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  • Writer's pictureLalita Dileep

The Power of the Purse – accessory to fashion statement

Tracing the history and appeal of this practical appendage

History and evolution

Handbags were originally carried by men. Notably, the oldest bag preserved in history is from “the Tyrolean Iceman”, who reportedly lived between 3400 and 3100 BCE. His remains and bag were found near the Similaun Mountain on the border between Austria and Italy. In the Middle Ages, before pockets were invented, it was a girdle pouch that allowed men to carry personal belongings and foods. The handbag dates as far back as the time of the Egyptians. Hieroglyphics depict a woman holding a bag made of leather which could be worn tied at the waist or slung on the shoulders—today’s waist bag or shoulder bag. In ancient Greece, women carried the aromatic oils used in traditional baths in a purse. Since clothes did not have pockets until the 17th century, men and women alike carried bags for their personal belongings. From Ancient Rome to the Renaissance and beyond, the drawstring purse was worn dangling from a belt by both men and women. The women’s handbag as we know it is a much more recent evolution in the long and colorful history of the handbag.

Prior to the invention of the handbag, women carried necessities in pockets. But, unlike men’s pockets, which were part of a man’s garment, a woman’s pockets were an entirely separate garment, worn tied around the waist under her skirts. The precursor to the modern handbag was the reticule or the indispensable, as it was sometimes called. Used from the late 18th century until the early 19th century, the reticule was a small bag, only large enough to carry rouge, powder, a fan, perfume, and a few visiting cards. Despite the many changes to its size, shape and aesthetic, by the late-nineteenth century the handbag was here to stay. Today, it is a vital part of a women’s wardrobe.

Kinds of handbags

The evolution of the handbag has kept up with the great strides made by women and their role in society. By the beginning of the twentieth century, much more functional bags came to be. The most well-known of these were made by Louis Vuitton. These utilitarian bags, the first actually to be called “hand-bags” were essentially miniature suitcases. They featured sturdy handles, multiple internal compartments and even a snap closure. The handbag had arrived on the scene. Through recent decades the choices are endless, dazzling and literally mind boggling. The textures, colors, styles and price range run the gamut, plenty to entice and capture both our imagination and wallet.

Handbags come in all shapes and styles from the traditional purse, the clutch, the tote, the bucket bag, to the fanny pack, now known as the belt bag, the satchel to cross body bags and backpacks. We are spoilt for choices, but one thing is clear the versatility of the handbag has transformed it into an essential accessory for women through all the stages of her life and career.

Statement Piece

With burgeoning of consumerism and the advertisement boom, bags quickly morphed into a statement piece. They became more eye catching, with the bold logos becoming front and center, speaking to the purchasing power and priorities of its owner. Necessity and convenience were reinforced with status. Equally significant are the health and fitness gym bags with the totes to match the athletic gear, which have become the rage and a unique fashion statement of their own. Adding yet another dimension are book bags and briefcases, with their special features. School bags too have jumped on the bandwagon of what’s trendy or just plain blah!

Modernizing itself this carrying appendage has become a valuable status symbol, a fashion accessory and a vast sub culture with a creative life and energy of its own. I can vouch for many a moment of weakness of having succumbed to a “pretty purse purchase”. Like every other women, my whole life exits inside my handbag - keys, make up, wallet, phone and all kinds of must have including mints, tissue, lip gloss and hand lotion. No wonder we are attached to our handbags and count them amongst our most prized possessions. These are the indulgences that add color, provide fun conversation starters and extraordinary heft to our lives. Handbags epitomizes - convenience and a confidence boost. No wonder we swoon at the sight of a new bag !

We are stronger together


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