Janet's Vintage Finds

Famous Vintage Handbags from the 1930s to the 1990s

The Kelly Birkin bag

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 1930s

 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.

vintage Louis Vuitton bag
The most structured of the iconic Louis Vuitton handbags, the Alma was originally designed in the 1930s by Gaston-Louis Vuitton. (photo from Louis Vuitton)

Vuitton also introduced its Speedy Bag during this decade, a structured bag with cowhide leather handles and logo canvas.

Vintage Louis Vuitton bag
The Speedy Bag, shown here in a modern pink version, was originally designed for travelers in 1930, according to Louis Vuitton‘s website.

 

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.

Gucci Bamboo Bag 1960s
Bamboo handled bags became an instant hit after WWII and continued to be popular into the 1960s. (Photo from Purse Blog).

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.

 

Grace Kelly with her Hermes Kelly bag
The Kelly bag became part of fashion history in 1956 when Grace Kelly attempted to protect her pregnant stomach from paparazzi photographers. (Photo from MyLuciousLife.com)

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.

 

Black Chanel Flap Bag
Chanel Classic Flap Bag (photo from Yoogi’s Closet)

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.

 

Vintage Gucci bag
The Jackie Bag is displayed in the Gucci museum in Florence, along with the horse bit, the bamboo handle and the double-G logo, according to Designer Vintage. Gucci designed the bag in the fifties and initially named it the Fifties Constance.

The 1970s

The Coach Willis bag. This was Coach’s best-selling handbag and the first to incorporate its signature dowel frame, according to Glamour.

Vintage Coach bag Willis
The classic Coach Willis bag.

The 1980s

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 1990s

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.

Christian-Dior-Lady-Dior-Bag-Feature
A modern take on the Lady Dior bag. (photo from Purse Blog)

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.

 

P00062336-BAGUETTE-PATENT-LEATHER-SHOULDER-BAG-DETAIL_2
The Fendi Baguette, designed in 1997 by Silvia Venturini. (Photo from The Richest)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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):

 

Pearlized Lucite Purse - Vintage Shell Purse - Vintage Clutch Bag
1950s pearlized lucite shell purse.
Vintage Black Velvet Handbag - 1950s Purse by BLOCK
A velvet black top handle bag from the 1950s, by German designer BLOCK.

 

 

Vintage Faux-Croc L&M Reversible Purse with Lucite Handle
“Reversible” 1950s purse with lucite handle. Use it with the faux croc cover or snap it off and you have a black purse.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vintage Clutch Bag - Vintage Aldo Purse - Patent Leather Clutch
A 1990s patent leather clutch by Aldo.

 

 

 

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)
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