Vintage fashion is my hobby because I am fashion-conscious and try to be unique. My personal signature? Wearing vintage-inspired apparel.
The earliest women fashion handbags emerged in the mid to late 1800s, at a time when bags were more of bulky carrying cases than a fashion item. Women held reticules or small purses with just enough space to hold a few coins, a handkerchief and smelling salts.
By the last decade of the 19th century, women handbags were made to be more functional and their designs soon replaced the reticule purse. The first vintage handbags were essentially shaped like mini suitcases with sturdy handles, inner compartments, and snap closure systems. Thus, began the era when women could carry their personal stuff with some level of privacy.
And as women became more fashion-conscious, handbags became even more versatile and complex and were made to hold more items like pillboxes, rouge, smelling salts, scent, visiting cards, and coins. The handbag thus became a trendy fashion accessory by the early 20th century.
Vintage fashion enthusiasts who are passionate about vintage handbags and other fashion accessories mostly agree that handbags women carried about a century ago are perhaps some of the best ladies’ bags ever produced. Most were handmade and came with intricate embroidery details and heavy ornamentation.
Yes, modern bags and purses are fabulous, and many designs are some women’s dream but some of the styles of the first half of the twentieth century are pieces of fashion art that are still relevant to today’s fashion style.
Popular Vintage Handbags of Early to Mid-1900s
If you are not familiar with vintage handbags of the time, there are a few things to look out for. The bag’s design, and the material used to produce it. You also want to know the popular types of bags and purses women of style carried around.
So, if you are looking for vintage style handbags that are back in vogue, here are the most popular ones among vintage style enthusiasts:
- Minaudières - Small ornate (box-shaped) 1930s evening clutch bags made from luxurious materials like gold and silver.
- Drawstring purses – Popular from the Victorian and then Edwardian eras, they were small, beaded, extensively, and usually made from silk, velvet, and metal mesh.
- Beaded purses – 1920s flapper bags and purses highly decorated with beads and sequins.
- Embroidery bags – Embroidered bags were majorly handmade embroidered with floral and story patterns.
- Metal mesh bags – Art Deco 20s fashion bags that were more of fashion accessories than practical bags.
- Lucite handbags – A popular clutch handbag of the 1950s and made from clear, coloured, and patterned acrylic.
- Shoulder bags – These slung-over-the-shoulder bags were styled after the military satchels of the 1940s which men carried to the war front.
- Status handbags – Branded famous bags like the 1950s Chanel 2.55 bag made of padded and quilted leather with neutral tones. Hermes and Gucci brands fall under this category.
- Bucket bags – The 1930s bucket style bag has become quite a hit today and remains the preferred choice of fashionable women. The innovator of bucket handbags is Gaston Louis Vuitton.
- Unique-shaped handbags – In the 40s and 50s, hard-sided handbags with unusual shapes provided a stylish alternative to purses. Examples include drum, box, hexagon, barrel, and canister shaped handbags.
Women’s Handbags - 1900 - 1910
Design innovations for women’s bags started at this time in history with the term "carrying bags" used extensively to describe what we now refer to as handbags. Carrying bags were designed with functional features like compartments, clasps, and locks and unlike the bags of the Victorian era were no longer made to match women’s outfits.
Petit point handbags with scenic themes (handmade with needlework) were popular at the turn of the century. Each side of the handbag had a different story woven onto it.
1920s Vintage Handbags
This is the famous flapper era when women became even more fashion-conscious than their predecessors. Handbags, clutch bags, and purses embossed or embellished intricately with pretty beads and other ornamentation are probably the most striking handbags of the twenties. There was a wide influence of the Art Deco movement at the time, which also had a great impact on fashion and its accessories.
Some other beautiful handbags of the twenties include embroidered bags and purses, reticules, embossed hand-tooled bags, and mesh bags.
1930s Women Vintage Bags
Fun handbags (fun bags) evolved in the thirties. They were colourful and pretty and came in forms of wooden box purses or as bucket bags with decorative features. They were novel in shape and sculpture and always well-made with leather trims, hand painted areas, mirrors, beading, and crystals all set in great themes of flowers, birds or other scenic images of nature.
While daytime handbags were heavily embroidered, evening bags of the thirties were elaborately beaded, embroidered or woven in metal mesh to match the elegance of a woman’s evening wear.
The vintage-inspired handbags of today have a great feel of the designs and motifs of this era, with many designs having embroidered motifs and symbols of the time.
Vintage Fashion Quiz
Vintage Fashion Quiz [with Images] . . . So, how much of a pro are you? How much do you know about vintage fashion and its history? How much do you know about some of the people behind those great trends?
Women's Handbags of the 1940s
The Second World War brought on austere times for most of the people and its effect also impacted women’s fashion. Handbags were made mainly from wood or plastic because metals were necessary and strategic materials and were never to be wasted on frivolities. However, by the late 1940s, DuPont developed plastics, an affordable and readily available material which heralded the creation of the beautiful and popular Lucite bags and purses.
As the use of plastics became popular in the post-war era, it began to play a major part in the mid-19th century decorating and embellishing that swept the fashion and style world. Designers used creative methods to tint and colour clear Lucite bag, making manufacturers begin a fierce competition to produce stylish, chic and even outrageous designs of handbags.
Many of the styles had generous embellishing of sparkling rhinestones, came in whimsical shapes like pagodas, bird cages, and beehives, and were wildly popular with the silver screen movie stars, elites, socialites, and highly paid prostitutes. Soon, it became a trendy fashion accessory and its production skyrocketed, which in turn made them more affordable, especially when lower quality imitations become available.
60 Years of Women Fashion - 1900 to 1960s
1950s Ladies Handbags
By the 1950s, ladies’ handbags had a wide range of designs while material options became vast. From straw and raffia to suede, Bakelite, animal skin and mother-of-pearl, many of the bag designs of the fifties were exquisite and well-made, even by today's standards.
Vintage handbags of note include the Chanel quilted bag and the famous Kelly bags originally made for Grace Kelly by Hermès. The Kelly bag is a beautifully hand stitched bag made from the best quality calfskin, crocodile skin, lizard skin, or ostrich skin, and the popular Chanel handbags were quilted designs first conceived in February 1955 and used by clients and Chanel fashion enthusiasts.
The 50s brought on an obsession for the ‘logo bags’ which resulted in the production of both fake and authentic Chanel bags. With its chain-twisted sling and diamond quilted finish, its shoulder bags soon flooded the fashion market. It is one of the few vintage handbags still reproduced today. Other popular designers of vintage handbags include Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Christian Dior, Fendi, and Prada.
1960s Women's Fashion Bags
This was the period described as the swinging sixties, a fashion era when the desire for personal freedom was a new movement. The handbag was no longer a ‘branded appendage’ but rather became a matter of personal choice. By the beginning of the decade when style became personified by Jackie Kennedy, the classical handbag made with fine tailoring and high-quality workmanship became the trend with the more mature woman.
Meanwhile, with the rise of the youth culture, the rules of ‘correct’ dressing became more relaxed and designs soon took a decidedly free form, with large unstructured youthful pieces emerging, and handmade purses becoming the new haute couture. It was a time when individualism was at its peak of popularity.
Long narrow clutch bags were the earlier purse styles, then came the dainty shoulder bags with long chains (or straps), fabric shoulder bags, large satchels, patchwork Afghan bags, telephone purses, and double kiss-lock handbags. These and more began to dominate the handbags fashion scene which was in stark contrast to the 1950s women’s bag designs. Materials used include wicker, patent leather, raffia, fabric, and animal skin.
60 Years of Women's Vintage Handbags
© 2009 viryabo
Comments are Welcome
MaggieMaye on July 13, 2013:
thanks for informative article..i love vintage handbags
viryabo (author) on August 04, 2011:
Thank you HomerMCho.
HomerMCho on August 04, 2011:
Selinenak on May 31, 2011:
It's a great hubpage, and I'm still learning from it~
viryabo (author) on January 21, 2011:
Thanks mysisters, and thanks for visiting.
mysisters on January 19, 2011:
Great Hub. These vintage bags are beautiful! I love the look of the Rosette handbags.
Sue McD. on May 30, 2010:
I have recently acquired a vintage evening bag or cocktail purse, and can't find any pictures of similar items; or find out anything, really. It is cylindrical, about the size of a soda can, with petite-point inserts, a beveled mirror inside the lid, a silk cord strap, in excellent condition. The markings on the zipper tell me it was made before i945 in Nurnberg, Germany. Any ideas on where I can go to learn more about this bag?
viryabo (author) on November 10, 2009:
Hello GPage, how are you? Thanks for your visit. i have a vintage bag that i got from my mum, but the clasp is slack and i can't seem to get if fixed successfully. i still manage to use it though. You're so lucky to have a collection of vintage hand bags cos they are so rare.
GPAGE from California on November 10, 2009:
viryabo! I have an extensive collection of vintage hand bags. My favorite belonged to my grandmother....GREAT hub! Always like the pics you choose also. You have a good "eye." Best, GPAGE
viryabo (author) on November 10, 2009:
Glad you got your present keira. Now, i feel like shopping too. LOL!
Thanks for coming over my friend and enjoy your jewelled straps. I'm sure they are really pretty on you.
keira7 on November 10, 2009:
Hello my dear friend, actually I was tinking of you yesterday. I received my present from my husband and son. I was so happy. I need a new bag now. :) Quality hub again my friend. See you soon:)