The evolving hand bag


It is said that a woman without her trusted handbag is as lost as a child without her mother in a crowd. The handbag embodies her character and holds her supplies; depository for her anticipated needs. The eventual needs may reach far beyond any man's imagination. Carrying a handbag gives a woman the right to carry her life with her, and sometimes the lives of her partner and/or children. As a symbol of power, the handbag ranked high in modern times, after British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher moved into 10 Downing Street in 1979. In her dozen years in power the Iron Lady's handbag came to personify her style of administration. Purses and bags were necessary ever since people have had items of value to be carried. Decorations and adornment were only normal, and received much artistic and technical attention. Art establishments exhibit the works of art from past to exemplify their fine and intricate craftsmanship of needlework incorporated into these accessories. The chronological evolution of the bag was also determined by the varying items people typically carried in them. In the 1400's both men and women carried purses typically for carrying coins or perfumed pomanders. The reticules of 1800's would contain cosmetic powder, fan, perfume bottle, handkerchief, and smelling salts.

The handbag as we recognize it today became "a la mode" only after 1870's. It became an item of luxury, a symbol which personified the high society, an accessory that complemented the dress; moreover it had functional and organizational qualities which women could not abandon.

The 14th - 15th Century

The earliest handbags were suspended from girdles. A girdle was a belt for the waist or hips. Girdles were made of metal, leather, fabric or cord and often had one or two hanging ends. Often objects were attached to or hung from a girdle items such as a purse, keys, knife or rosary.

Elaborate betrothal purses (Limoges) were also used as gifts to the bride and guests as a gesture to symbolize the groom's wealth. Made from enameled portraits of the couple with silk and silver lace trimmings. The very early handbags were carried by men.

These were little pouches or pockets to carry money, flint, or perfumed spices. They were hung from behind or side of their girdles. Quite often thieves were able to cut the purse away from their oblivious victims, hence giving rise to the term "cut purse".

Leather bags with metal frames were used in the Anglo-Saxon days and became en vogue again during the 14th and 15th century. They resembled the girdle pouch and were carried much the same way, hung from the girdles. They were primarily used for carrying food for pets.

The 16th and 17th Centuries

The drawstring bags were all the rage for the socially active ladies during this era. Historical paintings depict flat bags gathered by tasseled drawstrings; others were round with a semi-circular metal frame that secured with some sort of a latch contraption.

With the intro-duction of pockets in 1670 the men discarded the girdles and pouch for a more secure and concealed container built into their breeches.

During an age when sanitation and hygiene were still in its infancy the more courteous folks would carry"sweet bags". The bags contained sweet fragrances of spice, flowers, and herbs to camouflage any undesirable odors.

Embroidery had revitalized during the 17th Century which is believed to have originated in the Orient and the Middle East. This period produced elaborate thread and bead embroidery bags. Lavish courts of arms and complex colorful patterns festooned various fabric bags.

The 18th Century

Until the French Revolution (1789-1793), women still wore generous full dresses and pockets became popular for the current fashion. Pockets were separate articles made from linen flat or pear shape. They were deep and practical which were tied around the waist by a tape and concealed between the dress and the undergarment. Access was through the slits in the folds of the dress.

Smaller hand held purses were also all the rage especially ones with intricate bead work. The French particularly had this fine art down to perfection and were much sort after purses.

After the French revolution the style of women's clothing changed to slim muslin skirts with high waist, which meant it was not possible to contain the pockets. Reticules emerged as the next generation of accessories. In France these were called 'ridicules', they were small bags suspended on a long string held delicately by finger tips or wrapped around the wrist.

Also, social protocol change and women were greeted with a gloved-hand shake now. Consequently, another accessory comes into sight to be yearned by the ladies to match their reticules.

The 19th Century

At the onset of the 19th century the world had become industrialized, particularly the West. The cottage industries were being overtaken by large corporations, with advent of machines; mass production of goods was now possible. This of course led to demand of cheaper products by a wider market. The once exclusive designs for the wealthier society were now accessible to the general public.

Many bags of the first part of the Victorian period were made to be worn hanging from the belt by hook and chain or a decorative clasp, one such type was called Chatelaines. These were generally made from a gilded metal which would have separate containers for knife, scissors, perfume bottle, thimbles, and a small purse. It was to great extent decorative.

In the 1870's leather handbags on metal frames became more prevalent. From here on the design of bags were much akin to bags at present. They were made from morocco leather, mounted on silver or other metal frame. Several different types of design were available to suit their application. A visiting bag would be fitted with a purse, card-case, and scent bottle. An opera bag would be fitted with opera glasses and powder-puff and a matinee bag would be fitted with scent bottle, opera glasses, and a biscuit (cookie) case.

The 19th century unquestionably saw some of the most intricate, luxurious, and beautiful bags, hand stitched with miniature beads the sizes of which would compare to sand granules set on silver clasps and chains.

One other major development of this period was the development of public transport. People became travelers and a beginning in the creation of travel bags. Leather bags on a generous length strap slipped across the shoulder became a common sight.

The 20th Century

It was in the 20th century that the handbag made its true great mark. The discovery of new techniques and materials allowed leather to be the material of choice for handbags for a plethora of applications. Leather handbags were first carried by men as traveling luggage. They were referred to as hand-held bags. Their interior organizational features with compartments, their appealing look and comfortable carrying handles encouraged the development of the new handbag for women.

The many activities that became available to women demanded accessories little Victorian and Edwardian reticules became obsolete in an era when women openly smoked and used cosmetics. Handbags had to hold cosmetics, keys, perfume bottles and many other necessities associated with the first period of women's liberation in the 20th century.

In the 1940's the war time military uniform influenced fashion. The over the shoulder gas mask bag transformed into the long strap shoulder bag. They were larger, more squared-off, and functional to reflect the military environment of that time.

By the 1950's the technological achievements during the war where now being put to good use in the commercial industries. Bags became extravagant and innovative made from synthetic and novel natural materials. America came to the forefront of fashion with the Lucite and hard plastic bags with elaborate decoration all around the novelty box type bag.

The swinging 60's was revolutionary period in fashion. The traditional and conservative design rules went out of the window and new creative concepts and bright colors prevailed on the streets. Materials such as PVC, wicker, and carpet rug materials where being used to create large tote and satchel bags.

The years that followed till the present has opened up a treasure of textures and materials, from the space age synthetics to hand woven straws. There are rain proof bags, sturdy totes, and delicate clutch purses, casual shoulder bags. In short a fascinating variety of handbags for every mood, every outfit, and every occasion.