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    

Fabulous 1950's Mcm Patricia Of Miami Lime Pearl Spaghetti Lucite PursePrada Milano Ladie's Canvas Carry Purse Handbag Made In ItalyVintage Telephone Cord Purse Black And WhiteNo Reserve C1910 Sterling Silver Mesh Coin Purse Vintage Antique Chain Mail LinkLady's Antique Beaded Purse- Deco Style Early 1900's- Unusual Design - Stunning!Antique C1880 Ornate Silver Mounted Crocodile Leather Purse H.l Maker German 925Drgm Mechanical Coin Purse W/ Face (1920's) Very Rare!Antique Vintage Scenic Japanese Garden Glass Beaded Purse Bag LargeAntique Vintage Needlepoint Petit Point Czech Glass Jeweled Purse BagBottega Veneta Italy Woven Blue Satin Small Shoulder Purse W/ Dust Bag & MirrorJ. Sanchis Canet Rare Ultra Luxe Genuine Blonde Crocodile Alligator Large Bag Chanel Authentic Straw Raffia Navy Blue Gold Woven Summer Shoulder BagZalo Beach Pail Bucket Purse Made In Spain Unique "shovel" Strap Leather LookGorgeous Vintage Petit Point Floral Handbag - Made In Austria - In BoxAntique Large Micro Beaded Scenic Bag Purse Embossed Brass Frame Cabochons 11x8"Vintage 1940s Harry Rosenfeld Alligator Crocodile Ladies Box Handbag PurseVintage Enid Collins Of Texas Jeweled Copy Cats Wooden Purse Handbag-adorableGenuine Louis Vuitton Monogrammed Concorde AttachéVintage Walborg Petit Point Purse Victorian Figural And Scenes Change PurseVintage 1940s Rosenfeld Alligator Ladies Handbag Purse - Gold Tone HardwareRare Superb Luxe Genuine Ostrich Skin Large Anthracite Bag Handbag - Timeless!Vintage Austrian? Petit Point Purse Victorian Figural And ScenesVintage Art Deco Sterling Silver Micro Beaded Purse Bag Pink Red RosesVintage Bonnie Cashin For Coach Navy Leather Kiss Lock Bag~mexican Stripe LiningAntique Micro Beaded Bag Purse Figural Hookah Smoking Pair Rare Scene!Vintage Lucite Purse By Patricia Of Miami Pearlized With Diamond Pattern InsetsVintage Gray Llewellyn Of N.y.c. Lucite PurseVintage Whiting & Davis Multi Color Metal Mesh Purse Bag Handbag HankerchiefVintage Walborg Barrel Style Handbag Purse Hammered Copper Over Red LuciteVintage Nantucket Basket / Purse Whale Old Island Trading Post Key West FloridaVintage Levi's Denim Tote Bag Red Label 501 Jeans Now Design San Francisco Nice!Vintage Asian Oval Brass & Leather Trimmed Tea Basket Purse Container Carry AllBeautiful Vintage Beaded Bag, Egyptian RevivalLarge German Antique French Micro Glass Beaded Purse Vintage 1920's Art-deco Flapper Beads And Needle Point Draw String Purse/bagVintage Madwed Lucite Box Purse Black Silver Metal Horse Shoe Handle Vintage Beaded Purse With Colorful Floral PatternAuth Pre-owned Louis Vuitton Lv Monogram Vintage Pochette Sport Clutch No.183 NrVintage Dorante Micro Beaded/needlepoint Floral Purse Handbag ParisVintage Woven Straw & Bllue Clutch With Gold Chain Strap And Top Clasp Rodo?Signed Caro Nan 1960's Daisey & Bee Wooven Basket PurseAntique Mandalian Enamel Mesh Purse Bag HandbagWhiting & Davis Expandable Vintage Mesh Purse Lined Flapper Style Silvertone Bag1920's Vintage Micro Beaded Steel Cut Flapper Purse With 3" Fringe Vg Condition!Gilli Originals Lucite Mop Box Purse VintageBeautiful Vintage! Plastic / Lucite Purse - White Pearl 1940-50'sBosca Italy Vintage Brown Leather Lawyer Doctor Attache Briefcase Bag Vintage Antique White Micro Beaded Floral Petit Point Purse Evening Bag FranceVintage Antique Yellow Gold/white Glass Beaded Purse Bag Flapper Era CzechoslovaVintage Collectible Lucite Cube Purse By TyroleanAuth Gucci Vintage Monogram Leather Large Doctor Bag Tote Authentic Perf ConVintage Princess Charming By Atlas Wicker Horse Racing Woman PurseAntique Beaded Purse In Jeweled FrameBlack Chanel BackpackAntique French Micro Beaded Purse, Hand Made By Walborg, Gold Tone FrameFleurisse Paris 5" Beaded Mesh Metal Frame Coin Purse Made In FranceVtg Brown Exotic Alligator Crocodile Leather Skin Retro Handbag Clutch PurseVintage Wilardy Petite Milk White Lucite Purse 1950's Lucite Box Purse SweetAntique Clutch Style Purse Very Pretty