The intricate and storied history of the handbag | 9Lives
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I was recently gifted the most beautiful powder blue Steve Madden handbag, with gold detailing. It has a top inlay with a clip in the front, giving the effect of a purse within a handbag. The blue is the same blue as Melania Trump’s Ralph Lauren ensemble on Inauguration Day, inspired by Jackie O’s 1962 dress of almost the same colour.

Melania Trump 🇺🇸💕❤👌🏻

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I am not someone who uses a handbag often, but the beautiful design, the colour and the emotional connection to the person who brought it all the way from New York, made it one of my favourite pieces in my closet. It conjures up memories of my mother and grandmother’s handbags; the lipstick, handkerchiefs or tissues, small change, cheque books, foundation powder, and maybe a comb or a pen.

It is a well-known fact that you don’t just stick your hand in a woman’s handbag especially because it is such a private and almost sacred space. Filling your handbag, and choosing the exact things that you will need for the day is an almost ritualistic process you undertake before you can start your day. This got me thinking – how did handbags evolve through the ages and what are the most iconic bags throughout history?

Medieval Europe

The modern handbag can trace its roots all the way back to the medieval times. Back then, handbags were used for practicality rather than fashion. In the 14th and 15th centuries, they made use of girdle pouches that hung from their belts and served as essential pockets on the outside of their dresses. Made of leather and cherished fabrics such as silk and silver, these bags were used for carrying money, flint and perfumed spices.

Renaissance Faire

Drawstring bags became all they hype in the 16th and 17th centuries. These flat bags were gathered by tasseled drawstrings, almost pouch-like. Some of these bags were held together by a metallic frame, rather than drawstrings. They made use of patterned fabrics or embroidered materials, heavily influenced by the Middle East and the Orient. These beauties stored flowers, herbs and perfumed spices, as well as money.


The Victorian Times, more or less the 18th century, saw the rise of handbag pockets. These were separate from one’s outfit and were accessed through slits in their dresses. These pockets were mostly made from linen and used for holding general goods.

Upper class ladies from the in this era also wore reticules. These small bags, made from fine clothes and beads, were suspended on a long string that were held with one’s fingertips or wrapped around one’s wrist.

The Handbag of Industry

The 19th century saw the dawn of the Age of Industry and women in this era opted for either a Chatelaine or an Opera Bag. The first is a bag made from fine cloth and gilded metal that hung from their belts by a hook or decorative clasp. These bags were used for carrying scissors, knives, perfume bottles, thimbles, and more.

The Opera Bag on the other hand, had a metal frame and was most popularly made from Moroccan leather. As the name suggests, these bags were popular at events throughout the 19th century and carried opera glasses, powder, a scent bottle and a biscuit case.

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Eternal Sunshine of the Modern Handbag

Today, handbags are available in all shapes, sizes and purposes, from clutches to beach bags, and all of these are considered to be a form of the modern handbag. Certain handbags from modern designers, have reached iconic status and have changed the way we view handbags in the 21st century. These bags are called ‘It’ bags and most women today probably owns one or a variation thereof. Let’s take a look at 4 of the most famous It-bags:

Chanel 2.55

In 1955, Mademoiselle Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel created the Chanel 2.55. What set this handbag apart from its predecessors, was the addition of shoulder straps – until 1955, all bags were top-handle totes, pocketbooks or clutches. The Chanel ‘2.55’ is still today one of the brand’s best-selling handbag styles.

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Louis Vuitton ‘Speedy’

Word around town is that Audrey Hepburn asked Louis Vuitton to scale down his gigantic ‘Keepall’ travel bag into something more manageable. The result? The ‘Speedy’ day bag was born and once Hepburn started carrying it, demand went through the roof and was soon mass produced. To this day, the ‘Speedy’ is still one of the brand’s remaining signature pieces.

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Dior ‘Lady Dior

Back in 1995, France’s first lady Bernadette Chirac gave Princess Diana a bespoke Dior handbag. The bag featured a stitched-leather finish, with dangling letter charms from Dior. The stitch square pattern is said to be inspired by the Napoleon III chairs that Dior used during his very first fashion show, back in 1947. Because of Princess Diana’s obsession with the bag, demand soon rose and Dior named it ‘Lady Dior’ in honour of the Princess.

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Hermès ‘Birkin’

The legend of the Birkin is quite well-known. In 1981 Hermès CEO, Jean-Louis Dumas, was seated next to Jane Birkin on a flight. As he watched her struggle with her unwieldy carry-on, he asked if she would act as his muse by advising him on making a better carry-all handbag. The Hermès ‘Birkin’ was released three years later, and is one of the world’s most iconic status symbols.

Bonus! Kate Spade’s The Sam (In Memoriam)

This bag is considered to have launched Kate Spade’s career back in 1993. A cornerstone to Spade’s empire, ‘The Sam’ is a simple, black rectangular handbag. Originally, it was made with waterproof nylon, making it not only fashionable, but also highly versatile. Because of ‘The Sam’s’ simplistic, elegant design it is still relevant today – sold in one of Spade’s 200 stores around the world. In the wake of Kate’s tragic death during June this year, many women are treasuring their Kate Spade bags like never before.

For more on the history of the handbag, have a look at this awesome compilation as featured on Cosmopolitan:

Also, check out this cool infographic (cause who doesn’t like their info in infographic form?):

History of the Handbag

From Visually.


Free State-girl, living in Stellenbosch. Love to explore small towns, read in Afrikaans and everything pop-culture. My favourite yoga move is 'The Pigeon' and one day I'd like to own my own vintage cinema.

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