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Handbags, The Accessory That's Carried On Through The Ages

Bags, pouches and purses are among the world's oldest fashion items, used through the ages for carrying seeds, weapons and eyeliner. A history of this most indispensable adornment.

Need a bag for this?
Need a bag for this?
Tamara Wolman

TEL AVIV — A purse is a glimpse into the soul of its owner. As is often the case, Nora Ephron put it best when she once wrote in an essay, "This is for women whose purses are a morass of loose Tic Tacs, solitary Advils, lipsticks without tops, ChapSticks of unknown vintage, little bits of tobacco even though there has been no smoking going on for at least 10 years, tampons that have come loose from their wrappings, English coins from a trip to London last October, boarding passes from long-forgotten airplane trips, hotel keys from God-knows-which-hotel, leaky ballpoint pens, Kleenexes that either have or have not been used but there's no way to be sure one way or another, scratched eyeglasses, an old tea bag, several crumpled personal checks that have come loose from the checkbook and are covered with smudge marks, and an unprotected toothbrush that looks as if it has been used to polish silver. This is for those of you who understand, in short, that your purse is, in some absolutely horrible way, you."

Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, even argued that women's purses subconsciously represent their genitals and their relation to them.

But even without going as far as the subconscious, the handbag has always concealed secrets and significances, a mirror of both the person and their approach to their property and image. And the more society, culture, technology and objects have evolved, the more image has become precious — an asset, perhaps even more valuable than material ones. Accordingly, the handbag has become an object that bears the tension between the functional, containing, concealing and the ostentatious, visible and representative.

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Photo: Mario Mancuso

First for men

Bags, pouches and purses are actually some of the world's oldest fashion items. The satchel is even mentioned in the Bible. In ancient times, it was primarily men who carried leather or fabric pouches with coins, food, seeds, medicine, weapons and prayer articles. Bags found in ancient Egyptian tombs were made of linen and papyrus.

In the Middle Ages, such small pouches would be hung on sashes, and their decorations reflected their owners' social status. In the Elizabethan era, when women's dresses grew to immense dimensions and men's clothing was over-decorated, purses would be kept under the clothes.

After the French Revolution, when clothing sizes shrank back to normal, purses were carried again on top of the clothes. At the time, they were called "indispensables," indicating the reliance women have on them. In fact, during those centuries, bags even played a role in finding romantic partners because embroidery was an essential skill for girls seeking husbands, and they would showcase it on their purses. Similarly, at a wedding ceremony, the groom would offer his bride a gift in a bag with embroidery depicting a love story.

The birth of fashion icons

Later on, Victoria-era developments in science and industry saw the emergence of new materials, textiles and styles in bags. At the same time, women obviously became more independent and more mobile. Railway networks allowed much more travel, especially among the wealthy. Until then, the expertise of bag production laid with tailors, but changing needs meant new products such as horse-riding accessories and, later on, backpacks. It was during this time when the word "handbag" was coined and when many of the legacy brands we know today were born, including Hermes and Louis Vuitton.

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Photo: Thomas8047

That's also when evening bags emerged. In one popular genre, purses were made of tiny metal scales, an homage to the armor of medieval knights. Such handbags were common in Europe and the United States until the 1950s.

On balance, in the battle between function and fashion, the latter had won out by the early 20th century. In fact, most of the types of bags we know today were first created in the 1930s. The introduction of advanced manufacturing technologies meant that the metal chain handbags grew ever more sophisticated, ever more elaborate.

World War II marked the end of the golden age of the fancy purses, but the genre re-emerged in the 1950s, and handbags have since re-established their status as prime cultural and fashion accessories.

Even now, when technology seems to be miniaturizing everything, the status of purses remains unrivaled. After all, we need something to carry all our trifles. "We are pigs, and handbags merely serve to encourage our pigginess, and, as feminists, we need to be liberated from them once and for all," Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett wrote in a Guardian commentary in which she also criticized Freud. "Unless, of course, you're talking about the beautiful quilted Chanel 2.55 in black and gold, a bag/vagina hybrid so glorious that, if I could, I'd go down on it. In which case, you can go to hell."

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