Whether it's the alligator briefcase your dad carried in the 1960s or the kid leather Chanel clutch your mom took with her to meet him for a drink after work, vintage bags tell stories. They heard the love vows made, held the evidence of deals broken before the ink was dry, and even got some of us through world wars. Best of all, these bags were often exceptionally well made, which means you can continue to tote these story tellers today.

Modern handbags actually derived from two sources. The first was the reticule, which women in the late 1700s filled with personal items such as makeup, letters, or a hand fan. This embroidered velvet or damask pouch dangled from a cord, which could be drawn tight at the top to secure the bag’s contents inside. It was, essentially, the pocket that women’s clothing of that era lacked.

The second source was a piece of luggage that was actually known in the mid-19th century as a handbag. Not a fashion accessory yet, at first this bag was carried by men and women alike and featured a metal frame, heavy handles, interior compartments, and an opening at the top that snapped definitively and firmly shut. By the Edwardian era, handbags for travel were being produced by companies such as Hermès and Louis Vuitton, which got their start in leather goods such as horse harnesses and luggage such as trunks. As the size of the bag continued to shrink, increasing numbers of women traded in their flimsy reticules for this new more versatile and durable companion.

At the same time, the reticule was having its own revival. Metal mesh bags produced by the American company Whiting and Davis were like modern, machined updates of reticules, albeit with a rigid clasp at their tops. The flat sides of these bags lent themselves to Art Deco designs as well as portraits and silhouettes, but Whiting and Davis also made bags such as the Delysia, which resembled an incense burner and opened at its center. In Germany, Burkhardt and Co. studded the closings of its mesh bags with semi-precious stones. And in France, Rugé made small fur purses that dangled from long straps and dripped with tassels and fringe. Other materials favored during the 1920s were beaded cloth, ivory, and eventually Bakelite.

Similarly demure was the clutch, a bag that was popularized by Elsa Schiaparelli’s Pochette bags and is linked today to the flapper era of the 1920s. Some were skinned with black velvet, others were decorated with colorful beads, but all could be carried in the hand (literally clutched) or tucked under one's arm. These small bags became such recognized fashion accessories, even jewelers such as Van Cleef & Arpels and Cartier made dance purses and minaudieres for the club crowd. At first clutches were designed with snaps, but a 1923 handbag-framers strike in New York City opened the door to zippers.

Other handbag trends of note between the world wars was the introduction of Coco Chanel’s jersey wool shoulder bag and the proliferation of leather and even crocodile bags in basic black. Surrealistic and novelty purses were at the other end of the fashion spectrum. Some were shaped like ocean liners and ice buckets. Others featured working cameras in their clasps or lights inside, so that a woman could find her lipstick or car keys in a dimly lit nightclub. Louis Vuitton’s drawstring Noe bag did not begin as a handbag at all; it was designed to carry bottles of champagne.

If handbag styles got more sober during World War II, designers did not wait long to loosen up. Gucci used the post-World War II leather shortage as an opportunity to explore materials such as canvas and bamboo, creating its saddle-shaped bamboo bag in 1947. Louis Vuitton’s zippered Speedy was a stylish update of the leather doctor’s bag, or perhaps a duffle disguised as a purse...

Two impulses ruled the 1950s. One was elegant conservatism, as seen in Chanel’s 2.55 handbag, so named because it was introduced in February of 1955. Made of quilted-leather and hung from a shoulder-length chain, the 2.55 featured a flap over the top of the bag and a Mademoiselle Lock. Even more iconic was the Kelly bag, which was adopted by Princess Grace of Monaco, who used the width of her crocodile Hermès bag to hide her baby bump from a “Life” magazine photographer. The 1956 bag was named for her after the fact.

The other impulse was unbridled exuberance, as typified by the Lucite purses manufactured by U.S. companies such as Wilardy, Llewellyn, and Myles Originals. Originally developed for the windshields of aircraft, in the hands of these companies, Lucite was repurposed as hard-shell bags, clutches, and vanity handbags, often laminated with glitter and covered with rhinestones and other faux gems. In comparison, the colorful clutches from that decade by rising star Christian Dior appear almost stodgy.

By the 1960s, Gucci, Fendi, and Louis Vuitton were turning their logos into stylish patterns, making branding a form of decorative art. Gucci had the good fortune of being worn by First Lady Jackie Kennedy, who flaunted a Gucci shoulder bag, now known as the Jackie O. Gucci’s unisex hobo bag was also carried by actress Elizabeth Taylor and playwright Samuel Beckett. Other designers such as Britain’s Mary Quant embraced the Mod and Pop aesthetics, producing purses resembling colorful pieces of hard candy that dangled from long chains or leather straps.

The 1960s also marked the beginning of Judith Leiber’s career. Leiber’s early purses were small, inspired by and named for the chatelaines that predated even reticules. In the ’70s, Yves Saint Laurent made a splash with his peasant-style bag, and in 1984 the wedge-shaped, flat-bottom Hermès Birkin arrived. Though multi-year waiting lists for the Birkin would last well into the next two decades (in no small part because each bag was made from start to finish by a single artisan), the It Bag of the 1990s would be the Lady Dior. That was not its name when it was introduced in 1995 by Christian Dior, but after Princess Diana was seen carrying one, followed by her tragic death in 1997, the bag was renamed in her honor.

For most of this time, men were quite content to continue to carry leather briefcases to work. These bags were named after the occupations of the people who carried them (doctors, pilots, attaches) and even their contents (the briefcase gets its name from its origins as a case designed to hold a lawyer’s briefs). But in recent years, increasing numbers of suited and casually clad men alike have traded in their leather or crocodile briefcases for nylon messenger bags, which are often padded to protect their new contents, a laptop.

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    

Antique Gem Set Fleur De Lis Chatelaine Purse * French * Circa 1900Art Deco 1920s Whiting & Davis Mesh Purse Bag W Enamel Dragon Carved Jade ClaspVintage Chanel Bag - Unique Price, Unique StyleFabulous French Vintage 50s Faux Tortishell Lucite Box Bag Wonderful ConditionVintage Lucille De Paris Black Lizard Tote Double Handled Handbag, NrVintage J. Peterman Company Suede Leather Postal Mail Briefcase Bag Men's No RsvVtg Hand Woven All Wool Chimayo Purse By Ganscraft Silver Thunderbird ClosureVintage C1950s Retro Dorset Rex Fifth Avenue Lucite Gold And Silver Basket BagVintage Lucite Purse-black & Sparkles Clear Top & Handle--no Reserve Antique Spingarn's French Micro Beaded Bag Persian Rug & Fruit Jeweled FrameAntique Micro Bead Beaded Purse Figural Scenic Victorian Couple & DogAntique Silver Chain Mail Purse Pendant // Chatelaine Purse Around 1900 SilverVintage 1970s Kenner Six Million Dollar Man Oscar Goldman Figure With BriefcaseRare Vintage Dooney & Bourke "big Duck" Cross Body Antique Mandalian Art Deco Turquoise Brown Silver Mesh Purse With Beads Nice!Lederer Leather Handbag With Removable Pocket WatchA Rare Vintage Original Gucci Leather Gladstone Bag, C1960Authentic Chanel Shoulder Bag Leather Black & GoldVintage Black Leather Briefcase Attache Messenger Travel Bag Made In ItalyAntique Victorian Beaded Purse Minstrel W Dogs Buck Deer Leather InteriorVintage 1950's Telephone Cord Purse Multi Color Browns Ivory Great Look20's Antique Enameled Mandalian Mesh Evening Bag, Gorgeous DesignVictorian Ca 1880 Micro Beaded Purse Bright Colors Jeweled Frame G/conditionAntique French France Ladies Purse Gold Tone Filigree Frame Rhinestone Silk BeadVintage Original 1961 Signed Enid Collins Of Texas Money Tree Iv Box Bag HandbagVtg Coach Colebrook Leather Shoulder Business Messenger Briefcase Bag Pack #5181Vintage Fendi Mens Hard Logo Monogram Euc Briefcase Attache CaseVintage Enid Collins Of Texas Box Bag Money Tree Ix C1964Vintage C1950s Retro Hardy Lucite Purse Handbag Faux Tortoise ShellAntique Beaded Drawstring Purse Bird Design Beaded Tassels Gianni Versace Vintage Rare Petite Medusa Jacquard And Leather Satchel Bag QzAntique Metal Mesh Bag By Whiting And Davis Co.Vintage Art Deco Whiting And Davis Gold Enamel Mesh Purse Great Design17" Vintage Genuine Brown Leather Messenger Shoulder Bag Briefcase Mens HandmadeVintage Coach Brown Leather Tote Briefcase - From My Closet - Great ConditionRare Vintage Lucite Clear Purse/handbag With Rhinestones RetroAuthentic Louis Vuitton Sac De Nuit Toile Trianon Lilacostrich Purple /handbag.Vintage Coach Briefcase Legal Leather Mens Bag Lawyer Portfolio Belting AttorneyAntique Vintage Justin Leather Brown Hand-tooled Turnlock Handbag Vintage Ralph Lauren Polo Leather Briefcase W/ Strap Very Clean‏ Antique Mesh Purse Pink White & Black Enamel Design Art Deco Style Vintage Filson Distressed Tin Cloth Briefcase Shoulder Bag MessengerEnid Collins Original Box Bag Bird In Hand In BoxAntique Whiting & Davis Mesh Decorative Evening Purse:signed Beauty In Fine C.Huge Glass Bead Scenic PurseMen's Genuine Vintage Brown Leather Messenger Bag Shoulder Laptop Bag BriefcaseGucci 17.5" Portfolio Document Briefcase Vintage AuthenticVintage Jolles Original "maskenball" Austrian Petit Point Embroidered Purse BagAntique Petit Point Purse Tapestry Marcasite Frame Scenic Courting Couples BagFine Art Deco Whiting And Davis Color Mesh Bag Purse Ornate Frame Vintage (i2)Vintage Coach Black Leather Messenger Cross Body Briefcase Shoulder BagVintage Tumi Italy Leather Portfolio Attache Briefcase BagBrown Attache Briefcase 16" Laptop Bags Men's Leather Cowhide Vintage Business Original Vintage Chanel Navy Gold Chain Bag Used In Good Condition Coach Vintage Cowhide Black Leather Briefcase Computer Crossbody Messenger BagAntique Sterling Silver 1920's Woven Expandable Purse 112 Grams #71Antique 1920's Whiting & Davis Mesh Purse Rare Design Silk LinerAuthentic Vintage Louis Vuitton French Co Monogram Keepall Duffle Bag - SpeedyLouis Vuitton Vintage Monogram Attache Case Haut Briefcase 82884Authentic Nantucket Lightship Basket Handmade Purse