The evolution of handbags has been phenomenal. From Chanel 2.55 to Hermès Birkin and Lady Dior, hop on the fashion train to find out the history behind every iconic bag and know how they have changed through the decades.
Purses, clutches, totes, baguettes… Handbags are truly the most used accessory since the early times. It is not just a fashion statement but also a symbol of class and power. Here’s a glance at how the sac à main has evolved with time.
What Led to the Evolution of Handbags?
The history of handbags dates back to as early as the 16th century. However, people started using it as an accessory in the 1900s. The first-ever bag designed was used to store coins. It was considered a status symbol and was used only by the elites. Surprisingly, men were the first to sport a purse. However, the introduction of pockets in the men’s garments gave birth to bigger-sized bags, messenger bags (travel bags) which were then used to store bulkier necessities. And now we get to see a lot more variety.
This piece of accessory has truly undergone a commendable change. Read on to find out what was trending in every decade.
The 1920s: Flapper Girl Aesthetics: Glitter n Glam!
This decade is surely a lot back in history but does that make its fashion irrelevant? Nope. Bags in the 20s were not just literally a sack to be carried around. They had become so much more than that. Most women were still housewives and did not need much to carry around. They usually carried compact and fancy bags to special events like weddings and dates. The fashion industry in the 1920s was dominated by glitter, shimmer, and sparkle. And so were the bags.
Mesh purses were popular. They were small in size with shell and fan silhouettes. The metallic tones and heavy embroidery (beaded sequins or pearls) of the clutches made them not just an arm candy but also an eye candy. Two types of handles were repeated: circular or semi-circular metal handles and long thin chains.
The era also saw the emergence of designer bags. The most famous one was designed by Coco Chanel in 1929, which came with straps. Straps were not common back then so the bag got all the attention it deserved.
The 1930s: The Golden Age of Hollywood
Handbags had started to become a common accessory in the previous decade. Evening bags (now called clutches) were born as a result of old Hollywood glamour to go along with the beautiful evening gowns. Obviously, no one would like to carry a bag on their shoulders while wearing a gown so the place of the bags was limited to the hands of women. Black, white and tan were the classic hues. Lighter colors were avoided. The widely used materials were leather, crochet, and animal skin.
The bags were small and had neat, simple silhouettes. This was because bags were seen as masculine earlier and now they had to evolve into something different. Most clutches were customized to match with the gloves or the outfits. By the end of the decade, handles were introduced to free the hands and swing the bag around. The classic Louis Vuitton bags (Keepall and Speedy) were made available to the general public. The 30s were an exemplary addition to the evolution of handbags.
The 1940s: The War Years
The theme of 1940s fashion was military. World War II had definitely taken a toll on fashion. Fashion houses were closed and there was a scarcity in the fabrics and materials available for the construction of clothing. However, the evolution of handbags did not come to a halt. It was then that many manmade fabrics were launched. Women also began to explore their creative side and came up with beautiful crochet and knitted bags.
Due to less availability of materials to be experimental for making handbags, practicality took precedence. Women moved on from fancy to necessity. The main focus was on longevity. As men were away fighting at wars, big leather bags with long handles were made to carry around all the essential items. In addition to that, envelope bags and scallop bags were the prominent styles.
The 1950s: Oh! So Elegant
Grace Kelly? Audrey Hepburn? Elizabeth Taylor? Do these names remind you of something? Elegance! The 50s was the era of exciting classic timeless fashion. Unusual bag shapes replaced the conventional ones. Hexagonal bags gained popularity and logos began to appear to denote luxury brands. Scarves were tied on the handles to uplift their look. Bags lacked embellishments and came mostly in solid colors. The post-war period saw a boost in the economy, which led to people navigating the luxury market.
The first It-bags were designed, namely the Chanel 2.55 and Hermès Kelly. Chanel 2.55 was the new version of the bag that Coco Chanel designed in 1929 and Hermès Kelly was the bag used by Grace Kelly to hide her pregnancy from the paparazzi.
Briefcase-like handbags were also in trend. It was a kind of fashion rule to have a bag that matches with the gloves and hats or the belts and sandals. However, this trend died soon. Little black purses became a style statement. Synthetic and cheaper materials were used instead of animal skin to make handbags a more affordable accessory for the masses.
The 1960s: The Power of Femininity
Ah! Two words sum up the 1960s: innovation and diversity. People appreciated bags with small handles, reptile skins, and prints were appreciated. Handbags became a show of power and status. The fashionistas went gaga over the evolution of handbags. The rise of the youth culture led to experimentation with different kinds of looks that worked well with feminine personality types. The box-shaped Louis Vuitton satchel, made up of canvas and leather, was launched. The luxurious luggage bag was often snapped with celebrities as a part of their airport look.
Geometrical, African, and tie-dye patterns became the new obsession. People embraced new materials like satin, vinyl, and brocade. One of the most prominent bags of the 60s was the Gucci Jackie bag, named after Jackie Kennedy, which bore the shape of a crescent moon but was slightly wider. It came with two straps and had a piston closure. André Courrèges’ “Space Age” themed bag was an ultra-modern addition to this era.
The 1970s: The Laid-back Bohemian Era
The hippie culture became very popular in this decade, in which people rejected the mainstream lifestyle and adopted free-spirited ways. 1970s fashion was all about the hippie vibes and imbibed creative awakening among all. Therefore, the handbags of this decade had a boho aesthetic. Fashion now had to be practical since hippies moved around a lot. Tote bags with floral prints and cross-body bags with long chains or straps were a hit. Lots of pockets and zips were also commonly spotted.
And now that we are discussing the evolution of handbags, it is impossible to not mention the French fashion icon Jane Birkin who introduced the widely famous straw basket bag. It was such an effortless way to upgrade anyone’s style and it sparked the creation of the signature Hermès Birkin bag that we see today. This impacted the evolution of handbags the most. Fun fact: It was actually used as a grocery and diaper bag owing to its big size.
On the contrary, we also saw the first appearance of Queen Elizabeth II’s favorite classy Launer bags. The black leather bag has a simple square silhouette and came with small handles. The brand became a popular choice among aristocratic women like the former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
The 1980s: High Fashion & Pop Culture
I consider the 1980s as the most fashionable decade in history because everyone went gaga with their style. From loud colors and prints to puffed shoulders and bold choices of fabrics, everything was over the top. And so was the evolution of handbags. It was all about maximalism.
Ta-da! Here comes the most famous bag ever – the iconic Birkin bag, named after actress Jane Birkin. It was just a matter of chance that Jane met the Birkin designer in flight where she complained that no bag was big enough to fit all her necessities. The French luxury brand Hermès then completely revolutionized the evolution of handbags.
The original Birkin was a black leather tote bag. What makes it extra special and worth the money is that every bag is totally handmade. It turned into a status symbol soon, and even now has a long waiting list owing to its rarity. It can also be customized with diamonds and the material of your choice. Apart from Birkin, bags with flashy colors and prints were admired.
The 1990s: Everything Minimalistic
This was the time when people were exploring their minimalist side. Hence, the handbags evolved with this and decreased in size. Fancy evening clutches came to the limelight. Not to forget how Princess Diana smartly used it to cover her cleavage while getting out of the car. This popularized the clutches as cleavage bags. These were often made up of silk and came in different lengths.
Lady Diana also brought the stylish people’s attention to a quilted leather bag by Christian Dior. It was later named the Lady Dior bag in honor of the princess and truly symbolized royalty. The story about the evolution of handbags would never be complete without the mention of this bag.
Named after the French bread, another compact shoulder bag that was also a craze in the 1990s was the Baguette bag. It was designed by Fendi and featured short straps, representing French women carrying the loaf of bread under their arms. It was available in many different textures and patterns and was featured in Sex and the City.
Furthermore, Cher Horowitz from Clueless made mini backpacks and Rachel Green from Friends made LV go trendy. Women did not need much to carry in their handbags as they were venturing out into the world of non-traditional careers, like PR, fashion buyers, and more.
The 2000s: Dressed to Chill
People now started moving on from bold fashion trends to calmer versions. Casual and sportswear were spotted on everyone. Handbags obviously had to mimic the fashion trends therefore they grew in size and weight. Mini bags went out of sight and huge bags became a cult favorite. Also, women were tired of the so-called feminine bags and wanted to show off their edgy tomboyish side.
Kate Moss publicized the casual Balenciaga Motorcycle bag, which is now known as the Classic City bag. It didn’t have the most flattering silhouette and I would not consider it as a visually appealing one either. The leather makes it look slouchier. Other great hits include the Dior’s Saddle and Gucci striped briefcase bags. These stood out as the It-girl bags and had a long waiting list for the ladies to get their hands on one.
Also, who doesn’t admire Blair Waldorf and Serena Van der Woodsen from Gossip Girl? The American TV show had a serious influence on the fashion trends of the late 2000s. While Serena sported contemporary styles like slouchy flap bags and totes, Blair had a classic sophisticated taste with structured shoulder bags, mini bags, and feminine styles. Bags were still associated with one’s social status and so we saw many versions of Chanel flap bags and Lady Diors on the show.
The 2010s: Cool Shapes? Say No More!
This decade reminds me of the unique silhouettes that designers came up with, from bucket to a watermelon slice to slim U-shaped bags. This period focused more on creating style statements than practicality, which is also reflected in the fashion trends of the 2010s. We also saw the rise of denim bags and exotic prints. The most versatile one was the bag with side handles which was a unique innovation.
Another fresh trend was the dual straps bag. The most common style was the combination of a belt strap and a chain strap. Thereby giving you the option to flaunt both and easily change your look as needed. Women now wanted to use bags as just a piece of an accessory that could go well with their outfits.
The mobile phones became the most carried items for women and men alike, which led to the creation of phone-purses and micro-bags. Also, the rise of social media, specially Instagram, in the late 2010s, gave rise to loud and “extra” fashion trends, which people wore especially for gaining popularity among their followers. So both celebs and regular women preferred novelty bags, heavy embellishments and unique materials. Chanel launched the iconic No 5 bag, shaped like a bottle of the perfume. Dolce & Gabbana’s Spring 2016 and 2017 collections featured bags shaped like drums, cameras, and more.
In 2018, Kim Kardashian’s ‘Laptop-Charger’ bag became a fest of memes. The mini black bag resembled a Chromebook charger and the handle was definitely inspired by the charger’s wire. But it was surely a moment to be inked in the history of the evolution of handbags.
The 2020s: Experimenting is Key!
Fashion has evolved so much with time and we have grown to be more accepting than ever about everyone’s unique style tastes. The craze of customized bags is peaking. Filipina celebrity artist Love Marie Escudero has popularly hand-painted many Hermès bags and luxury brands like Gucci and Fendi now have DIY bags.
Studded and fluffy pillow bags were also featured on the runway by various designer brands. The desire for a luxurious look is still very much on-trend. Some labels are also looking forward to promoting sustainability by using eco-friendly fabrics to pique the interest of fashionable environment lovers. New brands like Bottletop use upcycled materials like straw, discarded items (bottle tops in this case). The Macrame bag by Chloé, the Re-Nylon collection by Prada, mushroom leather bags by Stella McCartney are a few other examples.
Now that phones are the only necessity you need to be going out with, phone bags are becoming increasingly common. With fashion becoming more fluid, bags are not gender-specific anymore. The 2020s are going to be the decade to practically treat fashion as your canvas and use it to showcase not only your inner talents but also leave a social impact.
The Future of Bags
Handbags have really come a long way since the early 20th century. However, one thing remains the same – handbags still express the wearer’s individuality and there’s no limit to the styles we will need.
This was our listing on the evolution of handbags that people have witnessed over the period of time. Anyway, we have still got to see what bag styles would pop up in the future. Which decade’s style did you like the best? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below or by tweeting us @shilpa1ahuja.
Anjali Khakha is a Fashion Journalist at ShilpaAhuja.com. She is currently pursuing her bachelor’s in Computer Science at Women’s Christian College, Chennai, and is originally from Ranchi. Apart from writing, she enjoys cooking, painting, reading, shopping and traveling.