The History of Handbags: A Timeline
From ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics to today's haute carry-alls, handbags have been long regarded as symbols of social status and beauty, as well as functional carrying devices. New advances in technology and societal changes continue to affect the ever-changing world of handbags. Browse our handbag timeline to explore the handbag's passage through history.
Handbags of the Ancients
- Egyptian hieroglyphics depict males donning purse-like pouches tied about the waist.
- The Bible explicitly identifies Judas Iscariot as having worn a purse.
- Peasants in early rural societies used small bags to transport seeds.
- African priests carried beaded bags.
- Drawstring bags, used to carry money, were attached to "girdles" via a long cord fastened to the waist. This accruement was particularly significant because pockets would not be invented for several hundred years thereafter.
- Women often wore ornate drawstring bags called "hamondeys" or "tasques."
- Bags became a way of identifying one's social status. Prestige was measured in conjunction with the amount of adornment presented on one's bag.
- Medieval handbags were linked to marriage. A common wedding gift from groom to bride was a pouch decorated with embroidered love stories.
- Purses, known as "chaneries," were used for gaming or carrying food for falcons, large birds used by knights for hunting and sport.
- The Seal Bag created for the Lord Chancellor, a senior and important functionary in the government of the United Kingdom, becomes perhaps the most famous and important bag at this time.
- Ecclesiastical purses, used to hold relics or corporals, became significant.
- During the Elizabethan era, when women's skirts expanded to vast widths and men's dressing become increasingly ornate in nature, girdle pouches of the previous century were worn concealed. Women wore them beneath their expansive petticoats, and men wore leather pockets, or "bagges," inside their breeches.
- Peasants and travelers wore cloth bags diagonally across the body.
- Aristocrats began carrying "swete bagges" filled with sweet smelling material to make up for poor hygiene. Swete bagges also were stored with clothes and linens to freshen them.
- Young girls were taught embroidery as a necessary skill to make them marriageable, leading to a rise in ornately stitched handbags.
- Purses were used as gift receptacles.
- Toward the end of this century, the simple drawstring pouches of the century previous became increasingly intricate in shape and material.
- After the French Revolution, the full skirts lost favor, and a more slender, narrow, Neo-classical dress ruled. These slender shapes left no room for pockets and a greater need for handbags arose.
- The English called purses "reticules" or "indispensables," demonstrating a growing dependence on the accessory.
- Advancements in technology during the Victorian era meant a larger array of styles and fabrics were available for handbag design and production.
- Women embroidered purses with the goal of showing them off to their potential husbands. They'd spend substantial amounts of time embroidering them, marking the date and their own initials on the outside.
- Women wore chatelaines, decorative belt hooks or clasps worn at the waist with a series of chains with a bag-like receptacle suspended from it.
- The advent of the railroad and train travel in 1843 lead to a need for hand-held luggage. The term "handbag" was a consequence of this development. Luggage for train-travel was different than women's purses and pouches, which were made by dressmakers. The horse travel accessories industry turned their attention to luggage-making. Modern handbags still reference early luggage design with their pockets, fastenings, frames, locks and keys.
- The modern-iteration of the handbag comes into use, referring to leather shopping bags and briefcases which could be worn around the shoulder.
- Men carried briefcases, which included folders for the newly invented pound note that replaced the gold sovereign in 1914.
- Development of the "pochette," a type of clutch, occerus. The pochette was often decorated to represent freedom associated with youth.
- Women wore Dorothy bags, small drawstring pouches, which matched their robes, muffs and leather bags. Opera glasses and folding fans were often affixed to Dorothy bags.
- After WWI, women's restrictive corseting and superfluous layers left mainstream fashion. Women carried "pochettes," a clutch featuring geometric motifs, which they carried casually under their arms.
- Bags no longer needed to coordinate precisely a women's outfit.
- The discovery of King Tutankhamen's tomb in 1923 led to Egyptian-inspired art on purses.
- The shoulder bag, the satchel, the clasp bag and the clutch (an iteration of the pochette) came into mainstream fashion.
- Bags reflected the Art Deco movement, which emphasized abstraction and new industrial materials, such as plastic and zippers.
- With WWII, a new handbag aesthetic emerged. Smooth fluidity of the Art Deco style changed to a military, austere style. Bags became bigger, more angular and more practical, reflecting a sense of self-sufficiency.
- Metal frames, zippers and leather were in short supply. Manufactures improvised using plastic and wood for frames and synthetic fabrics, such as rayon. The drawstring bag of decades previous reappeared, this time homemade.
- As more American women entered the workface, practical, comfortable shoulder bags became de rigor.
- Post-war economic prosperity propelled handbags to icon status. Accessorizing with a coordinating handbag became a norm, unaffected by socioeconomic divides.
- Design houses emerged, including Chanel, Louis Vuitton, and Hermes.
- Small bags become symbols of femininity � a sentiment contrary to that implied by the utilitarian shoulder bags of the century before.
- With the rise of youth-centric culture, a breakdown of "appropriate" dressing occured. Dressing rules were disbanded.
- Youthful bag styles become popular, such as the long, narrow clutch and the dainty shoulder bag with long chains or then straps. These complimented the childlike miniskirt, which was trendy at the time.
- Large satchels and fabric shoulder bags came in style as a result of young peoples' travels to India.
- People shunned mass-made items; Afghan bags, patchwork and embroidery were the norm. Individual expression became essential.
- Psychedelic and "flower power" motifs bought a romantic and ethnic look.
- Women represented support for the feminist movement by donning bags with lots of buckles and zipper, suggesting a readiness and strength.
- Growing concern for health and fitness was a catalyst to the popularity and mass production of sports bags.
- Vera Bradley's classic quilted handbag garnered revenue of over $1 million in three years.
- Miuccia Prada designed a black nylon knapsack that became the first well-known unisex bag.
- HandbagHeaven.com is born.
- Handbags are made in an extensive array of styles, sizes, materials and purposes.
- Technological advances lend endless handbag material and construction opportunities.
- Handbags begin to be popular with men.