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1920s Handbags

Updated on April 2, 2012

Handbag styles in the 1920s were greatly influenced by the Art Deco design movement that swept through that decade. Women's bags featured geometric lines, often with motifs and/or beading, fringes, tassles, sequins, embroidery and decorative clasps. Design inspiration was taken from Ancient Egypt, the Aztecs and the Far East and melded with modernism. Art deco colours tended to be earthy and dramatic - black, cream, green, red, and orange.

Interestingly, the term 'handbag' didn't appear until the 20th century and was initially applied to describe a type of men's satchel. In the 19th century, before the modern ladies handbag came into vogue, women used to carry a small drawstring bag known as a reticule or a chatelain attached to a belt and before that they kept their belongings in large pockets hidden beneath their skirts and accessed via a slit.

Women of the 1920s. Note the small sized handbags
Women of the 1920s. Note the small sized handbags

Jazz Age Flappers

Accessories in general were popular in the vibrant, Jazz Age 1920s and handbags were another way to display the stylistic designs of the era.

Evening bags were small and elegant but often very decorative and complimented sleeveless dresses, layers of beads or pearls and elaborate scarves, headdresses and hair accessories. Usually they were lined in soft suede, satin or silk and had compartments for ladies fripperies (hankies, lipsticks, compacts etc).

Day wear bags too, tended to be smaller rather than larger and were made from leather, metal, velvet and silk. In those days handbag designs were more concerned with appearance than practicality and the big, cavernous, multi pocketed bags with wide shoulder straps around weren't used by 1920s women.

That decade also saw the emergence of the strapless clutch purse, a style that became popular in the 20s and remained so for several decades after.

Modern costume version of a 20s style flapper handbag
Modern costume version of a 20s style flapper handbag

Wide Variety - Bags Galore

Once the popularity of the handbag became established, manufacturers went all out to produce a variety of styles and designs and mass production made them accessible and affordable to most women.

The 1920s was a very creative period for artists, designers, musicians and jewelry makers. So many things were new and exciting and there was a general optimism and energy in the air.

The Sears Roebuck advertisement at right, from the Art Deco Society of California features some of the choices of handbags and purses available in the 1920s.

Click on the Society's link below to discover the kind of hats, gloves and shoes that would been worn with 20s bags.


Erté

One of the more prominent figures of the 20s Art Deco era was the Russian-born creative force, Erté whose marvellously whimsical designs greatly influenced the styles of the era.

In the modern version of a quintessentially 1920s bag below, designer Stefano Canturi re-creates a 1920s evening bag, using one of Erté's designs for the elaborate gold clasp. Alas, at a price of $780,000 this bag is beyond the reach of most.

Erté inspired Art deco 1920s style handbag by Stefano Canturi.
Erté inspired Art deco 1920s style handbag by Stefano Canturi.

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