History of Bags and Purses

The former Amsterdam Museum of Bags and Purses (Tassenmuseum Hendrikje) displayed the history of bags and purses from the 1500s onward. Bags and purses have always been useful accessories for both men and women. In bygone days, garments didn’t have inner pockets, so one needed a bag to carry one’s personal belongings. Paintings, prints and drawings provide a good picture of the appearance of bags and purses in past centuries.

The items that the Amsterdam Museum of Bags and Purses used to have on display and which are now part of the Ivo Collection, represent the many different versions of bags and purses.

1400-1600s: Bags Hanging From the Girdle

Since earliest times both men and women carried their personal belongings in bags. They wore these bags hanging from their belts or girdles. Men’s bags were generally made from leather which was sometimes embroidered, and some had ornamental metal clasps. They used them to carry coins and personal effects such as letters and documents. Over the course of the 17th century the men’s bag went out of use with the introduction of inner pockets in men’s clothing.

Women also wore their bags and purses hanging from their girdles. The more refined purses were made of cloth or leather and were often beaded or embroidered. The fancy ones were worked with gold and silver thread.

During this period bags and purses could have other uses as well. There were bridal purses, sweet bags, gaming purses, document cases and alms bags. Alms bags came in leather or textile, the more  precious pieces were made of silk, velvet, damask, enamel, glass beads or embroidered in gold or silver thread.

Sometimes bags were nothing more than luxury gift wrappings. Examples of these special bags in the collection of the former Museum of Bags and Purses are the so-called ‘sweetbags’. They were filled with money or fragrant flowers and often offered to the king.

1700s: Chatelaines and Thigh Pockets

In the 1700s it was fashionable for women to carry their personal belongings on a chatelaine. This is a hook with several chains suspended from it. Each chain would carry one of the woman’s personal accessories such as keys, a sewing case and a scent bottle. The name chatelaine arose in the early 1800s. Its derivation is from the French word for mistress of the château or castle. Because of the precious materials they were made of, the chatelaine was a status-defining ornament as well as a practical accessory. Over the course of the centuries, the accessories hanging from them were constantly changing, but not until the early 20th century did the handbag finally replace the chatelaine.

By the 1600s and continuing throughout the 18th and early 19th centuries, women’s clothing was so voluminous that one or two loose pockets could easily be concealed under the skirts. These so-called thigh pockets came mostly as a pair, one dangling from each hip, and they remained popular until well into the 19th century. The pockets were made of cloth and often finely embroidered.

Apart from these everyday bags a range of other bags and purses existed. They were quite often made from all kinds of exclusive materials such as enamel and aloe fibers. In addition, a series of purses and other fashion accessories like shoes and cases to carry letters were made of sable beads. These beads are as small as grains of sand and strung on a silk thread.

1800s: Industrial Revolution – New Times, New Bags

Partly because of Pompeii’s discovery, everything related to the ancient Greeks and Romans became popular by the end of the 18th century. This influenced 19th century fashion. Grecian and Roman style dresses were made of thinner fabrics in plain designs with higher waists, thus rendering it impossible to carry personal belongings at the waist underneath. The solution was the creation of the reticule, an early handbag with a drawstring closure to be carried over the arm with a cord or chain.

Simultaneously, the mid-18th century Industrial Revolution which began in Britain led to new manufacturing processes and materials such as papier mâché, steel and iron. These developments resulted in an abundance of different purse designs, shapes and materials. A good example is the papier-mâché bag in the shape of a Greek vase with a frame and decoration of polished steel.

Another fashion craze between 1813 and 1850 was the use of fine filigreed iron, so-called Fer de Berlin (Berlin iron), for bags and jewellery. The wealth of bags in unusual shapes and materials are veritable examples of this new age.

The 19th century invention of the steam locomotive made rail journeys popular. Instead of traveling with huge trunks, people traveled with hand luggage that evolved into the use of the modern handbag. Ever since the bag was no longer just for travel, bags became fashionable accessories for shopping and paying social visits. In keeping with its new role it was given a new name – the handbag. By the early 20th century the handbag replaced the once popular and practical loose thigh pockets and chatelaines.

1900-1950: a Different Bag for Each Time of the Day 

In the 20th century the handbag became a permanent fashion item. Influenced by rapid changes in art, socioeconomic trends, fashion, technology and mobility, but especially by women’s liberation, women’s handbags experienced a mushroom growth. Due to women’s increasing participation in the workforce, more practical and less whimsical bags were in demand. Leather briefcases appeared for work, whereas handy strolling bags and bags for paying visits in leather, mesh, beads or plastic were worn during the day. At night women would carry elegantly shimmering small bags, vanity cases or minaudières. There were even special opera bags with compartments for opera glasses for the theater.

Women never had a greater choice in bags than during this first half of the 20th century. Not only were there bags for each time of the day, there was also a large variety in decoration and materials. Thus, textile bags, sometimes embroidered in minute petit point with no fewer than 421 stitches per square centimeter, bags made in mesh, or from glass or polished steel beads were all the rage. The frames, decoration and materials of bags were in keeping with the styles of the time, such as Art Nouveau, Art Deco and modernism. Influenced by Art Deco’s clean lines, modern materials like aluminum and chrome, geometric forms and bright primary colors were all in vogue in the 1920s.

Along with the handbag the envelope bag or pochette, now called a clutch, was the most popular bag of the1920s and 1930s. Nowadays the clutch is mainly favored as a graceful evening bag.

1950-2000: Practical Shoulder Bags

In the second half of the 20th century the practical shoulder bag became quite the thing. A major turning point were the shoulder bags Italian fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli created in the 1930s. With their functional and military feel, they were especially popular during the Second World War. When Dior introduced his postwar collection in 1947, soon dubbed the ‘New Look’, the shoulder bag became fashionable as a more elegant bag.

Its definitive breakthrough came in the1960s, when a young generation of fashion designers such as Mary Quant, Pierre Cardin, Paco Rabanne, Courrèges and Yves Saint Laurent were inspired by the youth culture. The young and casual fashion of the 1960s required a practical and young-looking bag – the shoulder bag again. The Chanel bag, with its iconic padding and gold chain, is the most renowned example of a shoulder bag. Its official name is the ‘2.55’, for the date of its launch in February 1955.

Nowadays, the shoulder bag has evolved into a fashion accessory for the practical woman. Thanks to its long strap it can be slung over the shoulder. Sometimes it is worn diagonally across the chest, leaving the woman’s hands free for her busy, hectic lifestyle.

2000s: Brand Names

In recent decades, well-known labels and fashion designers like Chanel, Dior, Versace and Dolce & Gabanna as well as renowned bag brands such as Hermès, Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Bottega Veneta, Charles Jourdan and Prada have influenced bag fashions.

Unlike previous centuries, when bag fashion evolved at a much slower pace and the same style was in use for years, today’s purse is a fashion statement changing with each season and dominated by brand names. During the 1990s and 2000s bags, shoes, sunglasses and perfumes became the major sources of income for fashion houses and the best way of advertising and strengthening their brand. Each season every label hopes to produce the IT-bag – the bag  worn by every film star, singer and supermodel and thus the ‘must have’ for the masses.