Janet's Vintage Finds

Vintage Purse Guide: Evening Bags and Clutches

Vintage pillow purse

Clutches, evening bags, box purses and more!

Before World War I, most women didn’t carry any sort of handbag or purse. However, as the century progressed, fashion evolved to suit their changing habits and lifestyles. Young women were getting away from wearing the long, full, ample-pocketed skirts and dresses that their mothers and grandmothers wore, and turning toward styles more suitable for working in offices or socializing in the evenings. People were also starting to travel more.

For all those reasons and others, women needed something to carry around their everyday essentials like vintage handbags 1950s purseskeys, vanity cases, and cigarette holders. And they wanted that something to look good with their newly fashionable outfits.

It all started with the reticule, which I cover in another post. Those gave way to evening bags in the 1940s, which remain very popular today. According to one blogger on Fabrics.net, “it was said that the woman of means could indulge her fancy in its wildest flight, so beautiful, extravagant, precious and costly were some of the bags.” Bags were often elaborately designed with embroidery, beading or tapestry. The relatively strong economic times of the 1950s strengthened this trend. Designers catered to women’s fascination with glamour and luxury.

Following are some popular variations on the standard evening bag, starting with the clutch purse. Photos are from vintage Etsy shops (including mine) and various other vintage purse and collectors’ sites, as noted:

Clutch Purses are the more modern and glamorous cousin of the reticule. Popular in the 1920s and 30s, they remain a favorite vintage style today. According to Fashionista, the handheld structured bags are the preferred accessory for stars and socialites at special events.

Unlike shoulder bags or larger purses, clutches compliment an outfit without detracting from its effect with handles or straps. As women began to carry more in their purses, the clutch purse became more of an accessory than a practical carryall. Women would carry a larger shoulder bag during the day and reserve a collection of dainty clutches for evenings out.

Judith Leiber minaudiere
This Elephant minaudière is listed at $4,995 at Judith Leiber Couture

Today, designers hire artists to handcraft specialty clutch purses, says Fashionista. The price reflects that special care, with top label clutches priced in the thousands of dollars. One of the most famous modern designers is Judith Leiber, who is known for the minaudière (from the French meaning ‘to be charming’). One of her best-known bags is shaped like a red tomato covered with hand-set red and green crystals.

 

Vintage Clutch - Black Evening Bag - Clutch Purse - Designer Clutch
A 1930s vintage beaded clutch by Durmar (from my Etsy shop).

 

Ultra Rare, Vintage 1981 JUDITH LEIBER, Chinese Hand Warmer Purse, with Swarovski Crystals Minaudiere HandBag
A Judith Lieber minaudière (from IncogneetoVintage on Etsy).

Lucite box purses.These plastic purses started as a fad but have become coveted by collectors. (Lucite should not be confused with Bakelite, a hard plastic that was often used to make jewelry in the ‘20s and ‘30s).

lucite box purse
A1950s lucite box purse (Image from Collectors Weekly)

 

Vintage 1950s 50s Lucite Purse Rhinestones Evening Bag
A 1950s Lucite Purse (from littlestarsvintage on Etsy).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Clear Plastic Purses. A variation on the Lucite box purse, these bags seem to contradict the notion that women liked to keep the contents of their purses private. However, the novelty and appeal of the design inspired workarounds—women would wrap their belongings in colorful silk scarfs, which in themselves would become part of their fashion statement. Besides the private aspect, the strategy allowed women buy one purse and change its look to match different outfits. So you could say that it was actually a cost-saving measure!

Vintage 40s INGBER Petite Clear Purse with Rhinestones
A 1940s clear plastic purse with rhinestone detail (from Vintageables on Etsy)

Compacts and cigarette cases. Many Lucite purses included matching compacts or cigarette cases mounted ontotheir lids, says  Collectors Weekly .

 

Vintage Compact Mirror - Purse Accessory - Elgin American
This 1950s Elgin compact includes the original “fashion guide.”
Vintage Stratton Cigarette Case - Business Card Case - Purse Accessories
Vintage gold-toned cigarette case by Stratton. (JanetsVintageFinds on Etsy)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Pochette is a handle-less clutch carried under the arm that may feature elaborate geometric and jazz motifs.

original MISSONI pochette / Vintage envelope handbag / italian designer purse / chevron gold blue bag
A Missoni vintage pochette (Skomoroki on Etsy).

Bamboo handled bags. Gucci artisans in Japan used bamboo as an alternative to more expensive materials during wartime. The bamboo was bent after heating and shaped into a handle.

Straw Handbag - Summer Handbag - Capelli Purse
Vintage straw purse with bamboo handles by Capelli. (JanetsVintageFinds, Etsy)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Drawstring bag. These small bags, often homemade, emerged during the 1940s when expensive materials like leather were scarce.

1940s beaded purse - Corde'-Bead bag - 1940s purse - reversible drawstring handbag - 1940s beaded purse - 1940s vintage handbag
Vintage 1940s drawstring bag (SplendoreBoutique on Etsy)

Shoulder clutches. Popular in the 1960s, these were dainty bags with long chains or straps.

Vintage Evening Clutch Bag - By Franchi
A vintage shoulder clutch with long chain handle by Franchi.

 

Metal Bags. The Chatelaine (a predecessor to the minaudière) was the first metal bag, made by Judith Leiber in the 1970s. They were popular in the “glam rock” era and featured lots of buckles, sippers, and rhinestones. 

Vintage Pillow Purse - Metal Clutch - Brass Purse - Copper Purse
A vintage metal pillow purse from the 1970s (JanetsVintageFinds on Etsy)

The IT bag. The Fendi Baguette became the first IT bag in 1997. It was designed to be carried under the arm like a loaf of bread

Fendi Baguette bag
A Fendi Baguette bag (photo via BragMyBag)

Vintage Reproductions

A few designers have revived some of the popular styles from the past. These are not cheap knockoffs, notes Vintage Dancer, but beautifully crafted recreations. Two designers stand out in this regard, according to a post on 1920s bags:

Whiting and Davis has have revived some of the original metal mesh bags that they first produced in the late 1800s.

Mary Frances  makes elegant, artful small beaded bags inspired by 1920s techniques. I checked out her web site and these bags are truly whimsical and unique. The “before midnight” bag, for example, is shaped and decorated like the magical carriage that took Cinderella to the ball (a powerful motif, as I cover in a previous post inspired by my wedding dress) . A few bags depict animals while another is in the shape of a vintage typewriter.

Collectible Lucite purses are made by Llewelyn, Gilli Originals, Rialto, and Wilardy Originals.

Vanity purses laminated with colored or gold glitter, such as these examples from Wilardy, were popular throughout the 1950s.
Vanity Purses made by Willardy. (photo Collectors Weekly)

 

Llewellyn was known for its carved Lucite bags, as well as ones like this one made from shell, a hard plastic material composed of cellulose acetate.
A carved Lucite bag by Llewellyn. (photo Collectors Weekly)

 

 

 

Vintage Purse Guide: The Reticule

Reticule

Guide to Vintage Purses: celebrating the reticule

Dainty drawstring bags called reticules were fashionable in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The term is defined by the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (OED) as “a woman’s small netted or other bag, especially with a drawstring, carried or worn to serve the purpose of a pocket.” As that definition suggests, the bags were initially seen as a necessity to make up for the absence of pockets in the slimmer, more form-fitting skirts and dresses that were becoming popular at the time. However, they turned out to be a forerunner of the modern handbag.

The name reticule is derived from the Latin “reticulum,” meaning “netted bag,” reflecting that the first bags were made of netting or loosely woven cloth.  In 1801, Catherine Wilmot wrote a letter in which she mentioned the bags, and the description was so apt that the OED included it in its next edition, according to the web site World Wide Words: “Reticules,” she wrote, “are a species of little Workbag worn by the Ladies, containing snuff-boxes, Billet-doux, Purses, Handkerchiefs, Fans, Prayer-Books, Bon-Bons, Visiting tickets.”

The bags eventually caught on as a fashion statement, to be hung from the waist or carried. They began to be made from silk, velvets, handmade lace, or knitted materials and decorated with beads, tassels, fringe, lace and ribbons, according to The Reticule: A Fashionable Accessory in the Regency Period, posted by Jane Austen’s World. Jane Austen’s Emma Wodehouse and her contemporaries would have carried dainty silk or beaded reticules as their purses of choice.

19th century woman with reticule
Reticules were fashionable accessories in the fictional heroine Emma Wodehouse’s time.

Reticules were often elaborately embroidered with “beetlewing,” an applique made of iridescent spangles against black satin, according to Fabrics.net, which wrote about the history of the bag in its informative post, “Please Don’t Ridicule my Reticule! Purses from Clutch to Lug.” Victorian women were particularly fond of an offshoot called the money-miser or stocking or ring purse.

Reticule vintage purse
Reticules started out as a substitute for pockets. (photo from Jane Austen’s World)
reticule
The small handbags were often elaborated decorated. (photo from Fabrics.net)

Most bags in the mid-1800s Victorian Period  were made in Czechoslovakia, France, or Italy, notes Fabrics.net. They often featured brocade and beads woven into the fabric. Makers took great care with the bags, sewing beads individually with thousands of tiny stitches. Beads were made of a myriad of different materials, including glass, shells, crystals, amber, and coral.

1800's Antique Multi-Colored Beaded Reticule Purse Made in GERMANY
An 1800s reticule from NancysJewelryBox2 on Etsy.

Designs evolved into the 19th century, when many bags were crafted with ornate frames and chain handles. Following World War I, designers began to apply images directly to the fabric in an early form of silk screening. These are some of the most collectable bags from that era.

1920s flapper reticule
Reticules fit well with the flapper styles of the 1920s. (photo from SeeJaneSparkle.com)

Reticules remained popular into the 1920s. Bags with screen-printing or enamel zigzag patterns were especially prized by flappers, says Collectors Weekly. The style dropped out of sight for a while after that but reemerged in the 1950s, revived by stars like Ingrid Bergman and Jane Russell.

Ingrid Bergman
Ingrid Bergman was reportedly a fan of the reticule in the 1950s.

Stay Tuned! My Vintage Purse Guide continues next week with a post about evening bags and clutches. In case you missed it, check out last week’s post that offers some tips on how to shop for vintage handbags.

In the meantime, take a moment to peruse these vintage bags listed on Etsy in the reticule style. Thanks for stopping by!

Beaded Purse | Antique Reticule Bag| carnival glass |Blue glass beads | Drawstring purse | iridescent glass | Something Blue
An antique reticule bag from ClassicEndearments.

 

Antique Evening Bag Micro Beaded Reticule Vintage Edwardian or Victorian Seed Bead Purse Art Nouveau Art Deco w/ Tassel
Vintage Carolina listed this microbeaded reticule from the 1910s.

 

Vintage Purse - Glasses Case - Sunglasses Case - Eyeglass Case - Cell Phone case
This vintage beaded crocheted bag could be used for a cell phone today. (Janet’sVintageFinds)

A Vintage Purse Shopping Guide

vintage handbags 1950s purses

Tips for Finding the Perfect Vintage Purse

There’s nothing like a vintage handbag to complement the right outfit. Whether it’s a dressy night out or a special occasion like a wedding or anniversary, a vintage bag can be the perfect accent. In Europe, some women are embarrassed to carry shiny new bags, writes Tina Craig of Bag Snob, in an article she penned for Harper’s Bazaar. Why? Simple: a vintage accessory sets you apart from the trend-followers. It marks you as someone who recognizes and appreciates classic styles.

If you don’t like the idea of buying standard off-the-rack purses from department stores, vintage bags may be the answer. They provide that special touch that separates you from the crowd.

But where do you find these perfect accessories? Ideally, you would have a stylish grandmother with a penchant for designer bags that she saved for future-you in a dust-free cedar trunk or closet. You could then browse through a selection of vintage classics with full confidence in the authenticity of each bag.

Alas, few if any of us have such fashionable and forward-thinking relatives. In reality, it isn’t always easy to tell whether a bag is old or just made to look that way. Classic bags from decades past by top designers like Chanel or Gucci are rare and expensive. You can usually identify those bags by their price tags—if the price doesn’t shock you, it probably isn’t the real deal. However, many attractive vintage bags made by lesser-known designers are quite affordable. And many genuinely vintage bags have no label but are of perfectly good quality and design. It comes down to how much you care about labels.

For many of us, the name brand really isn’t that important when it comes to vintage handbags. What matters more is how a bag looks and feels and whether it suits the occasion or outfit you have in mind. So how do you tell if a bag is vintage when the label is either obscure or missing altogether? You may never be absolutely sure but it helps to make a careful assessment before you buy. Here are a few tips for making a smart selection:

Trust your instincts. If buying in a store, carefully consider the quality of the materials and craftsmanship. If it feels light, cheap, or synthetic, it probably isn’t vintage. When purchasing online, look closely at the photos. Conscientious sellers post clear pictures of bags from multiple angles, along with close-ups of the labels, when present.

Ed Robinson Petit Point Purse | Robinson Petit Point Handbag | Petit Point Evening Bag | Vintage Purse | Needlepoint Clutch
Petit Point Purse listed by CarolinesKitchen. $249.

 

Black Clutch - Clutch Bag - Evening Bag
A 1950s vintage clutch on Etsy.

Read Reviews. Check up on sellers’ reputations and read reviews from previous customers. Look for trends. There can be legitimate reasons for one bad review but several customers expressing dissatisfaction should raise red flags.

 Feel the bag in your hand. If buying in a store, pick up the bag and hold it. If a bag feels light and insubstantial, it might not be vintage. Even if you’re buying online, check the description to see if it’s lined. And don’t be afraid to ask questions. Most Etsy sellers, myself included, love to receive queries and comments from buyers and we usually answer very quickly. One nice thing about Etsy versus a massive retailer like Amazon is dealing with individual shop owners who offer personal customer service.

Vintage Clutch - Black Beaded Clutch - Clutch Purse - Vintage evening bag
Fine beadwork elevates this 1940s clutch (Etsy).

Notice Details. Genuine vintage bags are carefully crafted. Look for quality workmanship in the stitching. Note whether the hardware looks cheap. Beads should be attached securely. Interiors should be fully lined.

Be alert to fake leather. Real leather is made from animal skin, which, like human skin, is full of natural imperfections. If the surface of a purse is perfectly uniform or smooth, it’s probably not genuine leather. It should also feel supple and flexible, not stiff or hard, and will regain its shape after being wrinkled.

Caterini Bidini of Bidini’s Fine Leather Handbags offers some useful tips on how to use your senses to make an educated assessment:

Vintage Leather Shoulder Bag - Vintage Purse - Vintage handbag - Vintage Bag
Vintage Italian leather shoulder bag on Etsy.
  • Real leather scratches. If you run your nails over the surface and nothing happens, it’s probably not leather.
  • Real leather has a “leathery” scent whereas fake leather might smell like glue or plastic.
  • Although you probably won’t want to spit on a bag in a store, it can be another way to eliminate fakes. Leather absorbs saliva whereas synthetic material will not.

 

Happy Searching!

 

 

 

Here are a few more great vintage bags listed by some of my fellow vintage sellers on Etsy:

1960s animal print handbag, leather clutch
1960s animal print purse from 86Vintage86

 

 

Le Regale Beaded Shell Clutch
La Regale beaded shell clutch from IsabellasVintage.

 

1960s Gold Lame Clutch Ornate Clasp Formal Cocktail Handbag
1960s Gold Lame Clutch from TrendRevival.

 

vintage purse lizard print leather brown handbag tote clutch 1960s 1970s retro
Vintage Lizard Print purse from MoiVintage.

 

  • Stay Tuned for my next post on vintage purse styles, starting with the reticule. Want to receive these posts in your inbox? Sign up here.
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