and fastenings.

At the turn of the 20th century, artisans and designers produced handbags and purses that reflected the stylistic and design trends of the day. Brown leather handbags were tooled to create cameos of Art Nouveau figures in sylvan settings. More formal were the kid-leather bags of 1890s England, reflecting the refined look of the Belle Epoque. Despite being more than 100 years old, many of these bags appear quite modern, with scalloped tops to conceal their metal hinged frames and matching handles machine-stitched to the bags for strength and durability.

In the early 1900s, purses and handbags made of crocodile skin, with chrome clasps and leather-covered handles, were all the rage, as were leather bags that were tooled to imitate the reptile look. London’s Liberty & Co. sold handbags inspired by the styles of the Orient as well as ones that took their cues from the Ballet Russes.

In the 1920s, motifs from ancient Egypt began to edge out those from pre-Revolution Russia, as bags with brass clasps and black-and-gold leather sides seemed the perfect accompaniments to the flapper era. Black-and-white silhouette bags were carved out of everything from celluloid to ivory. Tapestry handbags fairly dripped with beads and pearls, and gold- or silver-mesh evening bags (some with rhinestones, some without) gave women a showy container to stash their stuff when out for a night on the town.

The list of materials used for handbags and purses in the 1920s is encyclopedic, but a partial inventory includes tortoiseshell, Bakelite, and lizard skin. So-called "dance purse...

By the 1930s, black was back for bags, be it suede or velvet or crocodile—one collectible black crocodile bag from this period was designed by the fashion firm Elizabeth Arden and was given to VIPs visiting the U.S. for the 1939 World’s Fair. Kashandy bags were among the first to feature zippers, and Bakelite remained a popular material, as did leather and silk. Elsa Schiaparelli introduced her famous Pochette bags, which were precursors to the clutch. And more attention was paid to the clasps, which were routinely produced in silver, enamel, and ivory Bakelite (some of these would be carved into animal shapes and used as the bag’s handles).

More sensible styles reigned during the 1940s, when decorative frills and exotic materials gave way to handbags and purses that could be made of plentiful materials such as wood and plastic—many women made their own purses out of found materials such as scraps of old clothes. The shoulder bag had been around since the 1930s (another Schiaparelli creation), but it rose to prominence in the 1940s, especially in England, where some bags were designed to accommodate gas masks. By the end of the decade, Christian Dior had reintroduced the clutch, while bags made of snake, alligator, crocodile, and turtle were produced in hues that ranged from green to red and shapes that mimicked those of barrels, hatboxes, and old-fashioned doctor’s bags.

Something happened in the 1950s. All of a sudden, or so it seemed, color was everywhere, with satin purses and clutches in pinks, purples, and chartreuse. Chanel and Hermes were just two of the big-name designers, Etra purses were common, and companies such as Wilardy, Rialto, and Llewellyn made novelty purses out of a range of colorful new plastics, including Lucite. Some bags were constructed out of bands of brushed aluminum; others consisted of little more than clear vinyl. Gold lame bags? Of course. A clutch covered in pink cultured pearls? Naturally. Multi-colored bags made out of bright, plastic-covered telephone wire? Well sure, there was room for that, too.

By the 1960s, all bets were off, as designers from Mary Quant to Judith Leiber created stylish new handbags, purses, and other fashionable accessories for their upscale clientele. Black, white, and gold remained timeless colors, sometimes employed in forms that suggested the abstract or op-art of the day. Some Gucci bags featured bent-bamboo handles, and Coach made a brown leather handbag that was shaped like a duffle bag you might take to the gym, except this one featured matching coin purses on either end.

As the 1970s dawned, Louis Vuitton’s star was on the rise—the company made bags of all shapes, sizes, and styles, but what bound them together were their exteriors, which were decorated in a pattern based on the firm’s signature "LV" logo. Leiber also hit her stride in the 1970s, leaving behind the somewhat tentative work of the previous decade for exuberant, joyful, and just downright fun beaded and bejeweled bags, which were routinely produced in vibrant colors and featured drop-dead gorgeous clasps.

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