Though plastics today are typically associated with cheap, low-integrity products, during the boom years following World War II, recently developed thermoplastics carried a cache of glitz and glamour. In the worlds of industrial and interior design, modern materials and geometric forms were all the rage. That trend spilled over to fashion, whose designers soon turned to sturdy plastics like Lucite to create fashion-forward handbags and purses.
Created in 1931 by the American chemical company DuPont, Lucite is a durable acrylic material made from polymethyl methacrylate, or PMMA. Lucite became a successful replacement for earlier plastics like Bakelite and Catalin because of its low density and high strength. Though used primarily in military applications during World War II, Lucite was adapted for use in jewelry and fashion accessories during the late 1940s.
In the late 1940s, various New York handbag companies hopped on the plastics bandwagon and released lines of Lucite purses, including Llewelyn, Maxim, Rialto, Shoreham, Tyrolean,...
The Lucite carryalls made by these manufacturers were typically unlined and sold in solid or transparent hues. More ostentatious bags came in imitation mother of pearl and the trendy “Shell,” a mock-tortoise pattern made from caramel colored acetate. The fashions ranged from flashy, like Wiesner’s rhinestone studded “birdcage” bags with matching accessories, to regal, as with Llewellyn’s blue beaded bag inspired by the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, with gold-plating and Lucite “Shell” trim.
Purses were also formed from Lucite laminates filled with glitter, raffia, ribbons, silk flowers, and even real butterflies, while their exteriors were embellished with rhinestones, beads, precious metals, and faux pearls. Other clutches and purses featured inlaid embroidery work, seashell collages, fabric “curtains,” or hand-painted detailing. However, some of the most stunning Lucite bags were simply designed to emphasize the extraordinary clean lines of their magical plastic materials, like the bright blue “Covered Wagon” style made by Myles Originals or the Kelly green “convertible clutch” designed by Patricia of Miami. Many handbags also included matching compacts or cigarette cases, often mounted directly onto their lids like Myles Originals’ “3-D” style from 1953, while others like Wilardy’s triple-decker “accordion” style resembled a tiered jewelry box dangling from a woman’s arm.
In fact, jewelry boxes were an inspiration to Wilardy’s founder, Will Hardy, who had originally begun incorporating Lucite parts into handbag designs for his father’s company to replace materials like leather and metals, which were restricted by the U.S. government during World War II. After he designed a Lucite jewelry box for buyers at Saks Fifth Avenue, they recommended adding a strap to turn the box into a handbag. This led to Hardy’s entry into the world of plastic purses, and by 1951, the Wilardy business was producing 64 styles of Lucite bags in 14 different colors.
The company’s wares were soon carried by movie stars and celebrities across the globe, and in 1954, Wilardy was given a “Quality, Fashion & Design” award from the International Fashion Institute. Wilardy created a slew of fantastic new designs, incorporating materials like star-shaped confetti between sheets of Lucite and developing purses which glowed in the dark. Hardy even designed a purse and matching ice bucket, both shaped like a clear block of ice with handles resembling metal ice tongs.
Other makers adopted ivory-carving traditions to create detailed, hand-sculpted pieces with deep, three-dimensional patterns. Llewellyn Bley’s experience with ivory helped him to make some of the most elaborately-styled designs for his Llewelyn handbag line. Though made of plastic, these bags were hardly cheap. A Llewelyn bag could run as high as $65 in the early 1950s, which was nearly a month’s rent in New York. Bley’s “Beehive” bag was one of the company’s most popular styles, shaped in concentric Lucite circles and topped with a sculpted lid featuring brass bees.
Perhaps the most groundbreaking form of Lucite purses were those made from perfectly clear plastic, which violated the handbag’s long tradition as a secret sanctum for personal belongings. Often filled with a scarf to hide their contents and match a woman’s outfit, these transparent bags imbued their owners with a strikingly modern, brash style. Nonetheless, by the mid-60s, changing fashions rendered Lucite handbags passé and most companies stopped producing them entirely.
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