The Evolution of the Handbag: Mapping Utility in Luxury
Satchel, sling, clutch, shoulder or a hobo bag – the essential criterion for a handbag is the power to identity. An identity that dates back centuries, if not millenniums. If Coco Chanel said ‘A woman who wears no perfume has no future’, do we even have to ask about women without handbags?
Bags are not a novel concept. The ubiquitous accessory has been witness to mankind’s evolution and has a rich history. The handbag has been around, in one form or another, for centuries. They are the embodiment of humanity’s basic need for ownership and announcing possessions, and hence have been present as a part of the wardrobe of men and women across cultures.
The oldest handbag, as a matter of fact, can be dated as far back as 5000 BC (for context, the ancient Egyptian civilisation is dated to around 3100 BC). Excavators found the first dated evidence of a bag with the discovery of Otzi the Iceman, Europe’s oldest natural mummy in 1991.
Otzi was found frozen alongside a leather pouch which stored small weapons, an axe and fur & leather garments. This discovery went on to solidify the paleontological argument for the preservation instinct in hunter-gatherers, and for us, confirmed the presence of the ‘it bag’ before Vogue was around to cover it.
Ancestry of a Design
Handbags became glamorous, beautiful, fashionable and tabloid worthy only after being adopted by womankind. Their ancestor was the much less glamorous and utilitarian accessory called the Girdle Pouch. The girdle pouch was worn by men in the middle ages, and was essentially a leather or cloth pouch attached or fastened by the waist-belt. Later in the middle ages all the way to the renaissance, the girdle pouches (akin to a drawstring purse) were used both by men and women and became a necessity for their function.
They were usually used to keep coins, and at times other small objects. This function segued into the invention of a very specific type of coin purse called the Aumonière or the almoner. Aumonières were alm-purses and served the purposes of holding coins to be given out to the poor. Despite the girdle pouch’s initial functional identity, the coming of the alm-purses also made them a status symbol and saw an increase in intricate designs.
The women’s handbag, specifically however, has a much more interesting history independent of girdles. The ancestor of the modern handbag happens to have been an aspect of women’s underwear, for better or for worse.
The Birth of The Handbag
The advent of pockets post the sixteenth century made the girdle pouch obsolete. Men’s pockets were an inbuilt part of their garments, much like the modern day variety. Meanwhile women’s pockets were a separate cloth garment tied around the waist under the petticoat. This classified them as undergarments. Women’s gowns at the time being of a larger silhouette encouraged this style as the bulkier pocket storage still stayed appropriately hidden under the multiple layers of the gown.
However this changed post the eighteenth century. Women’s fashion adopted slimmer silhouettes of gowns, with less extravagant, more practical garments becoming everyday vogue. To be caught sporting a bulging pocket line was now a grave faux-pas.
Now with a sleeker design of gowns and the death of the women’s pockets came the advent of the women’s bag. These were worn externally, and the scope of visibility fashioned them into various embroidered designs to match designated outfits. With being the precursor of the exclusively for-women accessory came the slight roadblock of societal rejection (called it!).
The older generation of women were not convinced that something which was considered strictly an undergarment could be worn out in the open for all gentlemen to see. Modesty or the lack of it aside, this was the birth of the Reticule or The Indispensable.
The Modern Handbag
A reticule, as called in France, or the Indispensable, as referred to as in England were the early modern evening bags for women. This was the first woman-purse that stood in for the absence of pockets for women (modern problems require modern solutions). Relevant from 1790s to the late 1830s, ladies of the age put their immaculate embroidery skills to use and what came of it were designer cloth bags that carried small items of toiletries, keys, brooches and such.
They were regarded to the status of being so indispensable to womankind, that they were titled as The Indispensable. But the delicate nature of cloth did not fit well with all.
The butterscotch confectionery entrepreneur Samuel Parkinson is recorded to have inadvertently invented the first modern handbag to be made in 1841. With the advent of railways for one and all, he found his wife’s cloth pouch to be inadequate for journeys and also a bit small. Parkinson ordered for a set of custom made leather luggage for his wife, that were sturdier, more practical and would also set them apart from those commuting in lower berths.
Necessity may be the mother of all inventions, but quintessential early Victorian class divide can also stand in for the part. This job was commissioned to HJ Cave and Sons’ Leather Goods company, who went on to start a line of similar leather handbags for the common public (but was later discontinued). This design is said to have been the primary inspiration for Louis Vuitton and Guccio Gucci in their early years.
What made these leather hand bags stand apart from the delicate reticule or the impractically small coin purse? For the first time in history, the women’s bag accessory had the function of being shut completely. This, in its own way, was revolutionary for the women of the age when privacy was a luxury.
Twentieth Century and Beyond
Despite our discussion of the history of the handbag until this point, the term ‘handbag’ was not coined until the start of the twentieth century. The 1900s was the magnificent age of change, both technological and cultural, that was unprecedented. And it was at this point in history that the handbag truly took the form as we know of it today.
No accessory can give away the tides of human history better than the changes of the handbag design. Truly reflecting the fast changing times, the post WW1 world saw women get liberties they had only dreamt of. With women now in the workforce and equipped with voting rights, the practical merged with the fashionable and birthed the power of choice. Mechanization, supply chain changes and market competition paved the way to a new line of handbags. It saw designers like Louis Vuitton, Guccio Gucci, Thierry Hermes and other major players make their mark with the public with the power of their designs.
What happened to the accessory market during the great depression year? Although fashion might have been considered a wasteful frill, the essential market for utility was never lost. Comes now the advent of shoulder bags inspired by military pouches. Truly, as is history, so is design.
The Greatest Accessory of Woman and Man
Handbags have borne the mark of history since the beginning of civilization. The Iconic Chanel classic 2.55 (1955), one of the firsts. The glamorous Kelly by Hermès (1956), after actress turned princess Grace Kelly. The Jackie by Gucci, after the fashion-forward First Lady Jaqueline Kennedy (1961). The Lady Dior (1995), after Princess Diana. They are history, they are status. They are the original ‘It Bags’.
Margaret Thatcher called her Launer bag “the only leak-proof place in Downing Street”. Bags have been a weapon, a political pawn, a satire.
They are the greatest accessory known to woman or man, as their ubiquitous presence throughout the timeline of development proves.
We, here at Lodis 1965, bring to you all of that and more, designed to perfection to suit your taste. Leading the movement of affordable fashion in America, our handbags hold history, heritage and everything in between.