By Olivia Usai
Of all accessories, The Handbag is one of the most used and covetable items and has held the most tangible links to fashion for the longest time. Unlike most stylish clothing, a Handbag has nothing to do with size, height or fit; It simply requires a shoulder or wrist to show it off and nothing more. Moreover, A handbag has been perceived as a status symbol and ultimately represents key looks of each season be it by colour, style or adornment and has journeyed on the wrists and shoulders of countless women across the decades from the backrooms of design houses to the elite and working class. Handbags have often been reflective of the times and carry a strong sociological significance along with them and every decade has its portable icon.
We take a look back at some of history’s biggest and era defining handbags and oh my what a journey it has been. However, we learn through the timeline that the real value of a bag is not just in its quality and ability to surpass the trends of time – but it is in the story of how it came to be.
The 1930s saw an iteration of the earliest pochettes come into mainstream fashion. Bags reflected the Art Deco movement with the illusion of new materials and interesting details in plastic and zippers on shoulder bags, clasp bags and clutches, and by the 1940s the earlier Art Deco style changed to a Military Austere style following World War 2. Handbags became bigger to be more self-sufficient and adapt to the times and needs of women of those times.
Come the 1950s, design houses including Chanel, Louis Vuitton and Hermes entered the market and changed the game. With Gabriel Chanel in particular creating the most revolutionary bag of the decade: The Chanel 2.55. In 1955 the then young, fledgling designer created a quilted-leather bag that swung from a long, slender chain. The 2.55 was the first bag to offer a shoulder strap, introducing an era of hands-free ease to a generation of women previously restricted by stiff top handles. It was a Hallelujah moment as with the 2.55 came a new kind of freedom for women and opened doors to a world of possibilities and new inventions in the bag design industry.
Another Iconic moment of the 50s was when Grace Kelly cemented another bag’s covetable status when she was pictured clutching a sizeable Hermès tote close to her chest. It was later revealed that the Princess of Monaco was grasping the bag to disguise her pregnancy. In 1977, the Sac à Courroies became the Kelly, and its fate as a handbag icon was sealed.
The 1960s marked a period of increasing freedom in fashion for women. Youthful bag styles including narrow clutches and dainty shoulder bags with long chains became popular. They complimented the dressing styles during that era, leading younger generations to embrace the new designs which reflected the mood of that era perfectly. Instead opting for dresses stitched with practical pockets, the younger generations took advantage of fashion’s new found spirit with the arrival of Paco Rabanne’s collection of the iconic ‘Chainmail purse’. These purses were destined to be swung on the dance-floor to reflect on freedom of the youth of that day. Although the Handbag was no longer a necessity, it still remained an alluring way to ‘Make a Statement’ and Biba and Mary Quant saw an opportunity to capitalise on the’ rise of the high street’, offering accessible bag designs to a generation of women who idolised the style of Twiggy and Edie Sedgwick. Bottega Veneta later swooped in and coined its transformative Intrecciato weave. Still a house signature today, the weave technique was originally created to strengthen supple nappa leather for use in butter-soft totes and Louis Vuitton created a smaller, more practical version of the Speedy at the request of loyal fan Audrey Hepburn. At the time Emilio Pucci played with psychedelic prints and the use of lustrous silk on clutches as everyone was being inventive and trying to come up with the next Iconic bag style. Later, in line with the hippie-influenced clothing of the 1970s bag designs were suitably bohemian and as a result of many young people’s frequent travels to India, large satchels and across the body bags made of supple leather or suede became a part of everyday style. Women donned bags with lots of buckles and zippers – this symbolised their readiness and support for ‘The Feminist Movement’.
Increasing concern over fitness in the 80s gave rise to the mass production of sports bags. Capitalising on the demand for practicality, Miuccia Prada’s first bag for the family-run house was coveted throughout the decade. Crafted from nylon, a fabric previously reserved for the Italian army– it was a revelation, complete with a discreet triangle for identification. In the same decade, Karl Lagerfeld reprieved Gabrielle Chanel’s iconic Classic Flap handbag, replacing the traditional Mademoiselle twist lock with its unmissable interlocking CC logo, while on the other hand Dior’s boxy, quilted top-handle tote gained a dangling logo charm and was later renamed ‘The Lady Dior’ bag in honour of Princess Diana who was found to have had quite an personal impressive collection of the bag. The 80s also saw Fendi’s FF logo experience a resurgence in popularity, while Hermés created the now-iconic Birkin named in honour of British actress Jane Birkin.
The 1990s held many definitive bag moments, but few experienced their own pop culture moment as monumental as the Fendi Baguette. This little pochette offered a different and totally new silhouette and though it was small, The Fendi’ Baguette’ was designed to make a statement and its supersized FF clasp made sure of that. On par with the Baguette, Prada’s equally iconic backpack was loaded with functionality and the Baguette’s petite frame linked mystery with fantasy and all the magic that comes with fashion. Seen on Carrie Bradshaw paired with tutus and Jimmy Choos nothing made the idea of the Baguette more desirable. It portrayed the idea of a world that was exclusive, fanciful, and largely aspirational and everybody wanted in. Not the kind of bag designed to see you through a long day at the office, but definitely the perfect transitional piece to an evening of fun and cocktails. It was perhaps the first bag that a generation of women were willing to spend more than their monthly rent on – the era of the ‘It bag’ was born.
By the 2000s the It-bag reigned supreme and it was common practice for the most anticipated bag launches to command a long waiting list. But for those lucky enough to snag a so-called It-bag, the desire was not necessarily in the practicality, it was more about having the hottest piece of arm candy and being “in” with the fashion crowd meant having the hottest ticket in town. From Chloé’s sought-after Paddington weighing over 1kg when empty, thanks to its decorative padlock that swung from the front to Alexander Wang’s tough-luxe Rocco, the iconic Dior Saddle, Burberry Print, Louis Vuitton x Takashi Murukamia’s most Iconic Art collaboration of all time and many more. There had never been a decade that had seen as many bag trends. It was definitely an era to remember that elevated The Handbag as a power accessory to new heights.
The 21st Century continues to see Handbags made in an extensive array of styles, sizes, materials and purposes. With more technological advances lending endless design capabilities and a new wave of designers, the handbag industry has seen use of sophisticated materials and creations rise for the construction opportunities available in this modern era. As the handbag continues to evolve, we honour the Masterminds behind the great classics which will always be the quintessential models of the Bag Industry for many generations to come.