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.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

Bag Lady University

Bag Lady University

Bag Lady University is the place to learn about handbag makers from Adrian's, which made Bakelite bags, to Whiting … [read review or visit site]

Ventagli.org

Ventagli.org

Anna Checcoli's homage to the beauty and art of hand fans ('ventagli,' in Italian). Use the left-hand nav to browse… [read review or visit site]

MyVintageVogue

MyVintageVogue

The history of 20th-century women’s fashion largely played out in the pages of magazines such as “Harper’s Ba… [read review or visit site]

Antiquespectacles.com

Antiquespectacles.com

Dr. David Fleishman's comprehensive spectacles site (over 3500 images), in collaboration with museums around the wo… [read review or visit site]

Fashion Columbia Study Collection

Fashion Columbia Study Collection

The Fashion Columbia Study Collection (FCSC) is the digital home of the Columbia College Chicago’s fashion archiv… [read review or visit site]

1960s Fashion and Textiles

1960s Fashion and Textiles

Put on your go-go boots and check out this wavy, groovy tribute to 1960s fashion and textiles, courtesy of the Vict… [read review or visit site]

Vintage Fashion Guild

Vintage Fashion Guild

While primarily designed to steer buyers to online vintage clothing shops, this blog is chock full of interesting, … [read review or visit site]

Fashion-Era

Fashion-Era

Bursting at the seams with content, this site contains hundreds of pages of fashion and costume history, including … [read review or visit site]

The Antique Corset Gallery

The Antique Corset Gallery

Take a deep breath, and check out this sparse, simple, and beautifully designed site showcasing 250 years of corset… [read review or visit site]



Clubs & Associations

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Swaine Adeney Brigg English Gentlemans Elegant Leather Tan Attache Antique Art Nouveau Ornate Engraved Ep Silver Ladies Chainmail Mesh Evening Bag Antique Victorian Sterling Silver Repousse Flower Basket Beaded Purse Bag, NrA Vintage Ganscraft Chimayo Hand-tailored Wool Clutch & Coin Purse W/boxAuthentic Vintage Gucci Anniversary Classic Boston Navy Satchel Bag/purse .99nr Vintage 1950s-1960s Pearl Confetti Woven Lucite Box Purse Handbag Bag - Unusual!Vintage1950s Wicker Lucite Cherries Handbag Bag Rockabilly BurlesqueAntique Purse Handbag Beaded Peacocks Victorian Bag Art Nouveau Frame W MirrorAntique Glass Beaded Scenic Purse For Parts, Frame, Beads, Repair, Restore As IsVintage Enid Collins Rare 1950s 60s In The Pink Peacock Handbag Bag PurseVintage Valentina Genuine Two Tone Brown Leather Structured Shoulder Bag C1 E18Vtg Black 50s 60s Spearo Real Leather Hand Bag Kelly 40s Wartime Jive Genuine Vintage 60's Coach Bonnie Cashin Double Kiss Lock Swing Purse BrownVintage Amber Tortoise Colored Lucite Bronze Beaded Handbag PurseVintage Louis Vuitton Speedy 35 Monogram Handbag The French Company + Dust BagAntique Rare Art Deco Red Jade Marcasite Frame Handbag Pocketbook Clutch PruseVintage Lucite Box Purse Black Crystal Clear Diamond Carved Hinged Lid TwistedFrench Art Nouveau Beaded HandbagBeautiful Vtg Nouveau Victorian Garnet Glass Leather Coin Purse!! Ne1625A Vintage Ganscraft Chimayo Hand-tailored Wool Clutch Or Purse W/boxVintage Silvertone Metal Floral Bird Cage Clutch PurseGorgeous French Steel Cut Bead Antique Purse.. Excellent ConditionVintage Ladies Launer Black HandbagVintage 1940's Lucite Clutch Purse Rhinestone Fruit Berry Botanical PatternAuthentic Dooney & Bourke Doctors Satchel Tote Crossbody Strap Speedy Bag Purse Vintage Mexican High Quality Tote Or Saddle Bag 1940Stylish Vintage Art Deco Brown Leather Handbag With Chrome Frame, 1930sAntique Petit Point Dance Purse Compact Coin Mirror Tassels Silk Trinity PlateAntique Art Deco Whiting & Davis Mesh Purse Handbag Spider Design Rare!!Excellent 1950's-60's Brown Pearl Swirl Lucite & Wicker Basket Purse By DonnaCoach Vintage Willis Black Leather Satchel Messanger Cross Body Purse 9927Vintage 1960's Navy Clasp Framed Handbag With Matching Dress Gloves - Ur G13*vintage 90s* Distressed Coach Black Leather Mini Backpack Purse !! Vintage 1950s Black And White Telephone Cord Spiral Purse Handbag UnusedAntique Purple Mesh Enamel Ladies Drawstring PurseCirca 1900's, Micro Beaded German Handbag Purse Exellent ConditionCoach Vintage Willis Black Leather Turn Lock Messanger Cross Body Purse 9927Vintage Black Crochet Gimp Cord Purse Bag Scottie Scotty Dog Frame TerrierVintage Coach Tan Leather Bonnie Cashin Barrel HandbagMagnificent Antique Art Deco Beaded Mesh Bag Purse Vibrant Colors C.1930 / W/box18th Century Embroidered Gold And Velvet Purse Or Bag - Rare And BeautifulVintage Gucci Men's Leather Wallet Iconic Green & Red Stripe Mint 100% AuthenticAuthentic Gucci Gg Shoulder Bag Purse Hobo Tote Accessory Collection Made In # +Vintage Early Enid Collins Of Texas Texicana Box Bag Purse Ec Logo 1964Antique Beaded Purse / HandbagVtg 90s Coach Black Usa Made Willis Shoulder Crossbody Purse HandbagVtg Patricia Of Miami Yellow Purse Handbag Carved Lucite Needs HandleLouis Vuitton Duffle Luggage Carry On Monogram Pre-owned Vintage Whiting Davis Mesh PurseBeautiful Vintage Lucite Purse Handbag 1950's Carved Design Gilli Original Ny Blue Lucite PurseCoach Vintage Daypack Brown Leather Drawstring Duffle Backpack Purse 9791Antique Vintage Whiting & Davis Colored Mesh Bag Marked "elasah" Antique Ornate Tapestry Purse Semi Precious Stones ~ Estate~ Desert Oasis ScenesFabulous Wilardy Champagne Marble Pearl Lucite Purse - Large Filigree ClaspVtg Patricia Miami Mid Century Lucite Acrylic Rhinestone Purse Handbag Box Vgc!Vintage Love Enid Collins Of Texas Original Wood Box Bag Purse Handbag NoreservOld Jewelled Poodle Lucite Princess Charming By Atlas Basket Box Purse HollywoodAntique "whiting &davis" Mesh Purse Very Deco And Great Design/conditionVintage Telephone Cord Black Red Purse Clutch 7" X 12"