Who Invented Handbag? Unveiling the Rich History & Icons Behind Your Purse

Ever wondered who came up with the brilliant idea of the handbag? That essential accessory you can’t leave home without? Well, you’re in for a treat as we dive into the history of this everyday marvel.

The handbag’s roots are as old as civilization itself, but pinpointing the exact inventor is a bit like trying to find a needle in a haystack. Stick around as we unravel the mystery of who invented the handbag and how it evolved into the fashion staple it is today.

From pouches tied around the waist to the designer labels you covet, the journey of the handbag is a fascinating tale. Let’s take a peek into the past and discover the origins of your trusty sidekick.

The Ancient Origins of the Handbag

As you explore the history of the handbag, it becomes evident that their utility has always been paramount. Ancient artifacts and ancestral relics depict handbag-like pouches strung around the waists of Egyptians and other early civilizations. Hieroglyphs and ancient texts suggest that these pouches were used for carrying daily essentials like food, flint, and tools.

Links to ancient Rome and Greece also emerge. In these cultures, handbags made of leather or cloth were commonly used by both men and women. Their design was functional, enabling people to tote their coins or small personal items.

During medieval times, drawstring bags known as girdle pouches were the norm. Attached to their belts, both men and women carried these to store their valuables, herbs, and spices. Ornate versions even doubled as status symbols, intricately decorated to showcase wealth and prestige.

In the Renaissance period, the evolution of the handbag continued with the emergence of sweet bags, embroidered with love scenes or religious motifs. While they served a practical purpose, these bags were also a canvas for artistic expression.

Fast forward to the 17th century, and you’ll find that the handbag takes on a more familiar shape. It was here that small handheld bags called “reticules” became popular among women. Designed to match their outfits, reticules marked a pivotal moment when handbags transitioned from purely practical to fashion accessories.

With each epoch, handbags adapted to the needs and fashions of the time. Even if it’s tough to attribute its invention to a single individual, it’s clear that the handbag has a rich tapestry of history demonstrating human innovation and the drive for convenience coupled with style.

Handbags in Medieval Times

As you delve into the medieval era, you’ll find that handbags weren’t just accessories but essential items for daily activities. During the 14th and 15th centuries, both men and women carried bags. Oftentimes, these bags were attached to a girdle and were a visible part of the outfit, hinting at both function and style.

Functionality dictated design back then. Travelers needed larger bags, which led to the birth of pouches that could hold provisions and money. In contrast, aristocrats favored smaller, more ornate bags, symbols of wealth and status. These were intricately decorated with embroidery, jewels, and precious metals.

Daily Use and Symbolism

  • Girdle Pouches: Predominantly used by men, girdle pouches served as wallets and were tied around the waist.
  • Almoner Bags: Carried by the wealthy, these bags were designed to hold alms given to the poor – a sign of piety.
  • Chatelaines: A series of chains hanging from a belt, chatelaines had small bags and other tools attached. They were the practical solution for household management.

Within these medieval designs, symbolism was rife. Embroidered scenes told stories or conveyed messages about the owner’s beliefs, identity, or love life.

Transition to Modern Style

The 15th century saw a shift toward more structured bags. Enter the “handbag” as we begin to recognize it. Decorative bags became more widespread and varied in style. Craftsmen used leather and fabrics and sometimes added metal frames for support and security. This period set the stage for the evolution toward purely aesthetic handbags, pairing them with outfits rather than strapping them to girdles.

Remember, these historical handbags weren’t just carrying coins and food – they were carrying stories, secrets, and personal items that painted a vivid picture of life during medieval times. Trustworthy artisans worked their craft into each piece, leaving a legacy of design and utility that paved the way for the modern handbag.

Innovation in the Renaissance Period

As a handbag enthusiast, you’ll find the Renaissance period to be a remarkable era for our beloved accessory. During this time, European handbag craftsmanship entered a new phase of innovation and artistry. It’s here that handbags became more than just practical items; they evolved into symbols of personal style and social status like never before.

In terms of design, handbags began to adopt more unique and complex shapes, thanks to improvements in materials and sewing techniques. Craftsmen experimented with leather, silk, and velvet, often decorating them with intricate embroidery or precious jewels to reflect the wealth of the bag’s owner.

  • Leather became more widespread as tanning methods improved.
  • Silk purses were prized among the elite for their luxurious feel.
  • Velvet was favored for wintertime wear due to its plush texture.

This was also the era where the chatelaine was introduced. A precursor to the modern handbag, chatelaines were decorative belt hooks or clasps from which various useful items dangled such as keys, sewing kits, and small purses. This portable utility belt, if you will, became a fashion must-have, signaling sophistication and practicality.

Also notable were the trunk-makers, or malletiers, of the period. As travel became more common, there was a greater need for robust travel cases, which planted the seeds for leading luxury handbag brands that you know and love today.

As the handbag’s form and function continued to diversify, society saw a gradual shift toward individual expression through accessories. Purses no longer just carried your coins; they carried your personal story and aspirations. Keep an eye on the rise of travel bags and satchels in the forthcoming sections—they mark pivotal strides towards what you’d recognize as the modern handbag.

The Rise of the Modern Handbag

In the bustling 20th century, handbags truly began to take shape as you know them today. The industrial revolution had an immense impact, introducing mass production and novel materials that demystified the once-exclusive accessory.

World War I forced women into the workforce, and handbags evolved from symbols of status to essentials for the working woman. This era birthed the practical yet stylish satchel and wristlet, enabling women to keep their hands free while they took on jobs previously reserved for men.

With the Roaring Twenties, glitz and glamour infused the handbag industry. Flappers needed accessories that matched their liberated lifestyle. Thus, the clutch, an evening staple, emerged. Crafted from luxurious metals and fabrics, these bags complemented the flapper’s shimmering ensembles while carrying the bare necessities.

Key Innovation: The Handbag as a Fashion Statement

By the 1950s, designers like Coco Chanel and Louis Vuitton transformed handbags into haute couture. Chanel’s iconic 2.55 shoulder bag, introduced in February 1955, revolutionized fashion with its chain strap and quilted leather, empowering women with both hands-freedom and elegance.

In the 1960s and 1970s, handbags resonated with cultural shifts. Youth culture demanded practicality blended with style, leading to the popularity of totes and hobo bags. Leather artisans enjoyed a renaissance, handcrafting personalized pieces that reflected individualistic trends.

The Designer Era

Fast forward to the 1990s, the “It” bag phenomenon swept the fashion world. Names like Hermès, Fendi, and Prada stamped their logos on bags, transforming these accessories into must-have items. Consumers weren’t just buying a bag; they were investing in a slice of luxury, a symbol of sophistication and status that reverberates into today’s fashion landscape.

To truly understand the evolution of the modern handbag, peer into the craftsmanship, design, and cultural significance behind each bag. Handbags are no longer mere containers; they’re portable expressions of identity, fashion statements, and in many cases, works of art that carry much more than just your essentials.


So there you have it—the handbag’s journey from a practical carryall to a quintessential fashion statement. You’ve seen how its design and purpose have evolved, reflecting societal changes and cultural trends. The next time you pick up your favorite clutch or sling on that trendy tote, remember you’re not just carrying your essentials. You’re also toting a piece of history that’s been shaped by the hands of time, from medieval craftsmanship to the iconic designers of the 20th century. Whether it’s a symbol of status, a work of art, or a declaration of independence, your handbag is more than just an accessory—it’s a narrative of who you are and the legacy of those who came before you. Keep on rocking that handbag with pride!

Frequently Asked Questions

Who used handbags during medieval times?

Both men and women utilized handbags in medieval times, each for varying purposes—from carrying provisions during travel to serving as symbols of wealth and status.

What did medieval handbags symbolize?

Medieval handbags often featured embroidered designs that reflected the owner’s beliefs, identity, and social status.

How did handbags change in the 15th century?

In the 15th century, handbags began to transition into more structured forms, laying the groundwork for their evolution into fashion accessories.

How did the industrial revolution influence modern handbags?

The industrial revolution contributed to the mass production and design innovation of handbags, aligning them with the needs of the 20th-century lifestyle, especially for working women.

What role did handbags play during World War I?

During World War I, handbags became an essential item for working women to carry their necessities while taking on roles traditionally held by men.

How did handbags evolve in the Roaring Twenties?

In the Roaring Twenties, handbags became a stylish accessory integral to the flapper fashion, echoing the era’s liberation and opulence.

What innovations did designers like Coco Chanel introduce?

Designers like Coco Chanel introduced key innovations such as the Chanel flap bag with its signature chain strap, combining practicality with luxury.

How did cultural shifts in the 1960s and 70s affect handbag trends?

The 1960s and 1970s saw a cultural shift toward personal freedom and expression, which was reflected in handbag designs with bolder colors, unconventional shapes, and various materials.

What is the “It” bag phenomenon?

The “It” bag phenomenon of the 1990s was marked by a surge in popularity of certain handbag models associated with celebrities, becoming status symbols and fashion staples.

How are handbags viewed in contemporary fashion?

Today, handbags are seen as portable expressions of identity and fashion statements, often mirroring the trends and sensibilities of the current cultural landscape.

Scroll to Top