While the 1930s provided scope for exploration of the aesthetics of bags and purses, the 1940s focused on functionality and practicality.
The 1940s was the decade of make-do-and-mend, innovation and functionality. This approach has resulted in perhaps the first truly practical bags for women, of which many styles are still worn today.
The previous decade witnessed the birth of the handbag or purse as a fashion accessory within its own right. However, in the 1940s bags became essential daily items that served a duty and function on a much larger scale. Small handheld clutches were too impractical for a woman during war time. Large 1940s handbags and shoulder bags held more and were easier to carry. The plain and practical leather bag of the early 1940s grew into the vibrant synthetic statement bags of the New Look in the late 1940s. It was a unique time in purse history.
1940s Handbags And Purses – From Fashion Accessory To Necessity
Prior to WW2, women only needed to carry a few essential items about their person on a daily basis. Makeup, a coin purse, perhaps a cigarette case if so inclined. However, this all changed during WW2. Cosmetics grew larger in the 1940s and women carried more of them. A handkerchief, gloves, perfume, coin purse, key purse, and mirror were some of the items carried at all times.
Inspired by the style design from wartime uniform messenger bags, deep purses with long handles became popular. It was desirable and practical to have a bag that could be slung over a shoulder and out of the way. The bags were about 12 inches wide and mostly flat like the clutch bags of the 1930s. Leather in black or brown was preferred. These large clutch bags were renamed envelope bags that could open up with a metal frame but increasingly used zippers when metal was in short supply.
Besides the rectangular envelope bag there was the more elegant shell or scalloped shaped bag. This bag had a wide round bottom, gathered to a smaller top with or without handles. Ruching pleats echoed the shell texture and added to the elegance of the design.
The envelope bag and shell bag were the cornerstone styles of most large 1940s handbags. The wrist bag was a smaller design in the early ’40s that featured a wide single strap worn around the wrist. These little bags did not stay small for long. As the years progressed they grew to be larger, moving the strap from the wrist to the forearm. This marked a change from practicality back into pure fashion that inspired most of the 1950s designs.
1940s Purses Made With New Materials
As materials such as metal and leather were reserved for the war effort, alternatives had to be sought for fashionable, functional bags. As a result, unusual materials and fabrics became popular. Various animal skins such as buffalo, pigskin, goatskin, alligator and snakeskin became a popular choice in handbag production (as well as shoes). A make do and mend approach was adopted – not only across clothing, but also accessories.
Women could make their own purses from small pieces of fabrics. The simplest style to make was the drawstring pouch design, which also used only a fraction of material. Knitting and crochet were popular pastimes, and many bags of this era were actually crocheted. Beautiful crochet designs could be made using minimal sources – handles, lining, yarn and a fastening.
As items of clothing were re-purposed, scraps of fabric could be made into patchwork material. This would create an entirely new fabric in its own right to be used to make bags, purses and some clothing. Manufactures followed the homemade trend and began selling cheap fabric bags such as these:
In place of metal handles and fastenings, Bakelite and plastics were often used. These made not only a functional substitute, but also an attractive (and today – highly collectible) design.
A craze for woven plastic purses swept the nation in the late ’40s. Popular styles were rectangular clutches and fan shapes either with straps or in clutch form. The bags were made from plastic that was woven to look like a crocheted material (the fan shaped bags weren’t gathered for the plastic versions). They could come in any number of bright colors and sizes.
Other common bag styles made of plastic or synthetic fabrics were made to look like patent leather, textured reptile skins and suede. Plastic made it possible for bags to come in lighter and brighter colors such as white for summer. Red, green and yellow bags were especially popular in the late 1940s. They also could be created in new, stiff shapes such as the circular vanity bag or square box bag.
1940s Evening Bags & Purses
1940s evening bags closely resembled these shoulder bags, except they were smaller and made of different materials. Small evening purses were made of satin, silky rayon or rayon velvet. Sparkling brocade and black felt with a glint clasp were also common evening purse designs. The strap would be short and colors would be more varied for evening bags, matching or coordinating with the dress and shoes. The no strap clutch bag continued to be perfect for evening wear as well as the black silk pouchette with wrist straps.
There was a brief fad in 1943 Britain for wearing Victorian to 1920s era beaded bags carried or hung from a belt. Both genuine Victorian bags were reused as well as newer reproduction bags.
While utilitarian styles were key during this decade, many bags retained an attractive appeal. As previously discussed, bags with a Bakelite handle may be carried for a formal occasion, or with evening wear.
1940s evening bags were smaller than their daytime counterparts. They were usually round or square in shape, influenced by make-up bags and vanity cases. The clutch bag was a dress up favorite as well as short handle purses.
Whilst surface decoration may be scant in daytime bags, evening styles retained a decorative appeal. Beads were difficult to come by, however sequins were a perfectly adequate substitute. Evening bags would feature decorative pleating, sequins, and embroidery.
WW2 Bags For Gas Masks
In 1938, gas masks were distributed in Britain, anticipating the onset of WW2. However, many citizens were somewhat lax in ensuring they carried their gas mask. By late 1939 after war had been declared, stores were producing specialist gas mask handbags – which encouraged the public to always keep their gas mask with them.
In wartime Britain, it was strongly advised for gas masks to be carried at all times. Rather than using the standard box made of cardboard to contain and carry the gas mask, women began utilizing stylish large handbags in which to hold their gas mask. As mentioned previously, department stores realized the appeal of the handbag one may use to carry their gas mask, and so produced designs of oil cloth and leather substitutes.
We can see from this illustration (right) which appeared in a 1940 edition of Nouveaute magazine an example of a bag made to accommodate a gas mask.
The caption that accompanied the picture read: ‘This bag will allow us to carry away easily and never to forget our gas mask, of which we must – regularly and prudently – always be equipped.’
For more information on gas mask handbags, see this article by the Imperial War Museum.
1940s Bag Styles Today
One of the key factors of bags of the 1940s, was the inclusion of shoulder straps. While bags from the 1910s onwards may have included short handles, bags were not generally carried on the shoulders until the 1940s. As women needed to carry more items in their bags, the streamlined clutch bag of the 1920s and 1930s gave way to the more functional designs of the war years.
1940s day bag styles included the popular satchel or messenger bag. This bag was rather masculine in appearance, yet with its multiple compartments allowed ample room for containing various items. The long straps hung over the shoulder or across the body. They went out of fashion after the war except in country settings where they remained useful for a full day’s errands.
Backpacks and rucksacks were also worn, and were particularly useful if riding a bicycle. The key feature of many day bag styles of this era was the ability to be able to wear the bag on the body, leaving the hands and arms free to carry out various tasks.
The messenger bag and suitcase bag has returned to mainstream fashion, making the choices plentiful for vintage 1940s inspired looks.
Besides trendy purse shops, thrift or charity shops are an ideal place to find 1940s style purses. Many cheap plastic or faux leather bags from the ’80s and ’90s look similar to the ’40s style. The three in the picture on the left are purses Debbie picked up at a local thrift store.
Most modern evening purses work well for ’40s looks too. They hardly ever go out of style. In summer, large straw bags or canvas totes look vintage enough for a trip to the seaside.
Key Styles And Features Of 1940s Handbags And Purses
- Structured styles
- Shoulder straps
- Make do and mend – crocheted bags, handmade fabric bags
- Leather substitutes – animal skins, canvas cloth, fabrics, woven straws
- Evening styles were usually based on vanity cases – round or square in shape
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