Handbags throughout History

Handbags are a woman’s best friend, you can go without a lot of things in this day and age but the one thing you don’t leave the house without is your handbag.

That may seem like a big statement but it does depend on how strict your definition of handbag is. Throughout history the term has been used to describe accessories that serve the purpose of pocket, purse, bag and larger, and if you take this broad definition then I am pretty sure there aren’t many occasions you leave the house without one.

And it is that reliance women have developed on the trusty handbag that makes it so amusing for me to have discovered through my research that the earliest handbags were used predominantly by men. In the earliest instances they were crude pouches and purses to carry flint, coins and other currency.

Handbags have been large and small, worn attached to the body or carried, above clothes and below but for as long as they have been in use they have been used as a symbol of social status, an appearance of wealth.


Each era throughout history has had its own version of the handbag though it wasn’t until the mid 19th century that the term was used.

For as long as people have needed to carry important items with them there has been a form of handbag, though some of them share more in common with a pocket.

Centuries before the invention of the pocket, in the 14th and 15th Centuries, drawstring pouches were worn attached to the girdles of both men and women by a long cord, and like modern handbags, the designs varied depending on the wearer. Being before pockets there were often other valuables attached to the girdle as well.

Women’s fashion saw some extreme changes in the Elizabethan Era. The skirts attained, what seems to me, epic proportions which meant dainty girdle bags were difficult to get a hand on when they were nestled within the endless fold of fabric. Women began to attach their pouches under their skirts where slits could be made in the seams for ease of access – sounds like the beginnings of pockets to me!

The 18th Century saw a rise to popularity of more streamlined dresses that made bulky under-bags impractical and saw the re-emergence of the purse.

Things really started to get interesting for the handbag in the 19th Century, the Victorian Era saw scientific and industrial developments that created new fabrics and styles which allowed women to better accessorise and co-ordinate their bags with their outfits.

Pockets made a triumphant return in 1840 but by this time women had become attached to their purses and so they continued to carry them and invest lots of time and care to embroider them.

Rail travel revolutionized bags, as more people travelled by train and women simply travelled more their luggage needed an overhaul as well. The luggage requirements differed greatly between horse and rail travel.

And so the term ‘handbag’ emerged to describe the handheld luggage designed for rail travel.

Many of today’s top names in designer handbags started out as luggage makers, prior to this purses and pouches were mainly made my dressmakers.

Hermes bags were founded by harness and saddle maker Thierry Hermes in 1837. Louis Vuitton introduced flat trunks, instead of rounded-top, which meant they could be easily stacked for voyages.

Modern handbags have retained luggage like qualities in their collection of pockets and methods of fastening.

Early in the 20th Century the handbag came into it’s own, becoming so much more than little luggage. They came in many shapes, sizes, styles and materials and since that time the sky is the limit. Now you can get a bag to match every outfit and technological advances have made the creation of these bags much more affordable so every woman can find something to suit her tastes and her budget.

And in the way of fashion coming full circle, bags are once more becoming popular with men. Briefcases, knapsacks and manbags – in this age there are too many things we need to keep with us for pockets to suffice.

2 thoughts on “Handbags throughout History

  1. I just love handbags and when I am off to buy a new one, it has to be a particular one that has lots and lots of hidden pockets. Trained hubby well, he knows exactly what I like now and he helps look 🙂

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