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Designer Handbags History

Silhouette, or the overall shape of what a woman wears is the most significant aspect of the history of fashion, as what changes most when fashion changes is the overall profile, from the wittiest hat, the softest pashmina shawl to the latest must-have designer handbag.

“You can define a young girl, a woman, or a lady by the handbag she’s carrying. A girl will grab a bag and pack everything into it. It becomes a zip code of its own. A woman will also carry a bag. She doesn’t care what size it is. She’ll wear her daytime shoulder bag with an evening dress. Then there’s the lady. She changes her bag with her outfit. It has a handle, which she holds in her hand. She understands the total silhouette she creates, and the role her handbag plays in that. She doesn’t wear a lumpy bookbag, or carry a bulky piece of luggage.”

Sonya Livingston
Director, Saks Fifth Avenue Club

Couturiers and designers have always been introducing a new style at a time the world was ready for it. Most of these new looks couldn’t have taken off without fashion accessories to give them a boost. Bags are hot. From designer bags to replica designer handbag or knockoff handbag, handbags dominate fashion. If you consider today’s leading fashion companies, “what hits you like a brick is that it’s bags, not clothes, that are the key to their success.” Observes Mimi Spencer of Vogue. As clothing fashion is becoming increasingly minimal, accessories like handbags have taken on greater importance.

There are different categories of handbags. Women tend to carry so much in their bags. Practical bags tend to accommodate all a woman wants to carry with her. As Carrie Donovan says, “For many women the tote bag is an office away from the desk, a portable dressing table, a locker room lunch-pail, library, shopping cart, travel bag, or an amalgam of all these.” This type of handbags fit in to the category of practical bags. Designers such as Prada, Bally, Moschino, Lambertson Truex, Salvatore Ferragamo, Tod’s Bottega Veneta are among many that have designed practical or tote handbags.

Then we have precious little evening bags that have just enough room for keys, a lipstick and money. Glamorous evening bags are crafted of precious material and distinctive details. They hold only what is essential for an evening on the town. Fashion designers such as Swarovski, Isabella Fiore, Laura B. Chanel, Dolce & Gabbana, Judith Leiber’s, and Jamin Puech have designed unique evening designer handbags. Precious bags are used more and more during the day, rather than just for evenings, to individualize the modern fashion.

Status handbags are objects to which a set of unspoken but powerful associations is attached, such as Benz automobile or the Hermes bag. Hermes, Luis Vuitton, Chanel, Gucci, Karl Lagerfeld, and Christian Dior are among many designers that make these types of bags.

Luxury handbags signify more than extravagant and expensive. They represent indulgence beyond what is necessary for a reasonable standard of life. “There is obviously considerable overlap between the status bag and the luxury bag, says Laura Bortolami, since almost all status bags are made of luxurious materials that are artfully handcrafted. But whereas the significance of the status bag centers on its name or logo, a luxury bag is usually valued because of what it is made of , for its intrinsic value.”

Utility bags are designed to hug the body as an extension of clothing. Backpacks, waist packs, belt bags, fanny packs, hip bags, vest bags, body pouches and arm packs are among utility bags. Utility style bags can be found among the collection of famous designers such as Dolce Gabbana, Celine, Prada, DKNY, Tod’s, Miu Miu, and Georgio Armani.

Here is a brief history of how handbags have evolved throughout the years:

  • Up until the 18th century, women kept their accessories hanging on chatelaines from the waist of their skirts or hidden in pockets underneath their skirts.

  • The 19th century brought the expensive, pretty and intricate handbags – those handstitched with tiny beads and often set on silver clasps and chains.

  • Celluloid bags came into fashion in the 1920s featuring daring detail like mother or pearl, enamel and lipstick holders, compacts and mirrors that were discreetly designed to go inside.

  • 1930s/1940s saw clutch handbags developed.

  • Between 1940s and 1950s handbags became quite innovative an d extravagant made of all types of materials and crafted of frivolous extras all over the outside of the bag.

  • The 1950s Princess Grace Kelly appeared on the cover of Life with Hermes bag “petit sac haut a courroies” which meant little bag with straps. She loved Hermes handbags so much that she turned them into a status symbol. Consequently, the classic black square purse took on the name “Kelly” bag. A vintage Hermes bag can sell at auction for about $10,000.

  • 1960s women saw genuine reptile and silk handbags. This era designers such as Givenchy, Chanel, and Pucci frequently mark period fashions.

  • Vivid color and bold forms were the innovation brought to the handbags in the 70s.

  • 1980s the Hermes bag introduced the “Birkin” handbag after Jane Birkin spoke to the marketing director of Hermes complaining about the “Kelly” bag for its difficulty to open. In the late 80s fashion designers opted for small black nylon bags. Prada gave birth to this new fashion and by the late 90s the company grew tremendously. Now they are one of the premiere designer handbag manufacturers in the world.

  • The 1990s have seen many new inventions - designer handbags ranging from the Gucci bag with bamboo handle and the G symbol (introduced by Tom Ford) to Louis Vuitton launching the miniature backpack.

  • By summer of 2003, the Kelly and Birkin bags were still two of the most sought after handbags in the world. Many Italian, Asian and French companies have made their own version of the Kelly and Birkin bags to offer these beauties at a fraction of the price of what the original Hermes bag costs. And now everyone is seeking after the rubber version of the Hermes Birkin and Kelly bags, nicknamed Jelly Kelly’s, which are now practically very hard to get.


Valerie Steele and Laird Borrelli for the book, “Handbags, A Lexicon of Style,” History of Handbags, NFAA Accessory Web.

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