By Simone Handbag Museum

Women and Handbags

Take a look at the changes in women's social status and the evolution of handbags according to historical backgrounds since the late 19th century

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BOULEVARD DES ITALIENS (c1909) by Xavier SagerSimone Handbag Museum

Handbags evolved in their close influential relations with social changes and historical events in each period. You can look at the changing history of handbags and estimate changes to women’s social status according to different periods. This story introduce symbolic handbags representing different periods such as dance purses during the jazz age in the 1920s and gas mask bags during the wartime in 1940.

Peonies (1897 - 1898) by Alphonse MuchaScottish National Gallery of Modern Art

Art Nouveau in the 1900s

In the early 20th century called Belle Epoque, the fields of art, culture, science, and fashion were overwhelmed by creative and passionate energy. Reacting to the traditional art of Europe, a new trend of art was born called Art Nouveau, which means “new art” and sought after new styles of creation. One of its great features is fluid curves that are associated with plant forms such as ivy vines and convey a sense of rhythm and liveliness.

EVENING BAG (1900/1909) by UnknownSimone Handbag Museum

Evening Bags

Bags created during the period shared common characteristics with the Art Nouveau trend. One good example is velvet bags with lots of round curves. They remind viewers of the shape of an inside pocket that women carried inside their petticoat dress in the 17th~early 20th century. Two common features of bags from this period are “round curves” and “iron bead ornaments.” Iron beads were in vogue in France in the early 19th century and enjoyed huge popularity as handbag ornaments until the 20th century.

EVENING BAG, Unknown, c1905-15, From the collection of: Simone Handbag Museum
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PURSE, Unknown, c1905-15, From the collection of: Simone Handbag Museum
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EVENING BAG, Unknown, 1900/1909, From the collection of: Simone Handbag Museum
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Flapper lookSimone Handbag Museum

Jazz Age in the 1920s

Following WWI, the world witnessed the jazz age characterized by richness and prosperity in 1920-1928. Both women and men tried to shake off the emptiness of war. Women were fascinated with jazz for their fast rhythms, and men enjoyed speedy automobiles. A new coinage was made called “flappers,” which refer to free, independent, and tomboyish women in this carefree atmosphere.

Flappers refused to get tied to the conventions unlike older-generation women that emphasized traditional maternity. They preferred straight box silhouettes with a flat chest and hidden waistline to feminine figures. They would smoke in an elegant pose and wear a smoking suit with loose fur trimmings and a turban under the influence of Turkish clothes to create an exotic mood. The bobbed-hairstyle was in fashion those days, reflecting women’s free and independent aspects.

VANITY DANCE PURSE (1920/1929) by UnknownSimone Handbag Museum

Vanity Dance Purses

In this social atmosphere, women had many occasions to go to a dance party. Created in this mood, dance purses were characterized by splendid tassels and stamens to highlight the bags when women were dancing. Women would hold a dance purse by the long handbag cord to dance and carry their cosmetic products such as lipsticks and cigarettes in the little space hidden in each tassel that looked like an accessory. This engineering aspect marks dance purses in a significant way.

VANITY DANCE PURSE, Unknown, 1920/1929, From the collection of: Simone Handbag Museum
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VANITY DANCE PURSE, From the collection of: Simone Handbag Museum
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Evacuation Begins (1939-09-01) by Central PressGetty Images

WWII in the 1940s

Shocked by the huge impacts of poison gas on soldiers during WWI, the British government took on extensive research to protect soldiers and civilians. By the time WWI broke out, there was a practical fear that poison gas might be used against civilians around the U.K. and Europe. In preparation of gas attacks, the British government distributed a gas mask to all civilians and asked repeated the entire nation to carry their gas masks during the war.

GAS MASK BAG (c1939) by UnknownSimone Handbag Museum

Gas Mask Bags

A gas mask came in a rectangular cardboard box with instructions written on the inside of the cover. It had an adjustable cord, as well. This bag seems to have belonged to a girl whose name was found inside. In the early phase, women did not carry this box much because it was not fashionable and reformed it to reflect their individuality. Department stores and shops of ready-made clothes would make and sell a ready-made handbag to hold women’s belongings and a gas mask.

GAS MASK BAG, Unknown, c1939, From the collection of: Simone Handbag Museum
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GAS MASK BAG, Unknown, c1939, From the collection of: Simone Handbag Museum
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GAS MASK BAG, Unknown, c1939, From the collection of: Simone Handbag Museum
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"Bar" "Bar" (spring/summer 1947) by Christian DiorThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

New Look in the 1950s

The 1950s witnessed the birth of “New Look” in a new style along with utility clothes that emphasized practicality after the end of WWII. Utility clothes featured a design that put an emphasis on practicality along with the saving of fabric. All clothes manufacturers were assigned a certain amount of fabric to make their products. It was prohibited that a manufacturer would produce 50 styles or more a year. Civilians were issued 20 coupons to accommodate their clothes needs.

BOX BAG (1954) by WILARDYSimone Handbag Museum

Box Bags

New materials were created such as plastic with the appearance of a new look. The handbag market also started to boom. Companies were in a fierce competition to show newer materials and designs. The outcome was handbags made of various materials that had not been used in handbags such as leucite, Perspex, metal, and plastic. They were subjected to criticisms for their lower practicality than their beautiful appearance.

BOX BAG, MAJESTIC, c1950–59, From the collection of: Simone Handbag Museum
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BOX BAG, RIALTO, 1950/1959, From the collection of: Simone Handbag Museum
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BOX BAG, MAJESTIC, 1950/1959, From the collection of: Simone Handbag Museum
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Space lookSimone Handbag Museum

Space Age in the 1960s

Following the satellite launch of the Soviet and the successful space flight of the U.S.A. in the 1960s, broad interest in the space had impacts on the aspects of culture. The fashion field created the “Space Look” under the influence of the space age. Based on such motifs as stars, the moon, and science fiction novels, the look was characterized by its expression of futuristic images with helmet-shaped hats and geometric lines.

HANDBAG (1968) by PIERRE CARDINSimone Handbag Museum

Pierre Cardin Handbags

A good example of Space Age’s characteristic design is the designer Pierre Cardin, who got inspirations for his futuristic and ultra-modern designs from geometric figures rather than women’s bodies. This impressive handbag made of glossy enamel leather with a big round chrome handle shows clearly his tendency toward bold geometric forms.

SHOULDER BAG, PIERRE CARDIN, c1968, From the collection of: Simone Handbag Museum
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CLUTCH, Unknown, 1960/1969, From the collection of: Simone Handbag Museum
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HANDBAG, PIERRE CARDIN, 1968, From the collection of: Simone Handbag Museum
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Andy warhol - Shot MarilynsSimone Handbag Museum

Postmodernism in the 1970s

Postmodernism that emerged in America in the 1970s had impacts on architecture, furniture, household goods, and fashion design. In fashion, postmodernism means avant-garde art with strong experimental nature to create something new by denying the old concepts and excluding the tradition. It is characterized by avant-garde designs, colors, and forms and disregard for functionality and practicality.

CLUTCHSimone Handbag Museum

Sylvia Magazine Bags

This clutch borrowed the appearance of a fashion magazine titled Sylvia Paris rather than following the shapes and colors in vogue those days, showing that its design was cutting-edge fashion in a witty way. Those days saw the fashion of magazine clutches in various shapes including The Times.

power suit 1980Simone Handbag Museum

Power Suites in the 1980s

Women advanced into society by getting a job and improved in the living standard and income in the 1980s. Masculine elements were highlighted in women’s suits, and a new suit style with emphasized shoulders called Big Look was in vogue. This style was dubbed women’s “dress for success” and loved by women throughout the 1980s.

HANDBAG (c1970–79) by COACHSimone Handbag Museum

Cashin Carry Bags

The fashion designer Bonnie Cashin joined Coach in 1962, revolutionizing handbag designs in America. She applied her modern sentiment to handbag designs and created functional bags for busy modern women. Based on the traditional briefcase for men, this bag was called “Cashin Carry bag.” It was characterized by a built-in wallet, pockets with a zip, folding bag, and layered design for stand-alone or combination uses.

MODERN GALLERYSimone Handbag Museum

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