A History of the Handbag

Wholesale handbags

Despite a struggling economy, our country’s handbag (and luggage) industry continues growing at a rate of approximately 1.2% each year, generating between $8 and $9 billion dollars. Handbag styles have evolved for centuries, as you can see with this fun, handy stroll through handbag history.
…in ancient times

  • Hieroglyphics tell us that Egyptian males wore the first “fanny packs” around their waists.
  • Priests in African culture carried bags made with beads.
  • Early rural peasants used small pouches to transport their seeds.
  • Judas Iscariot wore a purse, as documented in biblical stories.
    …in the 1400’s

  • Handbags become an integral part of marriage rites, wherein grooms would give their bride a pouch decorated with love stories in the embroidery.
  • Purses were often utilized as part of various hunting practices.
  • Something called a “Seal Bag” was likely the most famous bag from this period, as it was made for the Lord Chancellor, a facet of the U.K. government.
    …in the 1500’s

  • Travelers and peasants wore bags made from cloth diagonally across the chest.
  • Wealthy folks started carrying bags stuffed with various sweet smelling particles (“swete bagges”) to mask poor hygiene issues.
  • In Elizabethan times, dressing styles became exaggerated and elaborate, which led to the use of “girdle pouches” for women and “leather pockets” which men wore inside their breeches.
    …in the 1600’s

  • Bags and purses became a more elaborate part of gift-giving.
  • Embroidery became an expected skill for women to have in order to marry.
  • Drawstring pouches continue to evolve, leading to more interesting shapes and designs.
    …in the 1700’s

  • Brits adopt the terms “indispensables” and “reticules” for personal bags, which illustrates the growing notion of the accessory as a necessity.
  • Fashion shifts following the French Revolution led to less ornate, more slender clothing designs; use of handbags rises as hidden pouches become unmanageable.
    …in the 1800’s

  • Technological advancements meant a greater assortment of fabrics and styles for handbag designs.
  • Embroidery continues to play a strong role in marriage unions, and women were know to put substantial amounts of energy into making purses to show potential suitors.
  • Chatelaines came into vogue – decorative clasps with multiple chains that hold a small bag at the waist.
  • Railroad travel began in the 1840’s, which presented a need for hand-held luggage and resulted in the term “handbag.” While purses and pouches were still largely made by dressmakers, luggage and related travel accessories signaled the development of a whole new industry.
    …in the early 1900’s

  • Our modern conception of the handbag comes into focus with the advent of leather bags and pouches hung from the shoulder.
  • Men began carrying briefcases, which contained compartments for the new paper money.
  • “Dorothy Bags” with drawstrings and “pouchette” clutches come into fashion, followed by satchels and clasp bags into the 1930’s.
    …in Mid-Century

  • New aesthetics surfaced to reflect practicality and self-sufficiency.
  • Reliance grew on plastics, wood, and synthetic fabrics like rayon due to a dwindled supply of natural metals
  • Celebrated designers began emerging and smaller bags came to symbolize femininity.
  • By the 1960’s, fashion rules were abandoned and ethnicity was embraced, leading to unusual combinations of color, shapes, materials and patterns.
    …in late 1900’s

  • Women’s bags with many buckles, compartments and zippers implied a new-found readiness to handle busier lives.
  • Sports bags enter the growing market of handbag styles.
  • Handbag and purse designs continue to mutate and evolve to reflect trends in our culture.
    One thing that’s impacted the handbag market negatively is the rise of cheap wholesale designer bags that are actually knockoffs. Handbag styles have evolved into status symbols, which has spawned the knockoff market. But buyer beware: most true handbag enthusiasts can tell a fake just by looking at the stitching.

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