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    

Authentic White Caviar Leather Chanel Crossbody Clutch Wallet Chain Shoulder BagVintage Fossil Leather Estate Messenger Bag Crossbody Briefcase Men Satchel $248Vintage Fossil State Leather Briefcase Satchel Laptop Bag Messenger Men $248Vintage Chanel HandbagAntique Leather Case Gladstone Bag Brass Fittings Nice Order C1920 BriefcaseFabulous Shape And Quality Brown 1950's~60's Genuine Crocodile Skin Box Bag~mintStunning Vintage Gucci Travel Bag Made In Italy Hologram Authentic Burberry Shoulder Bucket Brown VintageAntique Art Deco Whiting & Davis Princess Mary Dresden Mesh Evening Bag PurseBrown Leather Gucci Monogram Shoulder/messenger Bag Mens/womens Authentic GgVintage Hartmann Luggage Leather Briefcase Carry On Overnight Messenger Mens BagVintage 1930s-1940s Black Silk Evening Bag Gorgeous Huge Jewelled ClaspVintage Boyt Brown Leather Lawyer Briefcase Case Bag ~.99 Cent Nr!~ Made In Usa~Antique Flapper Style Mesh Purse Silver - One Of A Kind!Vintage Boyt Brown Leather Bag Lawyer Messenger Briefcase Case ~~.99 Cent Nr!~Vtg Coach Metropolitan Unisex Black Leather Briefcase Messenger Laptop Bag 5180 Vtg Mod 1960s Coblentz Black Genuine Alligator Made In France Handbag PurseMandelian Mfg. Co. Art Deco Mesh Purse HandbagVintage Mini Purse Trinket Box Lucite Top & Handle Plastic Base 2" TallVintage Art Deco Beaded Purse With Cherry Red Bakelite FrameVtg Hartmann Belting Leather Combination Locking Briefcase Attache English Vintage Leather Briefcase. Just Bought From Overseas. High QualityFab Mod Retro Spiral Telephone Cord Bag Purse Black & White Design - Unique!Vintage 1993 Ralph Lauren "navy Reserve" Weekender Hand-duffle Bag Unused+nwt!Vintage Wear Best Leather Briefcase Portfolio Doctors Satchel Mens Bag With Key1963 Vintage Enid Collins *pussy Foot* Cat & Birds Wood Box Bag PurseVintage Lot Of 2 Enid Collins Enchantment Box Purse Gemini Bucket Bag Coach Vintage Tan Brown Leather Briefcase/attache Bag Vintage Kenner Six Million Dollar Man Oscar Goldman Doll With BriefcaseBeautiful Rare Louis Vuitton Monogram Vintage French Company Briefcase Handbag Rare 1960's Bonnie Cashin Coach Black Leather Double Kisslock Purse Chain HandleVintage 1950's Box Lucite PurseMen Vintage Leather Canvas Bag Messenger Shoulder Retro Briefcase Satchel CoffeeVintage Boyt Black Leather Bag Lawyer Messenger Briefcase Case ~.99 Cent Nr!~Louis Vuitton Lv Vintage Lawyer Doctor Leather Canvas Attache Briefcase Bag Mens1966-68 Signed Enid Collins Papier Mache Box Purse Owl Big Jewelled Eyes Antique 1920s Art Deco Whiting & Davis Silver Soldered Mesh Evening Bag PurseKorchmar B1140 Churchill Leather Classic Vintage Brief Bag Briefcase $574Vintage Boyt Brown Leather Bag Lawyer Briefcase Case ~.99 Cent Nr!~ Made In UsaVintage Coach Briefcase Burgundy Ed Robinson Style Hand BagVintage Thick Saddle Tan Leather Messenger Shoulder Bag Satchel Briefcase Case Rialto Purse Shiny Marbled Gray Lucite Bottom - Clear Double Carved Top & HandleVintage Majestic Lucite Red Top Clear Gold Lace Inset Box Purse Post Wwii EraAntique Beaded Purse Handbag Stylized Peacock Design Tortoise Frame1930-1940's Purse, Engraved, Gold Tone & 2 Vintage Compacts, CaranomeVintage Avenues In Leather Messenger Bag Briefcase Portfolio Mens Satchel BrownVintage Antique Lot 2 Metallic Purses Beaded Micro Mesh Victorian? As IsVtg Doonie & Bourke Black Pebble Leather Cross Body Small Shoulder Messenger BagVintage Men Tote Crazy Horse Leather Shoulder Bag Messenger 14"laptop BriefcaseVintage Fancy Figree Frame Bronze Carnival Glass Beaded Purse Handbag Gorgeous!!Vintage Coach Tan Leather Briefcase Satchel Laptop Bag Usa 5291 Zip & TurnlockAntique Victorian Chatelaine Silver Beaded Mesh Coin Purse True Vintage Hartmann Vintage Belting Leather Luggage Case Business Laptop Briefcase WornBosca Italy Vintage Leather Partners Brief Doctor & Lawyer Briefcase Bag, Brown Vintage Wilardy Originals Lucite Handbag Taupe Brown Pewter Tone TrimVintage Coach Lexington Black Leather Laptop Bag Briefcase Vintage Hartmann Leather Brown Combination Briefcase Attach Vintage Airway Brown Large Leather Briefcase W/presto Lock 18x13x4Antique Micro Beaded Purse Handbag Unusual Abstract Multi Color Floral