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Purses, Pockets and Drawstring Bags - History of the Handbag part 2

The Mary RoseContinuing our series on the history of the handbag, we look at how fashions around purses, pockets and bags developed to the point where handbags became popular.

Purses down the ages

There were various precursors to the handbag, because humans have always needed to carry precious or useful items. The most ancient of purses were made of cloth or leather and used by men to hold valuables such as coins. In the Gospel of St. John in the Bible, Judas Iscariot carried the Disciples’ money bag. During the 13th and 14th century purses were worn by both men and women, usually to the right side of the belt buckle, and sometimes a pouch was dangled on a girdle. Frequently these were made of cowhide, perhaps goat or sheepskin, and pockets in clothes were not invented for hundreds more years.

Tudors and Vikings

When The Mary Rose (the Tudor flagship, lost to the Solent on the 19th July 1545) was raised from the sea bed in 1982, a great variety of bags, pouches and purses were found. These are thought to have belonged to crew members, and may have functioned as pockets.

The Vikings too, made pouches using sheep or cow leather, waxed thread and leather drawstring, as did the Romans. The Anglo-Saxons used haversacks which were crafted from calico, linen or wool, and these carried a multitude of different objects. They would contain for example, a comb, bowls, their spearheads and other utility objects and found artefacts.


We have plenty of archaeological evidence that our ancient ancestors used pouches and bags created from leather, fabric or fur to carry weapons, tools, food and so on, and later coins, but another, most ancient craft used universally, was basketry. Basketry was a pre-colonial technique that involved plaiting, weaving, winding and so on, and the materials used were grasses, stalks, leaves and animal hide to name but a few: methods which were predominantly seen in early civilisations.

Handbags and Status

By the 1400s bags were being used by both men and women, and had gradually evolved to signify status. Adornment with jewellery and embroidery was an indicator of wealth, although handbag design itself altered very little for years to come. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries there were a variety of closure fastenings being used. Purse and bag shape and size became more diverse and it was common to use across-body styles for ease of movement. In this era, we also see the introduction of pockets into clothing garments.

Becoming indispensable

The eighteenth century saw a reduction in the amount of underwear worn meaning that skirts were less full and silhouettes sleeker, and a tendency not to include pockets in clothing.

“Purses came back out into the open in the form of “reticules” or “indispensables” as the English tended to call them, suggesting that women had already largely developed a dependence on their handbags” (Steele and Borrelli 1999).

Of course, the French preferred to refer to these little receptacles as 'ridicules'. They must have been pleased to see the following arrival of the handbag.

Part 3 next week: The Rise of the Handbag from the 19th century.

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