Go to any office, coffee shop, or mall today and you will see women lugging around bags that rival the size of carry-on luggage. A peek inside might reveal a cell phone, car keys, wallet, make up, receipts, energy bars, and a whole host of other gadgets and paraphernalia that are all deemed to be an essential part of a woman’s day. 1920s handbags, purses and shopping bags held very little in them.
Handbags were just that – bags that you carried in your hand. No tote bags, backpacks, messenger bags, or anything with a shoulder strap for that matter, or at least not until the decade was almost over. A glance inside women’s 1920s handbags probably would have shown some lipstick, a small case of powder, a house key, and a few coins. That’s it. If it wasn’t for the boom in using makeup, smoking cigarettes, and young women living away from male caretakers (who footed the credit accounts with local merchants), there would be no need for a purse at all. That freed up handbags to be more about fashion than function. Daytime appointments usually called for bags made from fabric or hand tooled leather, while bags for the evening were more glitzy and were often made from beads or mesh. See pictures of 1920s purses and handbags on the pinterest board.
Types of 1920s Handbags
The clutch purse was popular and stayed that way for decades. Near the end of the ’20s, they were often made of leather, including patent, alligator, lizard, and snakeskin. Those who were really in touch with fashion wore matching gloves, which by the way were carried in their bags when not worn, not carried in their hands. Clutches could be made from many types of materials, though. Jeanne Lanvin made a beautiful beaded clutch, and those with money to burn could have even had a silk clutch encrusted with diamonds from Cartier.
Pochettes were similar to clutches, but they were smaller, shaped like an envelope and worn tucked under the arm. Pouchettes could be embroidered silks, embossed leathers, felt, linen, suede, and woven tapestry with Art Deco style designs.
Reticules functioned like a pouch with a drawstring. For daytime, they were made of fabric, but at night you might see reticules crocheted with strands of glass beads and dangling with fringe. Some reticules had a cylinder container on top that held makeup- a two in one purse! Reticules made of woven metals came in all price ranges. They were used on screen a lot, propelling their popularity throughout the decade.
When feed and flour sack bags started to be printed in pretty cotton patterns, many rural women used the material to make dresses and bags. This crafty trend really caught on after going into the frugal ’30s. Other crafty women ordered purse kits, which included the materials, beads and frames to make your own purse at home. Knitting bags was yet another homemade purse option.
Beads for decorating came in all sorts of new man made materials as well as the old stand by glass bead. Opaque, translucent, transparent, carnival glass (iridescent), and opalescent were all forms of beads. Even seed beads called Rocaille made entire ladies bags. Metal beads made of cut steal could now be chemically dyed to look like gold or silver. When mixed with brass and nickle they had even more metallic colors.
Bags made from metal mesh went back decades but found new popularity in the ’20s. They were plated with gold and silver or perhaps enameled with the popular Art Deco patterns such as Egyptian and Asian motifs. The variety of mesh bags made in the 1920s is a fascinating study for a collector. Dresden mesh was the finest of mesh bags with pearlized or enamel finishes. Armored mesh was enameled with soft pastel colors. Ring mesh was made of tiny circles linked together and sometimes colored giving the look of a watercolor painting.
Hand-tooled leather cowhide was popular, and if it seems a little western, that should be no surprise given America’s fascination with the exotic and mysterious western frontier at that time. The arts and crafts movement also contributed heavily to homemade designs of daytime bags. Leather was embossed or woven into simple 2D designs of flowers, leaves and insects. Bags were usually square with or without short wrist straps. The tops closed in a metal snap frame decorated with more carved designs.
The idea of traveling light might sound appealing, but what about the idea of having to carry your bag in your hands all the time? If you don’t like that idea, then you are not alone. None other than Coco Chanel did not like it, either. It is established that Chanel often took her designs from menswear, but this time she borrowed from the military messenger bag. Finding it more practical to sling her handbag over her shoulder, she added long thin straps to her bag, and in 1929 introduced the first handbag with shoulder straps. Leave it to Chanel to once again provide both practicality and style.
Continue on to read about 1930s handbags.
Shopping Bags and Carts
A small handbag won’t do a woman any good when she is shopping for groceries, caring books to school, going on a short trip, or an outing with a baby. Large quantity shopping needed large bags. Mid-sized shopping bags (about 12 inches) with handle or strap served well for short errands. Small compartments inside kept some cash and coin within reach. For larger errands, a travel bag similar to Victorian carpet bags or medicine bags opened up and held quite a bit. Travelers used these as luggage. The designs were rather simple and non-gender-specific. They came in all leather, upholstery and even rubber.
School children carried school bags: a leather messenger type bag with a long shoulder strap attached to a rectangular shaped bag with flap over the top. It had a few compartments inside and sometimes outside to carry lunch or smaller items. Cheaper versions were made of sturdy cotton in plain or printed patterns and trimmed in leather binding. The most poor children may have used an army surplus rucksack bag, left over form WWI. It was a canvas backpack with leather shoulder straps. Since children didn’t have much homework to do at home, the need to carry a school bag was optional and sometimes unnecessary. Girls, especially, preferred to carry their book(s) home. Teens may have used a small leather purse and carried any book too big to fit in it.
For groceries, many stores provided delivery service, a great convince for women without cars. For women in town, a shopping cart would have been preferred over a heavy leather bag.
Below — this cart is my great grandmothers woven wood shopping cart. She used it for all her errands.
1920s Reproduction Bags
There are a few designers who have made an art of reviving 1920s style handbags. They are by no means cheap, but they are utterly beautiful recreations. The first is Whiting and Davis established in 1896. They were a first producer
of metal mesh bags and now they have brought back some of the original designs. While many vintage mesh handbags have lost their colors over time, these new bags are meant to last for many more centuries.
The other designer is Mary Frances. She has several bags which are reproductions of 1920s beaded bags, but most of her designs are just inspired by the ’20s techniques. She has a great sense of humor and whimsy which are evident in her small purses. Many are truly elegant works of art.
I am so glad both of these designers are taking the lost art of the pretty handbag and giving it a new place in today’s world.