Throughout history, handbags have served both men and women as an invaluable tool for mobility. While we commonly think of handbags as primarily a women’s accessory, with men gaining ground due to our more mobile and gadget-driven lifestyles, history shows that handbags or similar accessories were utilized as far back as thousands of years. Hunter-gatherers in ancient times would use small bags to carry flint and tools, as well as food. The ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics depict several images of men wearing bags attached to their belts, while ancient African priests were known for carrying elaborately beaded bags. Even the Bible references the purse that Judas Iscariot famously carried with him. These ancient ancestors to the modern handbag were often crafted from cloth or leather, and were designed to carry money, valuables or essential tools and weapons. During these ancient times, men frequently utilized bags, often securing them to their waists or belts for easy mobility.
Bags in the Medieval Era
Considering that pockets were still hundreds of years from invention, small bags continued to be utilized during the medieval era, often for a variety of reasons. For example, a small bag called an “almoner” was used to carry coins to give to the poor, getting its name from the Christian principle of alms-giving.
Small bags attached to the girdle could carry money, rosaries, scented oranges or prayer books. Women were especially attracted to ornate drawstring purses. For the wealthy, bags were used as gifts, gestures of courtship, and were often carefully decorated with romantic scenes. On the other hand, laborers also used simplistic bags to carry tools and necessities during their work.
Handbags in the Renaissance
The dawning of the Renaissance saw handbags become even more elaborate and multipurpose. Because hygiene was seriously lacking during this era, both men and women often wore small pouches attached to their clothing, sometimes referred to as “swette bagges,” filled with sweet-smelling herbs and spices to mask body odor. Several paintings denote peasants and travelers wearing cross-body bags, indicating the early ancestry of the messenger-style bag. During this era, bags became a fanciful element for aristocrats and royalty, and were still utilized by both men and women. Also during this era, the concept of the “evening bag” became popular, which was a small bag used to carry gaming chips or other personal necessities for a night of festive frivolity and other social events.
The Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries
During this period, handbags started to evolve to become more gender specific. Because hanging bags were seen as more feminine, women often carried dangling bags from their wrists, while men maintained smaller bags secured to their waists. By the 19th century, handbags for women became an increasingly popular accessory, as well as an avenue for women to show off their artistic and needlework skills. Elaborately crafted tapestry bags allowed women to demonstrate their abilities to prospective suitors, and these bags featured elaborate motifs. This was a time in which women truly began to use bags as custom accessories to their outfits, or for the occasion, such as shopping, parties or other social events. Furthermore, the advent of the railroad led to an entirely new line of accessories for small luggage, and this era saw the generation of still-popular brands Hermes and Louis Vuitton. These bags transcended the traditional personal handbag in that they were designed for the new lifestyles that the railroad created, yet they still retained handcrafted personalization, such has hand-painted names or initials.
Early Twentieth Century Bags
After the advent of the railroad, and the increasing availability of diverse materials, handbags as an accessory took off in the 20th century. From traditional purses, to leather shoulder bags, to a handheld clutch, this was a time in which bags truly became one of the most versatile accessories available. The art deco trends of the 1930’s saw the rise of the classic, iconic image of a handbag, with the dual-handles and clasp frame, often utilizing the latest in modern materials. However, the dawn of World War II saw bags become larger and more utilitarian, often with an undercurrent of military influence. These shoulder bags, the most recognizable ancestor of the modern messenger bag, demonstrated the need for self-sufficient practicality as well as the restricted availability of materials due to the war efforts.
The Late Twentieth Century Fashion Revolution
The post-war economic boom brought handbags into the forefront of high-fashion. During this time, handbags became the ultimate accessory, and women often owned many so that they could coordinate to every outfit or occasion. The 1950’s was a time that focused on beauty and sophistication, and the handbags of this period perfectly reflected the style trends. However, with the rise of the counterculture in the 1960’s and 1970’s, the youth-driven style turned toward more ethnic or exotic influences, such as fabric shoulder bags, handmade products and items that celebrated unique craftsmanship. With the outrageous fashion rebellions of the 1980’s and 1990’s, bags not only became “anything goes,” but they also demonstrated the genesis of what would later become a diverse landscape of personal accessories that evolve for both style and usage.
The new millennium, as well as the technological revolutions that continue daily, has ensured that both men and women utilize bags in a variety of ways. Our lives have become the most mobile of any other time in history, and we are now required to carry a plethora of materials and devices just to get through our day-to-day lives. From briefcases and messenger bags, to purses and laptop bags, these personal accessories are as diverse and customizable as are their carriers. In addition to our mobile lifestyles, the internet has provided a world of possibilities available at the click of a mouse, so the sky is the limit in terms of finding a perfect personal accessory. While bags have a long history as an invaluable tool, now more than ever, they offer infinite functionality, customizable style and an unlimited potential for self-expression.
If you are looking for your next great bag, the Serbags’ team invites you to browse our selection and discover the ultimate in style and functionality.