Have you ever thought about the origin of the handbag and purse? Handbags are now an essential part of most women’s wardrobe and like shoes they command the high ground in terms of defining your look. Walk into a room with a Fendi or Chanel under your arm and you will be noticed no matter what else you are wearing. So where did it all begin and what is the origin of the handbag?
The Logical Origin of the Handbag
Pouches or bags are depicted in Egyptian hieroglyphs and there are many references to pouches throughout early history. But it really is common sense that there must have always been some sort of bag our pouch for us to carry our essential possessions in. We have only ever had a maximum of two hands and you can bet that we learnt very early on that if your hands are full you can’t do anything else like for example fight, hunt, farm or climb. So I think it goes without saying that ‘man’ has evolved with a bag on ‘his’ shoulder. So, whilst we are making bold assumptions lets assume that the only thing holding back the evolution of the bag was the available materials and methods of manufacture. If our predecessors had the where-with-all to make garments to keep themselves warm and protected they would have soon realised that if you take a small square of animal skin, put your stuff in it and tie the corners together you can now look after your valuables whilst on the move. They wouldn’t have called it a Hobo until the 1890’s!
OK, so having established that the handbag was limited by the available materials and methods of manufacture it is probably safe to conclude that the early pouches were lacking in functionality and other aspects (no not the available range of colours). So, continuing this downhill slide of assumptions. Someone is bound to have made their bag in a way that was better than the others. So this bag would have been a sought after item. Ah now we are getting close. So “I will make you handbag but you have to pay me in return” and it goes without saying that the best bags will command the highest price (human nature). But it will also be essential that those who have the best can be seen to have the best so that we all know who is on the top of the tree (human nature). So I want my bag to look different from theirs because I want them to know I have the best. So there are going to be are those who have it and those who want it because the others have it. Ah Fashion I think!
Fashion YES but still with a complete sensibility and practicality. During 14th, 15th,16th and 17th centuries clothing and handbags or purses were driven by a tangible need but limited by the development of materials and manufacture techniques. The quality of fabrics and leather improved and it goes again without saying that the rich had the best but importantly everyone else had to have something and therefore they either bought it or made it. The big change came in the 18th century when women’s clothing became far more delicate and removed the copious undergarments that had been used for so many years. This dropping of the underclothing, so to speak, also reduced the places where one could easily hide your pouch of essentials. A separate bag was required and it then became fashionable for ladies to carry a handbag which obviously had to match with the outfit! So the demand for coordinated handbags was created (but they weren’t called handbags until the early 1900’s). This move to a separate bag was a huge catalyst in fashion driven designer handbags.