A gifted young leather worker, Thierry Hermès opened his shop in Paris in 1837, where he specialized in exquisite, finely crafted horse harnesses for carriages. Hence, he built his company on the durable “saddle stitch,” which can only be executed by hand and requires two needles to manipulate the waxed linen thread.

When his son, Charles-Emile, took over after his death in 1878, the company expanded to custom-fit saddles—their work, favored by Europe’s most elite circles, was considered so elegant and refined that royal coronations were actually delayed to wait for Hermès carriage fittings. Once Charles-Emile retired, his sons Adolphe and Emile-Maurice took charge. Emile-Maurice became famous as the man who brought the zipper to France, where he had exclusive rights to use the device in leather clothing and accessories.

In the early 20th century, Hermès was just one of many companies specializing in fine leather goods—Louis Vuitton, Prada, and Gucci, who made things like saddles, harnesses, and luggage. Hermès trunks and suitcases were always exceedingly fine, made out of exotic leathers like ostrich, alligator, and crocodile.

The company produced its first handbags in 1922, and by 1929 it had also delved into the world of haute-couture women’s clothing. The 1930s were especially significant in the company’s history; it was the decade Hermès first introduced its coveted silk scarves and the bag now known as the Kelly Bag.

Initially called a Sac à dépêches, the bag became an icon in 1956, when actress Grace Kelly, also the princess of Monaco, was seen in “Life” magazine, using the bag to hide her pregnancy. A Kelly Bag is still made by the hand of one craftsman, who sometimes irons the leather. When the bags are made out of alligator, the belly is used for the body and the neck for the sides. The whole process takes 18 hours. The identifying features include the straps on the clasp and the padlock with a semi-hidden key. Other glamorous Hollywood stars, like Marlene Dietrich and Ingrid Bergman, favored this purse, the very definition of a “good” bag that telegraphed one’s status among the elite.

The Kelly Bag was finally succeeded in the '80s, after French actress Jane Birkin happened to be on the same airplane as Hermès chief Jean Louis Dumas-Hermès in 1981. The story goes that she accidentally spilled the contents of her Kelly, and complained that it just wasn’t big enough for her. Dumas-Hermès invited her to help him invent her vision of the perfect Hermès purse. In 1984, the Birkin bag was born.

This large wedge-shaped, flat-bottomed bag is also made by a single craftsman, who spends 18 to 25 hours on it from start to finish. That’s why the Hermès artisans in Paris can o...

The Evelyne Bag was designed for an even more casual look, for weekend walks. Based on the bag stable boys would carry when grooming horses, it's got a comfortable shoulder strap. It's identified by the "H" in a circle, made out of holes punched into the leather. Stable bags originally had similar holes to allow horse-grooming equipment to dry.

Of course, this elegant bag, made out of patent leather, suede, or canvas, would not actually be used for animal grooming, just as the Hermès Picotin, an open-top bucket purse inspired by horse feed bags, would never be used to feed a horse.

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]

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Hermes Red Canvas Small Tote W/ Polka Dot Twilly ScarfAuth Hermes Kelly 35 Gold Couchevel Leather Out-stitch Hand Bag Ghw Z 1996 R0423Auth Hermes Kelly 28 White Graine Leather Out-stitch Hand Bag Ghw U 1991 R0424Auth Hermes Kelly 35 Gold Swift Leather In-stitch Hand Bag Gold Hw Y 1995 R0421Authentic Hermes Sako Shoulder Bag Navy Beige Canvas Leather Vintage 1497Hermes Birkin 40 Cm Bag Handbag Cognac Gold Authentic Hermes Gold Togo 30 Cm Birkin Bag With Gold HardwareAuthentic Hermes Birkin 35 Marron Brown Ghw - Hot Neutral Color - Rare & FabAuth Hermes Kelly 28 Black Box Calf Out-stitch Hand Bag Gold Hw S 1989 R0431Hermes Birkin 35cm Clemence Leather Phw AuthenticHermes Birkin 35 ~ N Stamp 2010 ~ Golden Brown ~ Palladium HardwareAuthentic Hermes Herbag Mm 2 In 1 Hand Bag Black Toile Officer Canvas Lp15431Auth Incredible Hermes Birkin Bag Black 35cm Gold HardwareAuthentic Hermes Birkin 35 Cm Orange Epsom Gold Hardware Excelent CondHermes Orange Togo Leather Birkin 30 Cm Silver Hardware Handbag PurseAuth Hermes Birkin Satchel Beige Toile Canvas Camel Brown Leather Hand Bag PurseAuthentic Hermes Hss Blue Lin Jean Mykonos Epsom Birkin Bag 35cm Special OrderAuth Hermes Vespa Pm Rouge Couchevel Leather Shoulder Bag Ghw □a 1997 R0425Authentic Hermes Kelly Long Wallet Clutch Crocodile Fuschia Pink Croc Rare Hermes Navy Blue Box Leather Small HandbagHermes Birkin 35 Black Togo Tote Handbag Palladium Hardware Excellent ConditionsHermes Birkin Pre Owned Ostrich Pristine Rare 32 Cm Kelly Wpalladium HardwareAuth Hermes Evelyne Gm Toile H Navy Shoulder Bag □c 1999 Gold Hw R0410Auth Black Birkin 35cm Hermes Togo Leather Bag Gold GhwHermes (?) Vintage Tote With Hermes Dustbag - Estate Find And No Reserve!Authentic Hermes Bag Kelly Bolide Strap Clemence SilverHermes Birkin 40Auth Hermes Vinyl Kelly Hand Beach Bag Souvenir De L'exposition 1997 R9760100% Real Hermes Tie ~ Pink W/ Fun Scottish Bag Pipers & Sheep In The HighlandsHermes Brown Beige Tiger Royal Image Silk City Bag Calfskin Crossbody Purse BnwbHermes Victoria 43 Travel Bag Purse - Saddle Brown Clemence LeatherAuthentic Hermes Black Bag 32cm Handbag Palladium HardwareAuthentic Hermes Amethyst Purple Alligator Crocodile Leather Birkin Bag 30cmHermes Orange Dust Bag Large 18' X 17 3/4" Storage Travel For Birkin Or KellyAuthentic Hermes Black Bag 30cm Handbag Palladium HardwareAuthentic Hermes 35cm Ostrich BirkinAuthentic Hermes HermÈs Fourre Tout Dark Gray Canvas Tote Hand Bag 30Auth Hermes Clear Vinyl Kelly Hand Bag Souvenir De L'exposition 1997 In Great!Hermes Authentic Beige Dust Cover One Bag With Draw StringHermes BagAuth Hermes Herbag Toile Spare Bag 12604Authentic Hermes Canvas Tote Bag SackAuthentic Hermes Blue Jean Gold Hardware Glove Holder Key Chain For Birkin KellyHermes Tan Dust Bag Medium 12' X 16"Authentic Hermes Orange Paper Gift Bag 17" X 11"Hermes Paris Authentic Toolbox Bag 20 Cm Black Swift Palladium Limited Edition * Hermes Petit H Skeleton Denim & Leather Tote Bag Perfume Samples In Gift Bag, Assorted Lot Of 7: Hermes, Diptyque, Tom Ford Etc.Auth Hermes Ivory Suede Toggle Closure Vespa Tpm Crossbody Handbag MhlHermes Orange Dust Bag Large 20" X 21 1/2" Storage Travel Vg+Authentic Hermes Nylon Satin Red Tote Bag