It has taken literally hundreds of years for handbags to become widely available to ordinary people. There were of course bags for gentlemen and ladies, craftsmanship and street sellers. However, these handbags were strictly “working bags” and there was a big difference in the quality of materials and workmanship of these early handbags depending upon your social status.
By the early C17th ladies handbags had virtually disappeared, to be replaced by pockets discreetly disguised in the folds of dresses. Yet by the close of the C18th, the female silhouette had changed. Close-fitting dresses became fashionable, excluding the use of pockets. This heralded the return of the handbag; feminine style, rich in materials, always perfectly matched to dress fashion. An example of the new fashion were the “Balantile” handbags, which ladies swung to and fro, hung to knee height, and in urn, shell or floral shapes.
Notable handbags from the late C18th-early C19th were the “Alms” bag for needle and thread, but also used for jewels or souvenirs, of pure silk with finely stitched embroidery and multi-coloured beadwork. Other stylish handbags from the second half of the C19th were the small black pleated satin shell-shaped evening bags and beautifully tailored small leather travelling bags.
For ladies in the years after the First World Ward, the disappearance of corset gave them greater physical freedom and also marked a more independent attitude; narrow hats, skirts as short as possible and the handbag clasped to the arm, an indispensable companion and friend. Demand for handbags large enough to contain now indispensable items was met by a variety of models with practical handles, large zips and external pockets. Handbags became an indispensable accessory for all hours; morning, afternoon and evening. The demand for designs for different times of the day indicated that women were now allowed to leave the house without chaperon, to carry money, powder puff and comb.
Beautiful designs of the 1920s include brown pig skin envelope styles with geometric designs, embossed with brightly coloured inlaid work. The small “pochette” was becoming popular, with stunning examples of richly embroidered floral designs with multi-coloured beads.