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A Brief Survey of Famous Designer Purses from the 1930s – 1990s
While there are a great many vintage bags—with and without attached brand names—a few have attained almost mythical status over the years. Typically, a bag might become wildly popular after catching the eye of a celebrity who made it part of her signature look. Some bags had fleeting popularity when introduced then faded out of view, only to reemerge years later on a wave of nostalgia.
For this post, I’ve picked out some famous designer bags starting in the 1930s and extending into the 1990s. This is by no means an exhaustive list (I plan to devote an entire future post to novelty bags from the 1950s) but these beauties will be familiar to anyone with even a passing interest in vintage fashion. Many of them are now coveted collectibles that fetch astronomical prices, if you can find them at all.
The Alma. Named after the Alma bridge over the river Seine, this domed satchel by Louis Vuitton was introduced in 1934 and reflected the Art Deco style of the time. The bag is distinctive for its structured design, long zipper extending over the entire arc of the purse, and rigid handles. Jackie Onassis and Audrey Hepburn—icons of sophistication—were big fans.
Vuitton also introduced its Speedy Bag during this decade, a structured bag with cowhide leather handles and logo canvas.
The 1940s and 1950s
The post-WWII years signaled a return to better economic times, fueling the rise of designer luxury handbags.
The Gucci Bamboo Bag. Although this bag is now considered the height of luxury, it was designed with value in mind. European countries were rationing resources after the end of World War II so Gucci artisans began experimenting with bamboo imported from Japan, according to PurseBlog. The bamboo was heated and bent to form the handles. Once attached to the bag and cooled, the wood retained its shape.
The Kelly Bag. This classic bag made by Hermes was named for movie star Grace Kelly, who used it in the 1954 Alfred Hitchcock film “To Catch a Thief.” It is shaped like a trapezoid and made of leather, with ballasts and clasps made of white or yellow gold. Each bag is crafted individually and takes about 25 hours to make.
Grace Kelly may have been rich and famous but she appreciated a good value and probably would have been a fan of vintage purses if she was alive today. Signs of wear and tear on her original Kelly handbag suggest that she carried the same one for many years, according to an article in The Guardian.
The 2.55 Flap Bag. Introduced in 1955 by Coco Chanel, the flap bag features a double flap with a mademoiselle closure and metal chain. According to Eugenia (Yoogi) and Simon Han, co-founders of Yoogiscloset, which resells vintage luxury goods, Coco wanted a bag that could be easily flung over the shoulder or arm so she could keep her hands free.
Variations to the original Flap Bag over the years include leather interwoven through the chain, use of different leathers and fabrics, and a single instead of a double flap.
The Jackie Bag by Gucci. As its name implies, this timeless bag was created for Jackie Kennedy Onassis. Genuine bags have the signature Gucci piston clasp and are handmade in Italy.
The Coach Willis bag. This was Coach’s best-selling handbag and the first to incorporate its signature dowel frame, according to Glamour.
Birkin Bag. Introduced in 1984, the Birkin bag was named for actress Jane Birkin and has become a symbol of wealth, class and fashion, according to BragMyBag. It is carefully handcrafted of genuine calf, crocodile, ostrich, or lizard leather and each bag is handmade individually.
The bag has a famous back story, according to Purseblog. Hermes CEO Pierre Louis Dumas was sitting next to Jane Birkin on a plane in 1981 and saw she was struggling with her carry-on luggage and complaining about the lack of suitable leather handbags for traveling. The encounter inspired Dumas to start working on a leather bag that would combine fashion with function.
Customers who can afford a Kelly or Birkin bag often wait a year or more for them to be individually handcrafted by Parisian artisans. And it isn’t exactly clear whether you can simply purchase one or whether you need to be a celebrity or have some special in with the folks at Hermes. Today, Birkins sell for upwards of $10,000.
The Lady Dior Bag. Like the Kelly bag, this purse was named for royalty, says PurseBlog. The bag was presented to Princess Diana in 1995 by French First Lady Bernadette Chirac. Diana carried it so after that that it was dubbed Lady Dior in her honor.
The Baguette Bag. This bag was introduced by Fendi in the late 1990s and was often featured on the TV show “Sex and the City.” Designed by Silvia Venturini, the bag was made to fit under the arm like a loaf of bread. The bags have been made from many materials, from denim, to pony skin, to crocodile, notes The Richest blog.
I’ve never come across one of these storied bags in real life but I do love searching for stylish vintage purses. Here are a few of my favorite finds (links are to my Etsy shop):
I came across a 1993 issue of People magazine recently. A Special Collector’s Issue devoted to the life of Audrey Hepburn that came out just after Audrey’s death at age 63, from colon cancer. I remember saving it and pouring over the pictures. She’s always been my favorite Hollywood star (see my previous post on the style of Audrey and Grace Kelly).
I started reading the articles and was reminded of the difficulties she overcame before rising to stardom. We came to think of her as living among the beautiful and privileged but she first endured a harsh childhood spent partly in Nazi-occupied Holland. Born Edda Hepburn-Ruston on May 4, 1929, in Brussels, Audrey’s first great sorrow was the divorce of her parents when she was just 6. She adored her father and lived with him for a while in London but he mostly ignored her. She later returned to live with her mother–who was of part-Jewish ancestry–in Holland, just before it was invaded by Germany. Over the next few years, her uncle and a cousin were executed by the Nazis.
Audrey’s mother survived by posing as a pro-German aristocrat but still had her home, property and bank accounts confiscated by the Germans. Audrey’s half-brother was sent to a labor camp after he refused to join a Nazi youth group. The Germans forced the family to evacuate in 1944 and Audrey found herself living in a crowded house in a neighboring village. One day, she was snatched off the streets by German soldiers to work in their military kitchens but escaped to a deserted cellar. There, she nearly died from malnutrition before being rescued by Allied troops in 1945,
The images of war always haunted her and I think this is part of her power on the screen. There are many beautiful movie actresses but, to me, Audrey rose above the pack. She had such a kind face and eyes that could simultaneously express joy and sadness. Think of the scene in Breakfast at Tiffany’s when she’s sitting on the fire escape outside her apartment singing “Moon River.”
Audrey started off in show business in Holland but her first Hollywood hit was “Roman Holiday,” in 1953, for which she won an Oscar. Soon after came Holly Golightly in “Breakfast,” the part she became most famous for. Here’s how People describes that role’s impact on style and attitudes at the time:
“Holly was the wanton gadfly of the Kennedy generation, with “Moon River” its love song. Young men fell hopelessly in love with Hepburn when she and George Peppard dropped their cat and dog masks and kissed in front of their elevator; young women descended on American’s major cities wearing beehive hairdos and extravagant dark glasses. Daring to be different, defying the world with her wistful exuberance, Holly in 1961 was the pre-dawning of the Age of Aquarius.”
Her beauty was a mixture of girl-next-door and royal princess. Here’s how the New York Times described her in its obituary:
“Descriptions of her beauty and appeal inevitably included the word “gamine.” She was boyishly slender, with an aristocratic bearing, the trace of a European accent and a hint of mischief. ‘A Wild-Eyed Doe’.”
By the time I came to know Audrey’s work, she was already in her 50s, and I admired her even more as she aged. Her second “career” was working as a roving special ambassador for UNICEF, driven by her own experiences with living in a time of wartime suffering. I remember seeing her on TV visiting children in Ethiopia and other countries. Her celebrity status helped bring needed resources to people suffering during civil wars and famines. She was in Somalia in 1992, just a year before her death.
The publisher’s letter notes that People magazine had never before devoted an entire issue to a single movie star. When Audrey died, the staff started sifting through all the information and pictures and finally decided that a mere article could not do justice to Hepburn’s extraordinary life. I completely agree. I hope you enjoy seeing some of the pictures from that issue — I don’t think she ever took a bad photo.