The Purse: A Brief History


Since I was a wee little tot I have had a bag addiction. Yes, I love purses, bags, totes… anything that can carry things in it. I am never without one and have multiple of all different kinds! In fact, when I was young I collected bags, paper and plastic. I had bags from all over the world. I stored them in my closet and I think that my mom just finally got rid of the last of them after I moved out of my childhood home 18 years ago. So, it was only natural that I became a Thirty-One bags independent consultant. What is Thirty-One bags? It is a company that sells bags, purses and organizational products through their consultants. Of course, I have a website and here is my shameless plug: Shop me! My website: and my Facebook page:

Of course, I was curious about the history of the bags that I loved so much. I have so many questions: How did they come to be? What is the history of the “Murse”? And so many others. So, here you go:

Purses and handbags date back more than 5000 years. The oldest known handbag was worn by a man, Ötzi the Iceman. Early purses were carried by both men and women and were used to carry seeds, religious items and medicine.

In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, both men and women would attach pouches to the most important feature of medieval garb: the girdle. Because pockets would not be invented for several hundred more years, wearers would also attach other valuables to their girdle, such as a rosary, Book of Hours, pomanders (scented oranges), chatelaines (a clasp or chain to suspend keys, etc.), and even daggers. The drawstring purse would hang from the girdle on a long cord and would vary according to the fashion, status, and lifestyle of the wearer. As early as the 15th century, a purse was a traditional gift from a groom to his bride. These purses typically were elaborately embroidered with an illustration of a love story.

In the 16th century (the Elizabethan Era) women’s skirts expanded greatly. Rather than girdle purses outside their belt, women switched to purses under their skirts. These handbags took on more of an air of practicality with the use of everyday materials such as leather with a drawstring fastener on top. Additionally, during this period, cloth bags were used that were made larger and used by travelers and carried diagonally across the body.

The 17th century saw more variety and both fashionable men and women carried small purses with more complex shapes. Young girls were taught embroidery as a very necessary skill to make them marriagable and we see the rise of beautiful and unique stitched artwork in handbags. Purses were not only functional but they were also often used as conspicuous decorative containers for gifts, such as money, perfume, or jewels. Toward the end of the 17th century, purses became increasingly sophisticated, moving from a simple drawstring design to more complex shapes and materials.

In the late 18th century, fashions in Europe were moving towards a slender shape, inspired by the silhouettes of Ancient Greece and Rome. A reduction in the amount of underclothing worn by women was the new trend. Wearing a purse would ruin the look of this new fashion so ladies started carrying their handbags which were called reticules or “ridicules”. Reticules were made of fine fabrics like silk and velvet, with wrist straps. “Riducules” often carried a handkerchief, fan, dance card, perfume, or face powder. Originally popular in France, they crossed over into Britain, where they became known as “indispensables”.Men, however, did not adopt the trend. They used purses and pockets, which became popular in men’s trousers. Funny enough, the French often parodied the women who carried the delicate bags that resembled previously hidden pockets which coined the name “ridicules.”

By the early 20th century, women were carry bags every time they left home. By the 1930s, most of the bags used today had been invented, including the classic handbag which had a handles and a clasp frame, the clutch, the satchel, and the shoulder bag. During the 1940s, the rationing of textiles and notions such as buttons and zippers, for World War II led to the manufacturing of handbags made of materials like raffia, or crocheted from yarn. Some women crocheted their own small handbags from commercial patterns during the 1940s. Bags became larger, squarer, and more practical, reflecting a desire to appear self-sufficient. The 50’s saw the rise of important designer houses including Chanel, Louis Vuitton, and Hermes and the 60’s saw the breakdown of old notions of the classical and the rise of youth culture.

Men’s purses were revived by designers in the 1970s in Europe. Since the 1990s, designers have marketed a diverse range of accessory bags for men under the guise of “murse.” The designs are typically variations on backpacks or messenger bags, and have either a masculine or a more unisex appearance, although they are often more streamlined than a backpack and less bulky than a briefcase.

The history of the bag is interesting. Throughout time, one thing has remained the same, it is a fashionable way to carry any and all of your necessaries. So, next time you use a bag, think about its long history and how it got to this point.

Sources: Wikipedia;;;;


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