This summer I spent a fair amount of time at estate sales and tag/garage sales searching for inventory for my vintage Etsy shop and also just because I enjoy browsing for unique decor for my own home. My tastes lean towards eclectic with a mix of vintage and modern. For example, my living room contains a modern looking white leather sectional and glass and chrome shelving mixed with early-to-mid century pieces, including a 1920s reupholstered armchair, an antique clock, and midcentury marble-topped side table (one of my summer finds).
I love finding interesting pieces that become focal points and conversation pieces in a room. And I relish the search. It’s so much fun to browse when you never know what you might find.
Here are a few of my favorite recent finds. Some link to current listings while others are things I kept for my own home or have already sold.
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):
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 keys, 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.
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.
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).
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!
Compacts and cigarette cases. Many Lucite purses included matching compacts or cigarette cases mounted ontotheir lids, says Collectors Weekly.
The Pochette isa handle-less clutch carried under the arm that may feature elaborate geometric and jazz motifs.
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.
Drawstring bag. These small bags, often homemade, emerged during the 1940s when expensive materials like leather were scarce.
Shoulder clutches. Popular in the 1960s, these were dainty bags with long chains or straps.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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:
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.
Here are a few more great vintage bags listed by some of my fellow vintage sellers on Etsy:
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.