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.