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The Evolution of the Bag - History of the Handbag, part 1

History of the handbag - medieval fashions

Over the next few weeks, we'll be tracing the evolution of the handbag through history, looking at how it became not just a convenient device, but a symbol of fashion and femininity.

Origins of the Handbag

The origins of the handbag as we know it date back as far as the 14th century. Receptacle of practical means, a carrier of secrets, statement of power, status, beauty… people say that you can learn a lot about a woman simply by looking at her handbag, and at what is concealed within.

There has been an obvious trend over time in the requirement for an increased size of handbag. Our lifestyles have changed to become modernised, technologically advanced, our days are long and filled with activity. We all now require our work bags to be large, sturdy and functional. 

The small purses and pouches of the eighteenth century that would be worn at social occasions, for example, were occupied by a minimal number of items such as hair pins, pens or other writing implements and item of a cosmetic nature perhaps. Earlier than that, medieval women used ornate drawstring purses, while the ancient Egyptians are depicted in hieroglyphs as carrying purses around their waists, and bags made of papyrus have been found in Egyptian burial chambers.

The handbag today

Today’s multi-tasking females want a larger, all-purpose hold-all that contains phone, lap-top, iPad, cosmetics, sandwich for lunch, crossword or book for the train, pens, reports and paperwork for work, perhaps even items for babies and children. In addition to this, while men have traditionally carried precious items in purses probably dating from even further back in time than females, in the twenty-first century we see the fully fledged advent of the ‘man-bag.’  

My bag is an across-body style made of black leather with three shades of purple stripes on one side, and a bag charm which is pretty, but sometimes annoying. I could take it off if I wanted to.  I use my bag for both work and social occasions, and it’s big enough to fit in everything I need on a daily basis. What does this say about me? Probably that I like a bag that is sensible, practical but looks good, and is slightly ‘fun’. Most importantly, it was a gift from my husband and he made an excellent choice.

The Symbolic Nature of the Handbag

Bags are the keepers of equipment of our daily life, and have evolved due to a variety of factors including technological and societal changes, and the role of women in society. They can reveal your social status, taste, personality, and often your age, but what about the symbolic nature of the handbag?

The handbag has been subject to a huge number of psychological interpretations. As an empty receptacle, it can be interpreted as an echo of female genetalia or even the womb, while its contents can be considered to represent part of the Freudian unconscious. It both expresses and carries the needs of its wearer.

A handbag is a concealer. It conceals precious items, essential items, even secret items. A handbag also signifies the wearer’s position in society, personal character and taste. There is a deep contrast between the highly personal nature of the inside of the handbag, and its exterior which is a statement to the outside world, making the role of the handbag both enigmatic and paradoxical.

Part 2 next week will take a look at bags through the ages: Purses, Pockets and Drawstring Bags!

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