Handbags have reached iconic status - we have a handbag for every occassion, and our ultimate (handbag) goal is to own a designer make. We cannot manage without them - where would we keep our basic essentials? - Make up, tissues, diary, purse, keys, mirror, mints, mobile, pen - the list is endless. And the bigger the bag the more essentials we seem to need. I love my dark green Francesca Biasa bag - it holds so much, but unfortunately I can never find the items I want - it's like a bottomless pit. I suppose I need to add a torch to my list. On the other end of the scale, my cute gem encrusted oval evening bag ( a bargain from a recent trip to India) holds practically nothing - it just sparkles and makes me feel good. I love it so much, I won't let it leave my side so when dancing it is not left at the table or danced around on the dance floor ( a form of handbag worship if ever there was one), it is dangly daintily off my wrist whilst catching and pulling the threads in my silk dress - a small price to pay I say.
I digress, let's get back to the history of the handbag:
It all started in Ancient Egypt where the men were the first to use handbags in the form of a pouch tied around the waist ( I suppose they did need both hands free for pushing those heavy stones when building pyramids).
In Medieval Europe, these pouches where used by both men and women and became a status symbol. the richness of the embroidery and quality of the leather used revealed how wealthy the owner was. Was this the start of designer handbags??
In late 18th Century France, the ladies handbag proper began under the name of 'reticule'. Instead of wearing a pouch around the waist or hidden under their numerous skirts, fashionable ladies started to carry their handbags so as not to ruin the look of their new style empire line clothes. Early reticules were delicate small drawstring purses usually made of net with beading or brocade. The name derives from the word 'ridicule' as the earlier bags were ridiculed as strange. it is reputed that the Empress Josephine was the first to carry a reticule - making her the first celebrity to influence handbag designs.
Louis Vuitton opened his first shop in Paris in 1854 selling luggage, but it wasn't until 1959 when the monogrammed handbag appeared. This LV logo has become the most copied in the designer fake handbag market.
The term 'handbag' started to be used in the early 1900s to describe hand held luggage carried by men. Designers then began to make smaller versions for women as women became more independent and so did not rely on men or servants to carry items for them. Upper class women still preferred small decorative bags rather then the practical larger ones as they had chaffeurs, carried little money and had butlers so house keys were unnecessary.
Most evening bags before the 1940's were clutch bags until Coco Chanel designed the Chanel 2.5 with its chain strap in 1955 (so much better to handle your champagne and canapes). The idea of the padded quilt design was inspired by jockey's padded jackets due to Coco's love of horses.
The first 'it' bag was the Hermes Kelly bag renamed in the 1950's after being made famous by Princess Grace of Monaco (formerly the actress Grace Kelly for anyone not in to old movies) who apparently used it to cover her tummy whilst pregnant. This was followed by the Hermes Birkin bag which was designed for the actress Jane Birkin in 1981 who claimed her Kelly bag was impractical for everyday use. Later she would claim the weight of her Birkin bag did not help her tendonitis.
Jackie Kennedy increased sales of Gucci handbags when photographed wearing their shoulder bag - later to be renamed Jackie O. (Both Jackie and the bag).
Lady Diana's preffered designer bag was Dior. In 1995 she was sent a new Dior model as a gift by Mrs Chirac and Dior promptly gave this new model the name Lady Dior in her honour.
Ferragamo was Margaret Thatcher's favourite designer for bags. Her black Ferragamo handbag purchased in the 1980's for 300 attracted a bid of 190,000 at a charity auction in 2000. Just shows the old ones are the best.
The Fendi baguette became the 'it' bag of the 1990's and was the signature handbag of Carrie Bradshaw in 'Sex and the City'.
The Balenciaga Lariat was one of the first 'it' bags to have a waiting list (launched in 2001).
We can see handbags have always been a fashion statement, but now there are more choices and they play an important part in the style image we want to portray. They can make or break a look. A large handbag can make us look smaller in size or height; a red or mustard bag can inject a splash of colour in to your otherwise black dominated wardrobe; jeans and t-shirts are transformed in to shabby chic when worn with a designer bag; and basic staples are instantly updated when this season trends are displayed through a bag.
With a bag you do not have to worry: will it fit, is it too young for me, did I wear that the last time I saw them, hope no one else shows up with the same bag - you can just enjoy it. And unlike shoes (that's another story) they age well.
Karen Grace - Personal Shopper & Image Consultant for frumpy to funky.