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The cultural significance of the handbag

Battered satchels, fleetingly fashionable designer clutches, elegant classics... We should acknowledge that bags are a crucial barometer of our times, argues Susannah Frankel
  • @IndyFashion

It is possible, we all know, to learn an awful lot about a woman from what she carries in her handbag. A case in point must surely be the contents of Janis Joplin's, first uncovered in admirable detail in 1972 in David Dalton's Piece of My Heart and, only recently, making ripples across websites including Hairpin (the first to unearth this impressively obscure reference) and Jezebel.

"Now where in the hell did I put that lighter...?" Joplin is quoted as wondering. "Probably left it in that bar. I'm real sloppy. Lose more damn things in bars. Left a wallet with a grand in it in a bar last week. Just can't seem to hang on to anything."

This, it soon becomes apparent, is not strictly true: in search of the elusive item in question, the singer unceremoniously empties her bag onto her limousine floor.

And the ensuing chaos, as Dalton himself puts it, is truly "awesome". "There are two movie stubs, a pack of cigarettes, an antique cigarette holder, several motel and hotel room keys, a box of Kleenex, a compact and various make-up cases – in addition to a bunch of eyebrow pencils held together with a rubber band – an address book, dozens of bits of paper, business cards, matchbox covers with phone numbers written in near-legible bar-room scrawls, guitar picks, a bottle of Southern Comfort (empty), a hip flask, an opened package of complimentary macadamia nuts from American Airlines, cassettes of Johnny Cash and Otis Redding, gum, sunglasses, credit cards, aspirin, assorted pens and writing pad, a corkscrew, an alarm clock, a copy of Time, and two hefty books: Nancy Mitford's biography of Zelda Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel."

What a woman. And what a bag, for that matter. Because any receptacle capable of containing such a diverse – not to mention weighty – selection of belongings is a thing of beauty indeed. Joplin's carry-all – in the most literal sense of the words – was, famously, a carpet bag. She once pulled $10,000 in cash out of one and bought herself a Mercedes – a purple one, for the record. Although this particular style is by now most often associated with the 1970s, at which point it was appropriated by any advocate of Flower Power worth his or her credentials, its origins stretch back further than that, to the American Civil War and the Reconstruction period that followed when the cheap, hard-wearing design became a symbol of a nation on the move. It was made out of used carpet, as the name suggests, stretched over a metal frame, and sold for not much more than $1.

"Its appearance was a sure sign of a stranger in town and during the Reconstruction the derogatory term 'carpetbagger' was used to describe a profiteer from the North who came to exploit the prostrate, post-bellum South," reads a new book, written by Robert Anderson and courtesy of the Design Museum: Fifty Bags That Changed the World. It's quite a claim. But from Gladstone's Budget Box, a suitably battered affair still carried by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, to the Chanel 2.55 bag and from the humble plastic supermarket carrier to the Fendi Baguette, bags designed to suit each and every purpose have indeed transformed, or at the very least gone a long way towards revealing, the social and cultural mores of the times in which they were conceived.

Take Charles Sitwell's "self-opening sack", familiar to anyone who has ever visited the US as the means by which that country's residents take home their daily groceries or, perhaps, a bottle of Jack Daniel's, which may be opened and drunk from inside but not uncovered – at that point, drinking it in public would be illegal. Invented by Sitwell, a printer by profession, in the mid-Nineteenth century, its design is entirely pragmatic – side pleats add to its strength and ensure it stands up even when empty. Its introduction to the world also corresponded neatly with the rise and rise of consumer culture and with that the concept of a high street and/or department store.

In days gone by, when doctors routinely made house calls, their visit was inevitably associated with a bag. Crafted in leather, finished with brass and as roomy and tough as might be expected, it was not dissimilar to the Gladstone, a travel case first introduced in the Victorian era. Inside were the tools of this particular trade – from medicine, stethoscope and syringes to pen and paper for writing notes.

Among the oldest bags in the world – and, incidentally very fashionable just now – is the satchel, that stretches right back to the 17th century, even earning a mention in Shakespeare's As You Like It, first performed in 1600. On 27 March 1962, the plastic bag was patented by Swedish company, Celloplast. Seen as a great technological leap forward – this cheap, cheerful carrier was as democratic as it was useful – it is only now that its devastating effect on the environment has come to light. A year later, perhaps the most formidable bag in history was born. The Nuclear Football, a black leather case carrying the missile codes, is only accessible to the President of the United States. It was introduced by John Kennedy in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Its profile was highest throughout the Cold War, but it still has its own carriers, whose job it is to supervise it at all times. It exists to this day. Not quite so ominous – but still fairly daunting – was Margaret Thatcher's unforgiving Ferragamo bag, a hard-as-nails design for an Iron Lady.

So far, so heavyweight. Which brings us neatly to the first true 'it' bag, the Hermes Kelly, which unlike its long line of successors, was born not with a bang but a whisper – in the end, the Kelly's immense impact sprang from nothing more than a happy accident. Designed by Robert Dumas-Hermes in the 1930s and originally called the petit sac a courroie pour dame, its very appeal is its somewhat uptight, even demure, nature. When Grace Kelly, the young Princess of Monaco, was photographed carrying it in front of her to hide early pregnancy in 1956 it shot to fame – the image was published on the cover of Life magazine – and was duly renamed in her honour. The starting price for the hand-crafted Kelly is now around £4,000, going up to 10 times that amount and beyond for one customised with precious metal, crafted in rare skin or even studded with diamonds.

Still, there's a waiting list.

Did the Kelly change the world? Maybe not. But despite its creators' still relatively understated profile it was the blueprint for marketing that more than a few big brands in fashion were to follow. Celebrity endorsement is perhaps the single most valuable commodity in fashion today. In homage, then, to the Kelly, Marc Jacobs names his bags after women of style of his acquaintance – Venetia, Kate and so forth – as so too does Mulberry. Alexa Chung may not be of quite such elevated stature as the aforementioned monarch but her appeal to young women ensures that the bag she is associated with, the Mulberry Alexa, sells like the proverbial hotcakes the world over. In 1984, Hermes itself followed up the Kelly with the larger Birkin, named after the actress Jane.

G iven the high-impact aesthetic of today's best-selling bags – be they laden with so much hardware they necessitate a visit to the osteopath, stamped with fashionable graffiti or oversized to the point they positively dwarf any carrier – it is perhaps worth noting that the second great bag of the 20th century was the similarly restrained Chanel 2.55. Named after its date of creation (February, 1955), like everything Coco Chanel gave the world, its appearance is rooted in autobiography. The quilting, she said at the time of its launch, was indebted to stable boys' jackets – Chanel's androgynous style was more generally inspired by the aristocratic British horsey set. Its burgundy lining was a reference to the colour of her school uniform and the plaited leather and gilt shoulder strap was a throwback to her convent education, too, reminiscent of the key-chains carried by nuns. While lovely to behold, the 2.55 is also practical. The chain handle – by now an instantly recognisable and oft-plagiarised symbol of status – was originally introduced to free up women's hands. This was the first handbag to reflect an increasingly active and emancipated lifestyle.

Throughout the 1970s the popularity of the Kelly and the Chanel 2.55 endured. Gucci accessories, with their trademark racing green and cherry red stripe, and Louis Vuitton bags and purses, were the ones the beautiful people chose to see and be seen carrying. The latter revamped its signature canvas to make it more supple and suitable for use for lighter accessories and not just vanity cases and trunks at the end of the Fifties. It wasn't until the Eighties, however, that designer fashion's main protagonists realised the full potential of the handbag's power. High-end clothing was one thing and it was – and largely still is – aimed at the wealthy and fashion-knowledgeable customer but the bags, shoes, and indeed cosmetics, fragrance and more, stamped with the same names are more democratic and hugely lucrative for that. Enter the Prada bag (the first came in 1978), complete with ultra-discreet black and silver triangular logo, and, unsurprisingly given its creator, perhaps the most pleasingly perverse 'it' bag of them all.

Anderson puts it neatly: "Leather is the quintessential material of the luxury handbag – the more rare and supple the leather, the more desirable the bag and the higher the accompanying price tag. However, in the late 1970s, shortly after she had taken over the running of the family firm, Miuccia Prada threw this vulgarly sybaritic equation out of the window."

Prada's bags were crafted not in rare skin but in heavy duty black nylon used, until that point, for the Italian army. That did not mean, of course, that they were cheap. Most significantly, Prada was the first to hit on the idea of changing handbag designs on a six-monthly basis. "I think the point was that these were fashion bags for the first time," she once told me. "Labels like Gucci and Hermes had always done the same bags for many years. I treated bags as if they were fashion. Also, this was something practical, but also very luxurious. You know, those bags were more expensive than the leather ones because learning how to work with the nylon took three or four years. We had to develop the technique."

In line with all things sleek, matt black and minimal, the Prada bag dominated the decade that followed like a colossus. And like so many things dreamt up by its creator, it took the rest of the world quite some time to catch on. While entirely different in appearance, the fin de siecle Baguette, designed in every material and colour imaginable, the Dior Lady, as favoured by Diana, Princess of Wales, the Burberry Warrior, originally crafted in gold alligator skin and controversial not least because of its £13,000 price-tag, the Louis Vuitton Speedy and more are all the direct descendants of Prada's original fashion bag whose own designs number among the most closely watched and coveted every season.

Today the vogue for ever more high profile bags appears to be on the wane and if anyone can claim responsibility for this it is surely the WAGs. Photographed carrying everything from the Balenciaga Lariat (more recently re-christened the 'first' and among the most copied bags of the new millennium) to the Chloé Paddington and the Mulberry Roxanne in the crooks of their St Tropez stained arms, they threatened to transform the entire concept of the 'must have' accessory into a resounding 'musn't have'. Thankfully for all concerned, the image of the bag recovered. Still, it's nothing if not ironic that when Victoria Beckham launched her handbag collection last year it was the antithesis of anything even remotely approaching bling.

That's not to say she is backwards in coming forwards as far as making the most of her ultra-famous husband's allure. At the UK launch of her range, her press assistants were quick to point out that the largest of the designs was "just big enough to carry a football". Or maybe Nancy Mitford's biography of Zelda Fitzgerald, Tom Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel and a bottle of Southern Comfort (empty)?

Fifty Bags That Changed the World, Design Museum/Conran Octupus. £12.99