The History of Handbags

The History of the Handbag



The concept of the handbag is something we rarely think about. It is something that is so simple and yet so necessary. The importance of its purpose is quite understated as we (mostly ladies but also very often men too) use it every day, and it gives us some sense of stability knowing one has a part of one’s life always organised and in place. A sense of readiness if you will. 


It is truly fascinating to read about the history and the everchanging timeline of events of something so assumingly normal in our everyday life. The handbag as we know it, is far more than just for purpose. For many it makes part of expressing ourselves. We use it to impress or state who we are or wish to be by how we choose to wear it. There is an old saying that you can tell a lot about any woman, merely by the handbag she chooses to wear. 





When did the concept of the handbag originate?



  • The oldest known purse dates back over 5000 years, and was actually a pouch worn by a man! Yes, you better believe it! Men were the first to carry coin purses. Then following the trend in the early modern Europe, women's fashions moved in the direction of using small ornamental purses, which evolved into handbags, although men's fashion were moving in another direction. 


  • Prior to the invention of the handbag (how did they even do it!), 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 large volume of women’s skirts made it easy to hide the bulk of pockets. This changed in the last decade of the eighteenth century as high-waisted gowns gained popularity.


  • At the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, more functional bags began to replace the reticule. Made by luggage creators like the famous designer house, 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 a snap closure. These changes in the bag itself also marked a change in the ideaof a woman’s handbag- it became something entirely her own. 


In these modern times we find ourselves living in, any person (men or women) can pick and choose between millions of designer houses with iconic handbag designs to suit their taste and need. 






Where do the iconic handbag styles come from?



When we shop for handbags, one would often find that they have been named after a lady or have a certain title to distinguish. It is quite the story where certain names originate from and the famous Birkin handbag is the perfect example to use: 



The Birkin bag (or simply, Birkin) is a specific style that is a medium to large tote bag. The handbags are usually handmade from leather, and the legendary line of bags are named after English actress, singer and model, Jane Birkin. Owing to her striking beauty and sex appeal, Jane Birkin became a famous fashion icon. In particular, she became known for her Haute-Hippie style and free spirit, evident in her musical and acting performances. 

This iconic handbag, introduced in the 1980s, quickly became a symbol of wealth and exclusivity due to its high price. The original Birkin handbags are popular items with handbag collectors and were once seen as the rarest handbag in the world.

Being a world famous handbag design, it can be clearly distinguished by its classic shape, belted front with a delicate lock hardware feature and overlapping front detail.  There are many Birkin bags on the market that one could look at if this is one’s fancy to own it.  At Karoo Classics we also have the sister style to the Birkin available, called the Kelly handbag.  This handbag has the very same features but with different dimensions. (Feel free to shop our range of handbags Online or in store).



Prada introduced the Bowler handbag in the spring/summer of 2000 and it became a cult classic. It nearly sold out instantly and customers faced long waiting lists to purchase the bag. Nearly two decades later, the Prada Bowler bag is still a much sought after classic. With a heavy base, and a rounded top with handles, it is a feminine statement bag that most ladies have in their collection of leathers. These days this design is not exclusive to one fashion house and is available in all leathers and colours. 




This bag is a functional option for a comfortable and neat wear. Interestingly enough, the history of the modern messenger bag actually starts in the 1950's. An old Canvas Company, De Martini Globe designed the bag to be used by line workers. Messenger bags were made to accommodate all the tools their staff needed to work with, so the bags were very spacious and functional. 

At almost every fashion house, you will find that their range will offer you the famous Messenger bag as one of the more comfortable and practical options. This bag is always accommodated with a shoulder strap for a crossbody wear and it is normally extra durable to carry heavier loads. 

At Karoo Classics, we offer this bag in ostrich leather, ostrich shin as well as springbok hide.

These are just three handbag styles to mention but one could go for quite a while discussing the endless origin and history of the iconic styles we love and enjoy so much every day.

It is evident that handbags aren’t just by our side to give us some sense of control over a small part of our lives, but it also plays a role to the more conscious us, where we can use something instrumental to express and impress. To bring life to what we love and idolize to be. So next time when you shop for a handbag… Perhaps look up the name of the bag first – and discover how fascinating and unique they all are.

You have successfully subscribed!