Though plastics today are typically associated with cheap, low-integrity products, during the boom years following World War II, recently developed thermoplastics carried the cachet 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, Venzer, Charles Foster, Arnold Originals, and Gilli Originals. By 1950, Miami Beach had become the happening spot for wealthy American vacationers; its fun-in-the-sun, holiday appeal made it the perfect spot to sell Lucite bags. Many Florida-based manufacturers sprung up in the early '50s, like Myles Originals, Charles S. Kahn, Bags By Benné, Patricia of Miami, Florida Handbags, and Wiesner.

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 F...

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.

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    

Balenciaga Black Suede Leather Lucite Hardware Neo Classic Satchel BagVintage Mcm Gray Lucite Acrylic Plastic Box Purse Carved Lid #227Vintage 50's 60's Woven Box Bag Purse Lucite Plastic Stylecraft Wicker GoldVintage 1950s Majestic Clear Lucite Gold Trim Oval Black Purse €Vintage Signed Myles Original Green Lucite & Gold Confetti Purse HandbagVintage Amber Lucite 2-tier Evening Bag Purse1950s Beautifully Carved Lucite Clutch Purse W/inlaid Rhinestones & Kiss ClaspVintage Wilardy White Pearlized Lucite Treasure Chest Evening Bag PurseVintage Dorset 5th Avenue Basket Weave With Lucite Top Purse Handbag Vintage Lucite Acrylic Rhinestone Clutch Purse Crystal Clear Authentic A BeautyC1940 Carved Floral Clear Lucite Vintage Clutch Purse W/white R/s Opens Wide:- )Vintage 'patricia Of Miami' Gold/green Marbleized Lucite Purse Saks Fifth AvenueVintage 1950's Wilardy Lucite Tortoise Purse HandbagMid Century Dark Gray Pearlized Carved Lucite Woven Metal Purse Handbag 1950s MwVintage Signed Lucite Tortoise Shell PurseVintage Clear Carved Lucite And Rhinestone Purse Handbag ClutchVintage Mcm Gray Lucite Acrylic Plastic Box Purse Carved Lid #227Vintage Green And Gold Confetti Strand Lucite Purse1950s - Vintage " Wilardy " Dark Blue Lucite Box Purse / HandbagVintage 50s Majestic Old Fashioned Lace Modernist Hourglass Lucite Box PurseVintage White Woven Purse Lucite Frame Handles MiamiVintage Walborg Lucite "mother Of Pearl" Purse 1950s BakeliteLovely Vintage 1940s 1950s Frosted Oval Purse Carved Lucite Lid Vanity Case1965 Topps #134 Mantle's Clutch Hr In Lucite FrameVintage Plastic Covered Straw Handbag Purse Lucite HandlesVintage Jr Usa Carpet Bag Tapestry Dr Style Purse Lucite Handles LovelyVintage Lucite Purse***Vintage Lucite Purse StrapsVintage Lesco Lana Box Purse 1950's Original Red White Lucite Moonglow HandlesWomen's Vintage Circa 1950s Lucite Plastic Fashion Purse Charles Kahn Miami Collectors Vtg Clear Lucite Rhinestone Clutch Purse Authentic '60s Diamond PtrnVintage 1940's Crochet Purse Bag Black Huge Lucite Zip Pull Hat Set Vintage Lucite White Pearlized Oval Box Handbag Purse Accessory With CrystalsVintage 1950s Unique White Pearlized Lucite PurseAnton Pieck Vintage Wood Decoupage Purse Jewelry Box Sewing Kit Lucite HandleClear Lucite Plastic Handles Purse Handbag Decoupage Craft Projects VintageVintage Small Black Velvet Lucite Clasp Evening Purse Velvet Handle ExcellentVintage 1950s Morris Moskowitz Tapestry Handbag Lucite Handles Paisley PatternLovely & Trendy Vtg Black & Gray Swirl Lucite Clutch Purse With Gold ChainNice Vintage Velvet Castle Purses Handbag Lucite SnapVintage Bakelite Era Blue Leatherette Purse Plastic Lucite Tortoise Shell FrameVintage 1950 Lucite Bag By Josef