Facts That Figure: Handbags

Facts That Figure: Handbags

By C.G. Hoffman

Whether you call it a handbag, pocketbook, purse, or even reticule, one thing is for sure. No woman would step out on the street without a handy bag to stash those all-important items such as wallet, phone, siddur,… and crumpled receipts.

•       People always needed something to hold all their little somethings… Ancient Egyptians used leather bags with a stick at the top to carry their stuff around. With the increasing popularity of coins for trade came the Roman byrsa, the origin of the modern word purse. This was a leather drawstring bag most commonly hung from a belt.

•       Handbags were mainly used by men for much of history, since it was unusual for a woman to carry money around. In Renaissance Italy, where banks started flourishing, couriers needed sturdy bags to carry around documents when making the rounds between the various banks and well-heeled buyers and sellers. Manufacturers started fabricating larger leather bags with various pockets for money and documents. Women would carry dainty little purses hung from their belts, with just enough space in their teeny-tiny interiors to carry a small vial of perfume and perhaps a comb.

•       Enter the game changer: Pockets! Ever wonder why all men’s clothing has pockets, while women’s clothing remains woefully pocket-less? People have been wondering for well over 300 years now! In the 1700s, when most men wore breeches (pants that reached the knees) and waistcoats (vests), pockets started appearing in men’s clothing, which signaled the end of the money bag at the waist. Pockets spawned a brand new enterprise: pickpocketing. The streets of London swarmed with hordes of pickpockets, often consisting of gangs of orphaned or abandoned children operating as a “family.”

•       Women’s fashions, with layers and layers of voluminous fabrics, weren’t very practical for pocket placing. Women started carrying tiny reticules, just about big enough for a handkerchief and a coin. They were highly decorated and often embroidered or even hand-painted, making them an item more fashionable than functional.

•       The introduction of train travel in the 1800’s changed the way both men and women carried things. Travel became easier and much more commonplace, and people simply needed somewhere to put their stuff. Well-off women would let the porters carry their heavier luggage and trunks, but they still needed somewhere to put their train tickets and money. One wealthy candy manufacturer got fed up with the flimsy little purses available for women at the time, and directed his luggage maker to make a set of bags out of the same sturdy leather for his wife. The manufacturer, H.J. Cave, happily obliged, and produced the first modern set of luxury handbags and named them “ladies traveling case.”

• Handbags started becoming commonplace for women in the 20th century and soon evolved from “something that holds your stuff” to a status symbol. Louis Vuitton, Gucci, and Hermés all started as luxury leather goods manufacturers, specifically leather luggage. Today, they are from the most coveted brands of luxury handbags, with Hermés Birkin bags going for an average price of $100,000, although if you really want to go all out, the Hermés Sac Bijou Birkin can be yours for a cool $2 million. (Just contact your agent at Sotheby’s)

•       During Margaret Thatcher’s reign as Prime Minister of England, she was known as the “Iron Lady,” and for good reason. Foreign ministers learned to quake at the sight of her ubiquitous black handbag, soon a symbol of her tenacity and firm negotiation tactics as much as Winston Churchill’s cigar. When she banged her shiny Paris-made Chaumet bag down on the table you knew she meant business. Her handbag was often referred to as her “weapon” by adversaries who had been rebuked, which led to the term “handbagging,” to denote someone who had gotten a good dressing down from the Prime Minister.

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