As bags and purses had established their purpose as an essential accessory during the 1940s, the importance of their role continued to progress into the following decade. By the 1950s, it was generally accepted that women would complete their attire with a suitable handbag. Indeed, there were many social conventions dictating which purse would be the ‘correct’ one to complement particular outfits. Conventions even existed on how to hold ones handbag in conjunction with the body. This article will examine a history 1950s handbags and purses, in a continuation of our previous articles on 1930s and 1940s bags and purses.
1950s Handbag History
The language of clothes is not devoid of complexities, be they subtle or more obvious. Throughout history, clothing has been utilized as a visual tool to convey social standing, rank, occupation – and of course wealth. By the 1950s, handbags were finished with the logo or label of the denoting fashion house. This bestowed the wearer with the ability to visually convey their knowledge of fashion — and indeed their personal wealth. This may seem somewhat vulgar, but in the 1950s social standing was of the upmost importance. Economies were recovering from the effects of WWII. As such, domestic life was expected to portray the image of ultimate perfection and homey harmony.
While many women entered the workforce during WWII, 1950s attitudes towards the role women were expected to fulfill regressed. Women were encouraged to marry and become the epitome of the perfect housewife. This role not only included taking care of the home and husband, but also presenting an immaculate personal appearance. The 1950s housewife was expected to portray the image of domestic bliss – in her perfectly set hair, polished fingernails, coordinating clothing, and of course – the status handbag.
1950s Famous Handbags
Perhaps the first ‘status handbag’ was the now famous Chanel 2.55. After being in retirement for over a decade, in 1954 Chanel reopened her fashion house. In keeping with her stylish yet comfortable aesthetic, the label produced classic designs with a boxy silhouette. The 2.55 handbag was created in February 1955 (hence the 2.55 title). The bag was made of padded and quilted leather or jersey, in a handful of neutral tones. Chanel chose to incorporate her logo on the inside of the bag within the lining, although the bag was instantly recognizable as a Chanel by its design alone.
As in today’s times, a handbag could only reach a certain status due to a combination of factors. If a purse is beautifully made from the finest materials but nobody knows about it, then the purse will be unlikely to amass a great profit. However, if the purse is advertised effectively to the correct audience, it will be more likely to become a success.
In the 1950s, there was an abundance of glamorous celebrities gracing the covers of magazines, newspapers and movie theaters. In 1956, Grace Kelly was pictured holding aloft her classic Hermes bag (with speculation that she utilized it conceal her pregnancy). Thereafter, the Hermes travel bag became known as the Kelly bag.
The Belly bag was large structured leather square-ish bag, with rounded corners and wider base supported by small feet in order to preserve the leather on the bottom. It also had a thin handle strap.
Similarly, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis favored her Gucci shoulder bag, causing Gucci to rename it the ‘Jackie’ bag in the 1960s. It is often considered the birth of the hobo bag with rounded corners and a short shoulder strap held just under the armpit. She had several in solid and two tone patterns — perfectly complimenting her many fashionable clothes.
This craze for social acceptance continues to this day, with Vogue outlining some of the most coveted styles of the past 60 years in this article.
1950s Daytime Handbags
The three famous bags of the 1950s set the tone for women’s daytime handbags and purses. The 1940s required large bags to carry many personal items on a full day’s activities. 1950s women enjoyed more luxury reducing both the overall size but increasing bulk to match that of the full skirts and dresses of Dior’s New Look. They were often refereed to as grandma bags (I think, because they took the shape and stature of Victorian leather and carpet bags with large handles).
While 1940s bags and purses were plain, 1950s day bags were rich with expensive leather made of unusual animal skins. Antelope, calfskin, ostrich, gazelle, and pigskin with saddle stitching were just of few of the options. Synthetic materials were often stamped to look like textured animal skins. Additional treatments, such as Chanel’s quilting, embossed leather (aka Western purses), shiny patent, and textured fabrics, added more interest to simple rectangular shapes.
New inventions in fasteners, such as the twist lock, slide lock, briefcase lock, and a revival of the folding frame, contributed to the sophisticated yet modern aesthetic. Locks, flaps and trim were frequently made of gold or patent leather to add even more richness. Set against the primary color of the decade, black, the bags were anything but utilitarian.
1950s Fashion Bags- The Matching Game
As previously discussed, it was incredibly important for women to maintain a well put together appearance. By now, handbags and purses were very much thought of as an integral accessory with which to complete the overall ‘look’. Hats, gloves, shoes, belt, scarf, and bag were all expected to coordinate together, as individual notes brought together to form a perfectly toned melody.
Many design houses offered to make matching fabric bags out of the same clothing material. Clothing catalogs paired dresses with matching handbags and accessories to encourage women to buy an entire wardrobe. In the early years, it was considered too much to have bags match gloves and hats, only matching shoes were necessary. By the mid 1950s, that rule was replaced by the match everything aesthetic.
In early 1950s America, there was a trend for black and white crocodile skin bags. They were lined in red, often with a waterproof plastic material. In 1954, colored leather was admired with bold yellow, pink, willow green, wedgewood blue, and lilac purple replacing black. The red handbag with black trim was especially striking on the mid ’50s. The trend continued although solid black never went out of fashion. Just like a little black dress, every woman had to have a black leather purse by her side.
If black wasn’t the best choice for an outfit tobacco, cafe’o’lait and other shades of tan and brown were welcome for fall/winter fashion. White had some presence in summer as well.
While leather was the most sought after status material, cloth handbags remained a good option for the middle classes. Mohair, taffeta and cotton bags trimmed in leather could be equally as dashing. Synthetic materials made cloth purses even more affordable. It was better to own a quality fake bag than a cheap leather bag.
The home knit or crochet bag was the most budget friendly option, although not as popular as it was in the 1940s. Sewn handbags were more common with a complete line of matching dresses and accessories.
1950s Purses: New Shapes, Unique Materials
1950s handbags were not all large, structured or leather. Starting in the 1940s, unique shape bags such as a hard sided box bag and round drum bags provided an interesting alternative to ordinary purses. They were smaller and prettier, reflecting the ornate makeup compacts they carried inside. The trend for small bags of unusual shapes exploded in the mid 1950s. There was the hard and soft sided box bags, the tubular barrel bag, round canister bag, hexagon bag, and casual basket bag. They were too small for day to day life, but as a dressy accessory they were perfect.
Shape alone wasn’t enough for the modern woman. Dress purses came in a diverse range of textures and treatments. Many plastic purses were printed to feel like animal skins. White summer bags were of pearlized plastic, or, in the case of cheaper bags, bonded paper with a pearl plastic coating.
Handbag handles featured new shapes and materials. There were the popular bamboo, tortoiseshell, chain, and wood handles that came in square or hoop shapes. These hard handles often were paired with soft purses, and the opposite hard bags were paired with soft velvet, braid or rope handles.
1950s Lucite Bags
In the 1930s, designers such as Schiaparelli incorporated surrealist motifs into their designs in order to create an air of whimsy and fun. By the 1950s, this tone of whimsy was translated into handbags and purses made of seemingly impractical materials – such as Lucite.
Lucite was used during WWII in aircraft production, however, after WWII, new uses were found for this glass-like material. Handbags were produced which were completely transparent – turning the notion of secrecy and concealment on its head. Lucite could also be colored in shades of pastel pink, powder blue, oyster, and pearl.
Lucite bags could feature beautiful carved floral and sea life decorations, in addition to glitter, jewels and confetti, lending the bags an ethereal quality. Shapes were composed of boxes, buckets, beehives, and pagodas. Although Lucite bags looked beautiful, they were not without their disadvantages. Heat could cause the material to dispense toxic fumes and liquid, in addition to warping their shape. Lucite was particularly brittle, so it had to be handled with the utmost care.
For those who couldn’t afford Lucite, metal, wood, and other plastics were used to create similar designs at reduced prices. Teenagers were the primary consumers of faux Lucite bags. They adored cute designs with poodles, frogs, fish, elephants, and other animals embellished on them.
In the late 1950s, there was a new trend in summer bags: the basket bag was literally a picnic basket used as a purse. They were ideal beach bags and when shrunk down to a more manageable size made charming summer purses. They could be woven wood slats, raffia, straw, and even plastic. These new materials were woven into other bag shapes as well. Some featured additional flowers, fruits and leaves inspired by the popular tiki party theme.
One final unique shape bag was the drawstring bag. It was not a new design. Pouchettes have been common purses since the 18th century. Usually made of fabric or crochet yarn, the drawstring with two wrist handles was an easy to carry travel bag. Traditionally round, the 1950s version also included square or rectangle bags with a drawstring top.
These small novelty bags have become highly collectible today. Many handbag designs such as Lulu Guiness have built their brand on reviving fun bags of unique shapes, materials and whimsical characters.
1950s Evening Bags
In keeping with the styles of evening bags of the ’30s and ’40s, 1950s evening purses remained small. Rectangular clutches in black velvet, suede or silk were carried in hand. Black was chic unless you were wearing a black gown, which most women did. As a contrast, evenings bags glimmered with all over rhinestones, sequins, beads, metal mesh, and diamante for the very rich. If these were still expensive, then a plain bag with a sparkling clasp and short metal strap was just enough to hang gracefully from the fingers of long gloves.
Women who were now used to day purses with shoulder or large handle straps insisted on evening bags with straps as well. Short straps on chain matched bags with bling. Gold metal handles were another option for structured purses.
Key Styles and Features of 1950s Bags and Purses
- Structured, boxy styles, round corners
- Designer logos
- Shorter handles – Bags were held or worn over the elbow
- Coordination with shoes and some accessories
- Leather, faux leather, fur, imitation fur, Lucite and vinyl were all popular
- Bags and purses were now recognized as an integral element of an outfit
- The ‘It’ bag craze is born through celebrity endorsement
The 1950s were a decade of aspirations. Women were expected to aspire to be the embodiment of perfection. If a purse or handbag was going to help them attain this quest, the ownership of said item was a least a step in the right direction.
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