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    

Large Lot Of Antique Miser's Purses * English * Circa 1850-90100% Authentic Louis Vuitton - Neverfull Mm Monogram CanvasVintage Levi's Big E Single Stitch Denim Levi's Jeans Tote Bag Usa Near Mint 501Vintage 1970s Levi's Orange Tab Backpack. Snap Top Tote BagBig Beautiful Vintage Antique Estate Beaded Peacock Purse Evening Bag100% Authentic Louis Vuitton - Cartouchiere Monogram CanvasXfine Beautiful Vintage Classic Gucci Signature Travel Carry-on Luggage/suitcase100% Authentic Louis Vuitton - Keepall Bandouliere 55100% Authentic Louis Vuitton - Alma Pm Monogram CanvasNative American Fred Harvey Era Chimayo Purse / Pouch Thunderbird Lot100% Authentic Louis Vuitton - Keepall 50 Monogram CanvasStunning Sterling Silver Filigree Large Vintage Flowered Clutch Bag Box Purse 100% Authentic Louis Vuitton - Reade Pm Monogram VernisAuthentic Vintage Gucci Briefcase Attache Document Bag Brown LeatherVintage Ghurka Marley Hodgson Original # 34 Expediter Chestnut Leather Briefcase Victorian Art Nouveau Micro Bead Purse . Beaded Roses .enameled And JeweledMulholholland Brothers Holland Sport Leather CaseVintage Gucci Black Leather Shoulder Bag / Purse Colorful Antique Whiting & Davis Enamel Mesh PurseAntique Mesh Purse Mandalian Mfg Co Beautiful1920's Antique Ornate Art Deco Mesh Flapper Purse Signed Mandolin Mfg.co Art Deco Whiting & Davis Mesh Purse100% Authentic Louis Vuitton - Alma Pm Monogram CanvasVintage Gucci Authentic Ladies Hobo Shoulder Bag Beige Leather 001 3814 203419Vtg Hartmann British Tan Belting Leather Briefcase Attache Carry OnBeautiful Antique Mesh Purse In Great Shape!!!Vintage 80's Ferrari Bag Longines Agip Goodyear 126 C2 TurboCoach Beekman Brown Leather Briefcase Messenger Bag 5266 Usa VintageVintage Antique Micro Beaded Purse With Metalic Silver,black And Copper BeadingVintage / Antique - Jade - Jeweled Petit Point Needlepoint Purse - Partial ClaspVintage Wicker Figural Parasol Novelty Basket Handbag Quite Unique/rareVintage Lucite Etched Handbag Purse Gold Confetti100% Authentic Louis Vuitton - No Bicolor Pm Monogram CanvasAntique Whiting & Davis Mesh Purse With MirrorVintage 1920's Metal Mesh Purse Art Deco EnamelVintage 1950s Acrylic Lucite White Pearlized Purse By Charles S Kahn FlordiaEnid Collins Of Texas ~ Road Runner ~ The Original Box Bag ~ 1965 ~ Vintage WoodGucci Clutch/shoulder Bag VintageVintage Fendi Shoulder Bag Hand Bag Tobacco Stripe Black Brown Italy1920's Beaded Handbag Purse With Two Yellow Birds "made In France" Tag InsideStunning Vintage Whiting & Davis Evening Purse...nibGorgeous Vintage Glove Natural Leather Back Pack -georgetown Leather DesignsVintage 80s 90s Esprit Large Gym Shoulder Tote Bag Gray WomensVintage Croc Leather Shoulder Bag/ Retro Fashion Accessories Shoulder BagMandalian - Antique Enameled Chain Mail Mesh 1920's Art Deco PurseVintage Coach Tan Brown Leather Satchel Portfolio Briefcase Bag .Lot Of 4 Vintage Beaded Purses Super Rare Unique Excellent Condition AuctionVintage Enid Collins Jeweled Bucket Purse Handbag Tote Floral Wood Bottom -nice Enid Collins Love Vintage Box PurseVtg Lot Needlepoint PursesVintage Mandalian Mfg. Co. Mesh Purse Needs RepairAntique 1920s Flapper Enameled Mesh PurseVintage~ 1950-1960s Oval Wilardy Pearlized Lucite Embellished Mirrored Lid PurseAntique Needlepoint Purse EmbroideredVintage Genuine Snake Skin Men's Wallet, 6 X 4", 5 Pockets Bi-fold, Great DesignMid Century French Beaded Ed B Robinson Wedding/evening Bag PurseVintage Majestic Lucite Purse Gold Metal Frame & MeshAntique Victorian Green Carnival Glass Beaded Purse Bag Brown Accordian FrameVision Brand Fanny Pack 1980'sVintage Zero Halliburton Brushed Aluminum Briefcase Reg Z Case 18x13x6