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Fashion Archives


A storied history of handbags, from the inside out.

By Samantha Critchell

May 8, 2005

Believe it or not, the history of the handbag goes further back than the now classic Hermès Birkin and Chanel 2.55 – though those bags certainly have a spot in any handbag hall of fame.

A purse is essentially a pouch, and pouches have been used by man (and woman, of course) for as long as human memories have been recorded. Peasants in early rural societies used bags to carry seeds; African priests carried beaded bags; a painting dated 480 B.C. that now belongs to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, England, depicts a boy holding a "purse" filled with knucklebones, which were considered to be a token of seduction.

According to "Carried Away: All About Bags" (The Vandome Press), the first incarnation of the modern accessory, the long-stringed reticule, came in the late 18th century.

In fashion, it's the little things that mean a lot, says Farid Chenoune, who put together the book and an exhibit at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. "If you take a little object like this one (a handbag), you'll put together a lot of stories of what life is, what power is, religiosity, what men's and women's relationships are – and it's all fashion, too."

But Chenoune's definition of fashion goes beyond a glossy magazine. He includes wizard's bags, doctor's bags and religious bags in his broad scope.

The similarity between an haute couture tote and a satchel belonging to an African witch, he explains, is that both bags hold a secret of some sort.

"What you put in your bag is very important to you. That makes a bag very personal, because in it you have a secret. A secret gives you some sort of power. Traditionally, for a woman, a bag holds the things you need for the day, but it's also your little beauty factory, which is very important to the identity of the woman," Chenoune says.

Men used to be the ones who'd give women their purses. Wedding purses were a traditional gift from groom to bride through the 15th century, according to "Carried Away." The bags typically were elaborately embroidered with an illustration of a love story.

In Papau New Guinea, both men and women carry large knit bilum bags. They look like nets decorated with feathers, seashells and other ornaments, Chenoune says.

"The people who wear it are not living on the seashore, they live on the mountains, so the more shells you have, the more important person you are. It means you know people on the seashore, and you have a lot of social relationships, and all your friends were willing to give shells to you," he explains. 

Of course, status bags have been taken to new heights in the designer era, with top fashion companies adorning bags with logos and other signs of luxury, such as skins and fur. A recent auction at Doyle New York featured a black crocodile Hermès Birkin, customized with a clasp and lock featuring 14 carats of pavé diamonds, that sold for $64,800.

Whereas the inside of one's bag is supposed to be personal and intimate, the outside is practically a billboard advertising one's place in the world, Chenoune observes. This became emphasized at the end of the 18th century, when women shifted to the neoclassical style of dress, he explains.

"The 'outside pocket' became the modern bag, and by 1920, it became a symbol of women's independence. It said she could go where she wanted to go, and didn't need a man because he held all the possessions," Chenoune said.

Years later, Coco Chanel created a handbag that would become the standard for a generation: the 2.55, the quilted bag with chain strap that first appeared in February 1955.

"Coco's history with handbags goes way back. She liked shoulder bags to keep hands free; she was inspired by the quilted jackets from jockeys. The 2.55 was the culmination of the work she'd done previously," says Barbara Cirkva, executive vice president of fashion at Chanel.

The bag has remained a coveted item, and current Chanel designer Karl Lagerfeld has returned it to must-have status.

"Karl has been so genius in taking the 2.55 and keeping its iconic status by reinventing it every season. He's done it in terry cloth, tweed, with sequins on it, but he keeps the most recognizable elements," Cirkva explains. Those elements include the quilting, chain and the "CC" lock.

For many consumers, a bag is the entry-level item to the luxury market.

"I think the bag has become even more important over the past two decades because women do not wear as much 'fashion.' In the 1940s, you wore the total designer look, now clothes are mixed and matched. Bags are part of the new freedom," Chenoune says. "Now you can 'do Chanel' with a bag, not dressed head to toe."

He adds: "It's also a lot cheaper for people who can pay for a small bag and not a whole outfit."