Handbags, or bags to carry our personal items in, have been around for as long as people have had things, such as money, coins, keys and books, that they needed to take from one place to another. The term handbag was not invented until the twentieth century; however, the concept has been around for as long as we have had physical items to carry. They date back as far as ancient times, such as purses and pouches that have been painted into Egyptian hieroglyphics and the Bible’s description of Judas Iscariot carrying a purse.
Handbags during medieval times could sometimes pass as a sign of sophistication and wealth. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, women would wear almoners attached to their hip on a belt or girdle. These small decorated pouches held, as the name implies, alms, and were made of embroidered materials and leftovers from wall hangings . Other purses that could be made for both men and women were hand crafted out of leather, silk, wool and linen. The material used and the decorations embroidered could determine the value of the purse and could also be decorated and used as a statement for marriage.
During the sixteenth century, dresses got much bigger, and a woman could no longer hold a purse around her waist without it getting lost in the fabric. Women wore purses under their skirts while men switched to pockets, known as bagges underneath their trousers. Purses had a simple drawstring at that time, and sometimes included sophisticated embroidery. Messengers and peasants carried larger bags, but wealthier people continued to utilize small, pretty pouches, hidden beneath their clothing.
Bags began to progress towards what we know today in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when dresses started to fit to the shape of a woman and there was no room to carry a pouch underneath their skirts. They carried their bags, known as reticules above their dresses. These purses were could be made of lace, beaded or threaded embroidery, or metallic mesh, and tied with a drawstring. The shape and level of embroidery or decoration showed the wealth of the woman’s personal or family standing.
The Victorian era brought about purses made with even more detailed decorations than before, along with ornaments and trims. Victorian bags were also worn above a woman’s dress, and could be attached to her waist or wrist by a band and elegant gold or silver brooch. Instead of settling for a standard shaped reticule, a woman put a lot of effort into what she carried during this time. Bags made with genuine silver clasps could be bought from merchants, while woman at home worked fancy embroidery into handmade bags that were threaded, beaded or decorated with bits of ribbon, glue, or velvet.
The decorated, fancy bags of previous centuries have formed a path for handbags from recent times. Today, small evening bags with sophisticated embroidery made of genuine and occasionally exotic materials are highly respected as they were a few hundred years ago. We continue to value the ways our bags are made and what they look like, just as Victorian women did. A handbag is the one item that can be carried over and over again and is worn above our clothing, for everyone to see. We find interest in a woman’s purse value because it can show her status, and also serve as a statement made by the woman about what people should expect from her.
Written by Melissa