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The History of the Handbag

Updated on December 1, 2016
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Handbags and purses remind us that though things sometimes change their name without changing their nature, it is even more confusing when they do exactly the opposite. "We think we know what a pocket is, but the word 'pocket' was in use long before anyone had had the brilliant idea of sewing pockets into clothes. Originally a pocket was a little bag, just as a 'poke' was a big bag ('a pig in a poke'). The little bag (the pocket) was used to carry small objects that a man might want to have with him. It was usually made of leather, and attached to the girdle. It might contain a pomander, or flint and steel for making fire, or money.

In another word it was a purse, a word not in the Middle Ages confined to a receptacle only for money. Chaucer in the fourteenth century describes the leather purse worn at the girdle of the Wife of Bath, and no doubt it served her as a general handbag. Such purses or pouches hung down by thongs, which could be cut from behind - hence the term 'cutpurse' - by the clever thief, as in Bruegel's painting, the Perfidy of the World. In the fifteenth century men and women had worn them, sometimes ornamented with gold or embroidery. In the sixteenth century - as Bruegel's pictures show - they were universally worn, usually in the form of a flat bag, the mouth of which was pulled in by tasselled strings. An English inventory of 1510 speaks of 'a tawny bag with tassels of gold and strings of green silk'; and similar objects can be seen in Holbein's portraits of the courtiers of Henry VIII. Towards the end of the century women sometimes wore a purse underneath the skirt.

When breeches replaced trunk hose in the early years of the seventeenth century, it became possible to insert the pocket into the breeches themselves, but it was not until about 1670 that the new style of male dress, consisting of a skirted coat and waistcoat, inaugurated the reign of pockets. Henceforward the male pouch disappears from history. The purse, generally of netted silk, becomes quite a small object easily carried inside the pocket.

In the eighteenth century, indeed, it might have seemed that the pouch had disappeared for ever both for men and women; but shortly after the French Revolution women's clothes became so flimsy that it was impossible for them to contain a pocket, and women's pouches reappeared under the name of reticules, or, as they were sometimes called, 'ridicules'. It was not unusual to wear, under the petticoat, a pair of large pockets attached to each other by tape which tied round the waist. But this was a clumsy contrivance and fashionable ladies preferred to carry a small and elegant bag in the hand.

These were still in use in the late eighteen-thirties, but became less indispensable as skirts became more ample and were made of stiifer material. Even when dresses became somewhat tight in the eighties, the handbag still seems to have been something of a rarity; only to make a triumphant return in 1909-1910, with the advent of the hobble skirt. In such a skirt it was impossible to have any pockets, and very large handbags came into fashion, sometimes carried by absurdly long chains or strings. In the skimpy dresses of the nineteen-twenties a handbag was even more of a necessity, and it has remained in use to carry not only money and a handkerchief, but everything - lipstick, face-powder, mirror, cigarettes, lighter, keys, wallet, cheque-book, diary, letters. It seems unlikely that it can ever be dispensed with as an accessory of women's attire. Leather, and its imitations, has been the commonest material of handbags. Pigskin, snakeskin and crocodile skin make the more expensive bags. Plastic materials are becoming commoner, but generally they still imitate leather.


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