The PURSEology of Women in the 20th Century

Since March is National Women’s History Month, let’s take a little journey through 20th-century women’s fashion when it comes to handbags.

Our virtual walk down memory lane begins, of course, at the turn of the century.


Though fashion in clothing hadn’t yet changed much from the late 1800s, women’s increasing freedom to come and go as they pleased created a need for sturdier bags to carry items they might need for the day or evening. We might say the first decade of the 20th century gave birth to the modern handbag, as purses grew more sophisticated and were often designed for particular occasions, some with interior compartments for specific items.


In the teen years of 20th-century women’s fashion, clothing grew simpler but purses grew more complex. Many new handbag styles appeared in the early part of the decade: the Dorothy bag, a more modern version of the reticule with its drawstring top and soft material; Art Nouveau hand-tooled leather bags; small purses with wrist straps; and the mesh bag, which stayed in vogue well into the 1930s.


As the ’20s roared in, along with women’s right to vote came a woman’s right to find a bag to express her personality. By now a staple of every put-together woman’s wardrobe, the handbag took on a new life in the ’20s as fashion showpiece.

Purses came in every price point, so even the average woman could buy an array of handbags in bright modernist designs and new materials. Though options were wide open, the clutch, partly aided by the creation of Bakelite, became the “it” bag of the decade.


Life changed drastically for most in the 1930s – the Depression made smaller purchases and accessories more important in fashion as women made do with last year’s fashions. But a matching purse and shoes, plus costume jewelry and new lipstick, could add pizzazz for minimal expense. Purses made of durable Celluloid, Bakelite and Rodolac, which could be cleaned with a damp cloth, and wood-beaded bags offered style on a budget.

For women who could afford it, the Depression brought the notion of investing in one purse of superior quality and craftsmanship would last for decades.


Many women marched off to work in the early 1940s as men went to war – wearing slacks and carrying shoulder bags in many cases. Wartime rationing brought shorter skirts and repurposing of fashions, including handbags, which were repaired/restyled instead of replaced. Functionality ruled the day.

After the war, most women returned home and to more feminine styles, including a return to the sleek and elegant clutch.


The 1950s brought a return to more feminine roles, and purses reflected a certain girlishness. Styles ranged from uber-expensive designer leather to quirky Lucite in rainbows of colors. Coco Chanel’s black quilted-leather bag with gilt-chain handle in 1955, the Hermes “Kelly Bag” (named for movie star turned princess of Monaco Grace Kelly who used one in an attempt to conceal her pregnancy) in 1956, and Gucci’s bamboo-handled bag in 1957 became instant classics.

And of course purses and shoes had to match.


Though the early ’60s purse fashions largely parroted those of the ’50s, before long youth and the counter-culture affected fashion in a swinging way, and shoulder bags were back and bigger than ever.

A shoulder bag of the appropriate material – leather, velvet, shiny plastic – could be the perfect accessory for everything from micro miniskirts to pantsuits to jeans to bohemian hippie skirts.


Purses ran the gamut in the 1970s, from counter-culture, in-your-face military style bags mocking the war in Vietnam to battered, unconstructed hippie bags to the sexy metallic mesh or shiny leather bags worn on the disco dance floor.

But the large, soft-leather shoulder bag of mid-decade became “the” bag of the decade. Carried slung across the shoulder or body, with numerous pockets and zippers, these bags seemed to equip women for anything in the new age of feminism. And they’ve never really gone out of style.


In the era of dual incomes and more purchasing power for women, logo-adorned designer handbags achieved cult status, and purses began to be advertised as not only vital accessories but desirable objects in their own right. For working mothers, purses grew as large as the shoulder pads in their power suits, and whether high-quality leather or rubberized cotton, purses were packed with the essentials to get a woman through her busy, busy day.

A woman’s sanity depended on a well-packed purse.


The last decade of 20th-century women’s fashion brought some significant changes, purse-wise. For some, a backlash against the extravagant ’80s made backpacks or backpack purses a more practical option, a choice that appealed equally to grunge girls and yuppie moms. But you can’t keep a good feminine accessory down, and by mid-decade, some women spent more on a large designer bag that would last for years than on their wardrobes.

Even those who returned to smaller, softer shapes of the classic ’50s-style handbag bought upsized versions, as modern women had to accommodate their modern technology.

What’s next?

That ends our stroll through the 20th century – and who’s to say what comes next? Today’s world of handbags is a mixed bag, with something for everyone. Whatever your something is, you’re sure to find it in The Store at ESSE.

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