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Vintage Handbags - A History of Girl's Best Friend

Updated: Feb 1, 2020

Without a shadow of doubt, the handbag has been a girl's best friend for years. Like a pair of shoes or a dress, the handbag can transform an outfit instantly and make a real statement about the person carrying it.

For years the designer handbag has been the holy grail for any fashion conscious woman. But as we know, mass produced means only one thing – more chance of seeing someone else with the same bag! And we all hate the sinking feeling we get when that happens. So more and more of us are turning to vintage handbags for that extra special feeling and added guarantee of complete individuality.

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So where did the handbag begin? We take a look at the journey of our favourite vintage accessory...

The very first handbags were tiny pouches fashioned from leaves and animal hide. However, the first documented use of handbags was in the 14th century. Egyptian hieroglyphics depict men carrying little sacks around the waist called "pockets". These handbags were hung by thongs at the back of the girdle and were used mainly by men to carry flint or money.

By the 15th century both men and women were using handbags, which gradually became a status symbol. People would adorn their handbags with jewels or embroidery to reflect their wealth, and use expensive materials such as silk and gold. But these fragile handbags were not very practical (although if you could afford those handbags, you could afford a servant to carry your things for you!). Portraits of the most affluent and influential people of the time often depict what could be considered the first "designer handbags", prominently fastened to the dress with tasselled strings. It then became fashionable for women to wear their handbags under their skirts, and handbags literally disappeared for several decades with little development in design. Embroidery and jewelled versions were abandoned for practical, everyday materials like leather. Men also abandoned using handbags because of the development of built-in pockets in mens trousers.

It wasn't until the 19th century that handbags re-emerged. It was no longer fashionable to wear puffed skirts, and the streamlined clothes made it impractical to wear bulky handbags underneath. This led to the development of the handbags we know and love today, held in the hand and for the first time seen as a complement to the clothes. Women had different handbags for different occasions, and used them to carry perfumes, fans, smelling salts and visiting cards. These handbags were known as "reticules."

The term "handbag" actually only emerged in the 20th century, and was used to describe the luggage that men would carry. This was similar to the modern day briefcase or doctors bag. Not to be outdone, designers of women's handbags made similar versions that would suit the feminine sensibility and needs, including tiny compartments for fans, gloves and make up.

Then in the 1920's, handbags really came into their own. There was more variety of designs, materials, accents and colours. In fact, some of the most popular handbags from that period reflected Egyptian art, a tribute to the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamen.

When the Second World War led to a shortage of metal and leather, manufacturers of handbags began using plastic and wood. It was the beginning of a new era in accessory fashion. Many decades have followed where designers have explored less conventional shapes and materials.

In the 1950's certain designers gained reputation for creating bold, beautiful and elegant handbags. This signalled the emergence of important designer fashion houses: Chanel, Louis Vuitton and Hermes to name but a few. To this day, handbags carrying their labels command a premium price. There is something about handbags that captures the desire of millions of women worldwide. A designer handbag or vintage handbag is still a major status symbol in modern day society.

In fact, handbags have never been as popular as they are today. The last decade has seen a rise in popularity of the handbag to such an extent that they have replaced shoes as the number one object of desire. Today’s women realise that a handbag is no longer so much a fashion accessory as a fashion necessity and wearing the same bag day in and day out just won’t do.

There is always that woman, the one who seems to always look good, the one who can take an ordinary outfit and make it seem as if it was meant just for her, the one with that innate fashion sense. What is it that makes her outfit look so good? Chances are that she pays as much attention to her accessories as her choice of clothing. One accessory that can make the difference between ordinary and super chic is a handbag. And there is no doubt that vintage handbags are the epitome of cool in the 21st Century. Whether it be tote, hobo, duffle, field, clutch, satchel, baguette, pouch, messenger or kelly, there is always something out there to capture the imagination.

There is just something so special about owning a vintage handbag. The material, the attention to detail, and the story behind it. Who owned it? Where did it come from? Where has it been? Vintage handbags are the most exiting and accessible way to own a little piece of fashion history. So if you haven't already got one, then the question is why not?

Thanks for reading and dont forget you can visit our vintage shop based in Lancashire or shop online at for original vintage clothing, vintage dresses, vintage accessories and vintage jewellery!



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