The History of the Handbag
Women’s status in society, fashion trends, technology and the political climate all played a prominent role in the development of the handbag. From the conception in the early 19th century, the handbag not only had a functional use, but was also thought to complete a woman’s outfit.
Originally everyday essentials for both men and women were carried in pockets that were pinned or sewn into undergarments. Evolving fashion and daily needs required some change and the reticule was created. This is a bag similar to the pear shaped pocket with a drawstring closure that would also be used as the handle to carry the bag with.
The “canvas” of the reticule was used to showcase a woman’s skills in needlework. She would spend hours and days creating this bag, and often these were given as gifts to her friends. Eventually handbags could be purchased from merchants. These bags would have been made by independent seamstresses, or by other talented women using the proceeds to help support her family.
From the reticule came such styles of bag as: the almoner or coin purse: originally held alms, money for those in need. The ponchet/envelope/clutch actually held important legal documents such as birth or traveling papers. The purse/pocket book/ handbag/shoulder bag all have a handle and can be carried, worn over the wrist or over the shoulder. The chatelaine, was adapted from the 14th century belt that had chains attached to it. Vital necessities such as fans, keys etc hung from this, and eventually small coin purses.
Every woman would agree that this accessory is one of the most important necessities to her wardrobe. Every one of us owns a variety of bags, such as a functional bag, a casual bag and a “special evening bag”. A woman’s personal realm is defined within her bag, the contents to which are a curiosity and a mystery that is guarded by the bag itself.
For ideas and inspiration
see my Purses and Patterns. For further reading on handbags I have written a series of articles for the November/December 2007 PieceWork Magazine, on my collection of vintage embroidered handbags, I also created a project for this issue entitled La Vie En Rose.