It’s in the Bag: a History of the Handbag

Let us now praise the “Bag”!

The bag has been used ever since humans needed to carry something. The “handbag” came into existence in the mid 1800’s; exactly at the time they needed one.

While the handbag is now considered a woman’s accessory, in ancient times – before the invention of the “wallet” and the pocket to hold it – leather or cloth pouches were used to hold valuables and coins.  Egyptian hieroglyphs show men wearing “purses” around their waists, and the Bible reveals that, yes, even Judas Iscariot carried a purse.

In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the most important feature of medieval garb was the “girdle”; worn by both men and women.  Don’t get the wrong idea. A “girdle” back then was “a belt, cord, or sash that usually encircles the waist”.  Ancient “girdles” were used to hold up skirts, loincloths or to hold knives, swords, purses, keys, etc.

But back to the Bag: because pockets would not be invented for several hundred years, a drawstring “purse” would be used, hanging from the “girdle” on a long cord and. like today’s purse or handbag, was also considered a fashion accessory, varying according to the wearer’s status and tastes.

During the Elizabethan era, women’s skirts, (and possibly also the women) were of enormous proportions. So the small medieval “girdle purses” became obsolete.  Women began to wear their pouches under their skirts.  Personal hygiene, or lack thereof, being what it was, many aristocrats carried “swete bagges” filled with sweet-smelling “stuff” to clear the air.

After the French Revolution, full skirts became less popular. In its place were slender dresses that left no room beneath for pockets.  Women began carrying delicate “bags” that eventually became the useful, and fashionable “handbags” we know today.


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