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):