The Origins Of The Handbag

A lesson in fashion history…

The origins of the handbag: the fashion story of an everyday accessory. A handbag, we have it every day by our side, whether we put the minimum or our whole house, it follows us everywhere. It is almost the continuity of our arm: we hardly ever separate from it. If this fashion accessory, as practical as it is aesthetic, is anchored in our daily lives, you should know that this has not always been the case. Have you ever wondered what the origins of your favourite bag were? From the famous leather bags to handbags handmade in France, there are plenty of classics that have rich history. 


Handbag trends in the Middle Ages

Originally, the very first handbags were purely practical: they contained food and looked more like animal hair bundles than our handbags today. Then used by slaves in Antiquity to carry their masters’ belongings, they will keep their purely practical aspect until the Middle Ages, because at the time the clothes did not include a pocket (and yes, who would have thought that the pocket consisted of an innovation!): the medieval handbag is nothing other than a purse tied at the waist in which everyone, man and woman, stores what they need: food, handkerchiefs, tools, money. Women sometimes attach it to their belts, which are meant to be elegant; This is when the notion of “fashion” slowly intrudes into the world of the handbag. The purses are then adorned with embroidery and are made of precious materials, and of course very quickly become a reflection of everyone’s social membership: the most beautifully decorated bags become the property of women of high society.  

The handbag in the Renaissance

It was during the Renaissance (which begins in the 16th century, let us not forget), around the 17th century that pockets on clothing were finally born: the use of the handbag then fell into disuse. In fact, ladies and gentlemen now use sorts of embroidered canvas pouches hanging on the hips, under clothing, accessible through slits: these are our future pockets (the class) which at the time served as a tote handbag. So they could carry their personal effects while having their hands free: practical! Of course, the richest did not clutter and had servants to carry their business: even more practical. The real class in high society was to wear the chatelaine: a chain worn as a belt from which all kinds of things were hung.  

First Empire: the birth of the “real” handbag

This “pocket revolution” gives women an irresistible desire to always walk around with their personal effects on them. So this habit quickly became part of manners. Suddenly, when the empress dress, simple, very refined and with an enhanced waist made its debut on the catwalks of 1790 fashion week. Opposite an empress style dress seen from the back. Adjusted, everything is relative. We would find a place to hide a package of M & M’s in the folds, that’s for sure! But hey, compared to the huge dresses of Marie-Antoinette, for sure, there is no photo.

The handbag in the 19th century: the must-have of the century

In the 19th century, the handbag has become a full-fledged fashion accessory as it now matches the outfit and is manufactured with precious fabrics and embroidered with beads or stones. Like jewellery, it shows what social rank we belong to. In addition, the bourgeoisie wants to travel, and therefore needs accessories in order to transport their personal belongings: they therefore buy luxurious luggage, and personalise it. Well yes, there are enough of the small people’s bags. It was during this period (more precisely from 1852, it is important to specify) that Louis Vuitton took care of packing the affairs of Eugenie, the wife of Napoleon III. Thanks to his know-how, he will become his official supplier, make a fortune and meet the success that we know him today.

The handbag from the 20th century to today

In the 1920s, the handbag shrinks, it can only contain lipstick and a pack of cigarettes: the minimum to spend an evening at the top during this era of Charleston! These ladies could thus set the dance floor on fire without being crowded. During the 1930s, the minaudière became the favourite accessory for fashionistas of the time. It is a very elegant little rigid bag that is rather customary for outings. The minaudière does not allow you to store much, it almost serves as a jewel, as can be seen opposite in the hands of the beautiful Marion Cotillard.

During the Second World War the traditional leather handbags were sent to the military services, in order to recover the leather to reinforce the uniforms of the soldiers. So until the 1950s, we did what we have: handbags are made of fabric. Subsequently, leather will once again become the favourite material of these ladies. During the second half of the 20th century, this fashion accessory, which had become essential, would remain favoured by most women, whether for its practicality or even aesthetics: rather large for active women and small for going out. Today there are models by the thousand, of all sizes, shapes, colours and materials!

And what about the men?

Finally, today they are rediscovering the handbag in the form of a satchel, satchel, tote bag and others which now carry the iPad, the laptop and many other things of which only they have the secret. Men wear bags too, afterall. The bum bag and the man bag! They are easy for men to wear and also functional. Who is to say that only women can enjoy the amazing styles of the fashion world today?

The handbag has come a long way!

For women or for men, small or large, one thing is certain: the handbag has taken its place in the fashion world for a long time. And it is likely that we will see even more advancements as the days and years go on. Look at the trends of 2021 to see! 


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