Handbags aren't just useful for make-up and cigarettes, they can be hung on the wall as art and can even break the ice at parties. Madeleine Marsh meets the collectors who admire their versatility
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The Independent Culture
THIS IS 1997, the year of the handbag. Fashion magazines have been overflowing with the latest "must haves" and filled with articles about women prepared to mortgage their children for a designer pocketbook. Posh labels do not come cheap: a nylon bag from Prada with a chain handle (this year's hottest accessory) costs between pounds 300 and pounds 400; Gucci's bamboo- handled bags start at pounds 300 and run into four-figure sums; at Hermes, there is an astonishing two-and-a-half year waiting list for the coveted Birkin bag, named after actress Jane Birkin, similar to their classic Kelly bag (inspired by Grace) and retailing, when you finally get your hands on it, at pounds 2,750. "For a handbag?" I demanded in outraged Lady Bracknell tones. "That price is only for the leather version, Madam," replied the sales assistant. "In crocodile, it would be about pounds 7,000."

If you'd like a classic bag, and still want some money left to put inside it, there is another option, buying vintage - especially since the handbag is more or less celebrating its 300th birthday.

From the Middle Ages onwards, purses were suspended from belts, and loose fabric pockets attached to tapes were worn both above and underneath skirts, which were slit at the sides to allow easy access. The handbag as we know it today emerged in the late 18th century. The new high-waisted, slimline neo-classical style, in which dresses made of daringly diaphanous material hugged the body, made the wearing of pockets bulging with fans, smelling salts and handkerchiefs a sartorial impossibility. A new accessory emerged for the a la mode lady - a drawstring bag which was carried by a wrist strap and known as a reticule. Though cynics soon called them ridicules, the fashion stuck, and the handbag became an essential part of the female wardrobe.

Textile dealer Pat Oldman, both collects and sells handbags dating from the 19th century to the 1930s, and her personal collection includes more than 100 examples: metal-mesh purses, velvet pouches, leather pocket books, and her favourite: beaded bags. "They are astonishingly beautiful," she enthuses. "Some collectors buy them to frame and hang on the wall like pictures." Popular from the 1800s, these bags were made from tiny glass beads, sewn on to mesh or knitted. "They are surprisingly durable because they were so beautifully constructed," says Oldman. "Early bags could have up to 1,000 beads per square inch. They were either hand-made by professionals or sewn at home. Beading a bag was one of those necessary female accomplishments, like playing the piano."

The richly-coloured, glittering beaded bags in her collection are decorated with everything from flowers, to hunting scenes to abstract patterns popular in the Art-Deco period. "You also get the most beautiful handles," she adds, "silver, tortoiseshell and later on, ivorine and Bakelite which have been carved with bees and pierrots."

At Echoes, Oldman's Yorkshire shop, prices begin at pounds 5 for a Thirties beaded purse, while Edwardian and Victorian pieces range from pounds 75 to around pounds 300. "If you don't mind a bit of damage you can collect even early examples very cheaply," says Oldman. Vulnerable areas include linings and beaded edges, and if you snag a fringe when wearing one of these bags, warns Oldman you risk leaving a snail-like trail of shining beads behind you.

As far as collector Linda Bee is concerned, using vintage bags is the main point of owning them. "Interesting bags are wonderful to take to parties when you don't know anyone," she explains. "They break the ice, make people smile and are a talking point. My bags make me feel happy and special and the fact that no one will have anything like them gives me confidence."

Like Mr Worthing in The Importance Of Being Earnest, Linda Bee was born into handbags. Her father designed for Waldy bags, which supplied respectable and practical leather bags for most of the crowned heads of Europe in the Fifties, and a favourite photograph shows Bee, aged two, rootling in a sophisticated handbag. "My family is Italian, and when I was a child my aunt would take me to Turin every summer, to buy me a new handbag and matching shoes," she happily remembers. These formative fashion experiences helped shape her future, and very feminine career. Bee deals in costume jewellery, powder compacts, scent bottles and handbags (her stand at Gray's Antiques Market in London is a bit like being inside a giant and very elegant vanity case). She is a self-confessed bagaholic. "I have well over 50 in my own collection, I just can't resist them," she admits.

Her favourite period is the Fifties: "It was a golden age for innovative shapes and bizarre designs, and I think bags should be fun." Prize possessions include a bag in the shape of a poodle made entirely of black beads "you unzip the stomach, and when you take out your purse the poor dog looks like it's being disembowelled," and a honey-coloured Perspex bag, moulded into a beehive, its carved top inset with gilded bees. "I had to have this because of my name."

Produced in America, Perspex and vinyl bags were one of the more decorative by-products of wartime plastic technology, and are among the most collectable of all Fifties bags today. Prices range from around pounds 25 for a clear vinyl pouch inset with rhinestones, to pounds 150 for a hard plastic (Lucite) box- bag. "They come in all sorts of shapes. I have one just like a coffin," says Bee, "but since they are often made from transparent Perspex. You really have to be very tidy."

More concealing is her collection of Fifties baskets and picnic-box bags, a girlish style (think Doris Day) that is very fashionable today, with every one from smart designers to Marks & Spencer producing colourful baskets. Bee has Fifties raffia bags covered with long necked cats and poodles, and her current favourite is a white wicker box-bag, its top loaded with shiny red plastic cherries. "I took it along to a pop concert once and somebody tried to eat the fruit."

The bags on sale at Bees stall provide a little social history of fashion and changing tastes, Twenties bags with their fitted compartments for cosmetics and cigarettes reflect the new female liberation after the First World War. Sixties bags show a lust for contemporary synthetic materials and outre, space-age designs. For the more traditional in taste - and for "label queens" - you can buy a second-hand Hermes bag complete with its own integral jewel case for pounds 800 (clearly something of a bargain in this rarefied market) or a vintage "crocodile", a medium still popular today. It is one of the more curious and distasteful fads of female fashion, that a bag covered with the skin of a reptile should have become the mark of a lady and a classic status symbol. Forties crocodile bags sometimes come with the head, claws or even a complete baby alligator stuck on to the outside.

"You do find some horrific things," says Linda Bee. "The most bizzare bag I've ever seen was a real leopard-skin one given to a friend of mine in Somalia. On the front flap was the whole head of the leopard squashed flat, complete with whiskers and one eye was actually winking!"

Bee has noticed a huge surge of interest in vintage bags and one of her clients is setting up a handbag museum in Amsterdam. As a collector, her criteria are that a bag should be interesting, well-made, clean ("you can find an awful lot of make-up stains") and practical "There is no joy in having a bag you can't use," she says firmly.

Bee feels that we are in another golden age of bag design and suggestions for collectables of the future include Vivienne Westwood's creations, and the "Florist Baskets" designed by Lulu Guinness; flower-pot shaped, black velvet, and topped with bunches of flowers now selling for pounds 189 to 250 at the Cutting Edge fashion exhibition at London's Victoria & Albert Museum.

And a final tip for the fashion junkie? Linda Bee's work bag, elegant, black nylon, capacious enough to hold portable computer along with several highly collectable evening purses, cost her around pounds 19 at BHS, and is, she assures me, indistinguishable from this year's most desirable Prada.

! Linda Bee, Stand J20/21 Grays Antique Market, 1-7 Davies Mews, London WI (0171 629 5921). Echoes, 650A Halifax Road, Eastwood, Todmorden, West Yorkshire (01706 817505)