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”)

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]

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]

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]

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]

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]

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

The VFG is a non-profit international educational organization dedicated to the promotion and preservation of vinta… [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]



Clubs & Associations

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Antique Art Deco Flapper Mandalian Mesh Purse Bag Handbag 1920 Geometric Original 1950's "wilardy"grey Marbled Lucite Box Grab Bag-fabulous Shape-mintVtg Antique German Silver Coin Compact Cigarette Case Chatelaine Dance PurseCream Suede Art Deco 1930's Clutch Bag~silver Marcasite Cabochen Emerald TrimMandalian 1920s Enameled Mesh Flapper Purse Art Deco Antique Vintage1919 Roycroft Leather Hand Bag Purse.....with Repro Catalog!......no Reserve!Antique Beaded Woman's Purse $❶ No Reserve 6 Six Chain Mail Mesh Purses Nouveau Deco Chatelaine Tam FramesVintage Wicker Figural Monkey Purse/basket Black Bead EyesVintage 1940's Telephone Phone Cord Coil PurseAntique French Purse Steel Beads Gold & Silver VictorianVintage 1950s Pink Confetti Glitter Lucite PurseAntique Vintage Art Nouveau Mini Compact Metal Purse Coin CompactVintage Ladies' Wilardy White Pearlized Lucite Beehive Purse/handbag RhinestonesVintage Lucite Box Purse W Carved Lid Antique Multicolor Glass Beaded Purse Handbag W Filigree Fancy Frame 2 Vtg Ll Bean Brown Canvas Travel Duffle Overnight Bag Made In Us Script LabelVintage Hand Made Tortoise Shell Lucite White Seed Beaded Evening Purse Nr Yqz $❶ No Reserve 3 Whiting And Davis Purses Nouveau Deco Mesh Mandalian Manufacturing Co. Antique Purse*rare 60's Vntg~stylecraft Miami~straw / Leather Handbag~equestrian Horse Purse*Antique Large Beaded Purse Micro Bead Hand Bag Great Condition Vintage Nr!Original Vintage 1960s/70s 'coppola E Toppo' For 'valentino' Black Patent Bag Antique Red Rose Flower Design Micro Beaded Bag Purse Large Jeweled Enamel FrameAntique Vintage Art Nouveau Mini Compact Metal Purse Coin CompactVintage Rare Wilardy Deep Navy Blue Lucite Purse With Some IssuesAmazing Vintage Whiting & Davis Tear Drop Purple & White Enamel Mesh Purse Vintage 1960's Wicker And Lucite And Wicker HandbagAntique Micro Beaded Purse Kit Unfinished Orig Seed Beads C.1900 Hand Blown TubeVintage 1970s Genuine Cobra Snake Skin Shoulder Bag Soft Leather Lined HandbagGhurka - Marley Hodgson No. 85 BarristerAntique Art Nouveau Flapper Mesh Fringe Purse Bag German Silver No ReserveVintage 70s 80s Hessian Novelty Beach Bag Wilardy Lucite PurseVintage Whiting & Davis Mini Metal Mesh 20's Flapper PurseVintage 1970's Pillow Box Handbag Clutch Purse Green & Brass Velvet Lined #723 Vtg Handbag Coach Red Leather Carry Case Zipper Front Bonnie Cashim 16" 11"Lot Of 2 Art Deco Mesh Coin Change Purse Whiting & Davis Clear Square Lucite Mirrored Purse Handbag With Metal HandlePink Art Deco Type Beaded Purse Pocket Book Missing Strap Circa 1920-1960's NiceVintage Retro Handbag Purse Lucite Brass Bail Handle Lattice 1950s Mid CenturyVintage Chrome Basket Weave Box Purse With Lucite HandleVintage Cream Leather Ackery Classic Style Small Handbag BagRed Antique Whiting & Davis Flat Mesh Enameled PurseGorgeous Antique Art Deco Vntg~mandalian~butterfly Enamel Mesh Bag~floral FrameVintage Coach Made In Usa Black Leather Briefcase Laptop Messenger Bag Satchel ❶ Fabulous Cherry Necklace Killer Fruit Celluloid Bakelite Early Plastic#723 Vtg Handbag Coach Tan Leather Doctors Bag Shape Purse Antique Micro Beaded Victorian Flapper Purse In Shadow Box FrameVintage 1970's Gucci Horsebit Cross Body Black Leather Purse. Style #22 001 2116Antique Victorian Tapestry Purse Handbag Gold Chain Tiny Stones In ClaspAntique Metal Coin Purse/compactVtg 50s Midas Of Miami Wicker Figural Lady Beagle Dog Purse Pink Glitter HandbagM-211 Antique/vintage Beaded Purse/bag. Setter Dog Design, BeautifulAntique Art Deco Nouveau Bird Frame Green Enamel Chain Mail Purse MandalianAntique Vintage Beaded Purse Bag Handbag Engraved Mrs. Frank Griffith Golf?Vintage 1960's Jackie Kennedy Style Marble Swirl Lucite HandbagScottish Good Quality Nicoll Bros Sporran Real Leather And Signed By MakersAuthentic Vintage Blue & Red Monogrammed Gucci Speedy Bag PurseVintage Beaded Enamel Blck Handbag Purse Clutch Ed B Robinson Made In France