A lot of women are obsessed with shoes, for me it is handbags! I cannot really tell what it is, but there is something about them that is very special and beautiful. I think it all started in my childhood, spending time with my mom while she was getting herself ready, sitting in her closet full of precious handbags. I used to be fascinated by these mysterious objects that formed her collection. To this day, I can remember the feeling of my fingers carefully touching the different fabrics and textures of satin, leather and velvet. She had one for every occasion, adding the perfect finishing touch to all of her ensembles. One thing I used to love doing was to look at all of the things she could hide inside of them, most of the time forgotten objects from a dinner date the week before or old train tickets from one of her many travels. Red lipsticks, scrunched paper bills or sample glass bottles of Yves Saint Laurent, her handbags gave me access to a whole other side of my mom’s life, and still today make me dream of the women that she is. My appreciation and admiration for her handbags went beyond the recognition of the pretty objects that they were (J. Bennet 365). Through these objects, I felt connected to her in a way that I could not access otherwise, a side of her that as a mother, she kept hidden from me. I think that my fascination for her handbags, which stimulated my imagination by offering me a glimpse into a world I could not be part of just yet, reflected my desire to discover her as a woman as well as my curiosity towards adult life (J. Bennet 365). Like many other little girls, I could not wait to be old enough to have my own handbag and to fill it with all of my precious things and carry them around everywhere I go. My memories of these objects of my childhood have somehow shaped my vision towards fashion today and transformed into my passion for vintage handbags. I love the idea of buying a bag that has its own past and carries memories of another woman’s life. I collect vintage handbags as much as I collect the stories that they come with (Kopytoff 87). The item I have chosen for this analysis is not only one of my favourite, but also the first I ever bought as a consumer of second-hand garments and accessories.
The following analysis has been made following Ingrid Mida’s methodology for observation and reflection contained in her book The Dress Detective.
It is a kelly-style top handle bag from the 50s, that I found in my local vintage shop back home in Montreal Called Ruse Boutique, located at 5141 St-Laurent Boulevard. Commonly called by vintage boutique owners and online sellers the “French handbag” (see figure 6), this small bag is made out of a rather stiff structure and closes at the top with a metal clasp. Its exterior is made out of a black fine suede with brass hardware while the interior is completely lined with a shiny black satin fabric. On the inside zipper pocket, there is an inscription of the brand which says “Michel of Coronet” indicating that it was most probably made in New-York, where the Coronet inc. Handbags company was located (see figures 7 and 9). According to the seller of this bag, as well as the shape and the particularities of its style, it was most likely made between 1950 and 1960 (see figure 1). For the purpose of this short analysis, I have searched online for other handbags produced by this company approximately around the same period, which can give a good idea of what the brand was known for in the accessory market (see figures 3, 4 and 5). Considering its age, the bag is in very good condition, showing only subtle signs of wear, mainly around the edges of the suede exterior. The finesse of the brass hardware as well as the attention to details in the finish of the leather and lining, make this bag very unique. It is a rather delicate bag which contrasts with its purpose as a daytime accessory which I guessed by its rather larger size, making it more practical than other small evening bags.
It is 7,5 inches wide by 8,5 inches tall and its base is 3 inches deep. When fully extended, the opening measures 5 inches, which allows the user to fit larger items into it. The triangular shape of the bag (see figure 2) makes it easier to organize and store its contents without deforming its exterior structure. It has only one handle which is attached to one side of the bag with two small brass hoops, on both sides of the clasp closure. When fully extended the handle is 7 inches tall. There are three pockets on the inside compartment, one with a zipper closure and two other on each side that can fit flat items like cards, for example (see figure 7). The rest of the interior is free from any compartments and offers one large space that can be extended by pushing the sides out if needed (see figure 10). The overall structure of the bag seems to be made of some sort of rigid cardboard which allows for movement while being stiff enough to preserve its shape.
I fell in love with this bag not only because I thought it was unique, but also because of its outstandingly well preserved condition. The minimal marks on it show that either it was barely worn by its previous owner or that it has been taken care of relatively well. Even the inside of the handle and the bottom part are practically intact which is quite rare when it comes to vintage bags from that period. Another factor that might have influenced its well preserved condition is that during this period, fashion accessories were extremely popular and worn by women of almost every social class (Wilcox 99). In fact, women in the 50s generally used to own more than one handbag and therefore, some of them were only worn on special occasions and sometimes bought to wear with a specific outfit which would explain why a lot of bags from that period are so well preserved (Wilcox 99).
Another element that I love about this bag is that it is very characteristic of the decade in which it was made. In fact, the 50s, the introduction of the New Look by Dior marked a shift in fashion towards more feminine garments which also had influence in the design of accessories (Stone quoted in J. Leonard 1). Although critiqued for bringing back this idea of fragility associated with femininity, the new vision of Dior was also a celebration of elegance and grace (Edwina 38). At the time, handbags came in different shapes and materials, but one of the most popular styles were very structured bags built on a metal frame which conferred them this chic and sophisticated look and completed the well defined silhouette of women’s dress (Wilcox 100).
Here are some examples of very classic shapes women by women during this decade:
I can only imagine a woman, wearing this beautiful bag over her elbow, going about her day with elegance and confidence, much like this photo of Audrey Hepburn taken during this period and wearing a similar bag (see figure 13). A lot of celebrities and style icons of this time were seen and photographed wearing this particular style of bag, which probably helped to increase their popularity.
The constantly rising demand and popularity of handbags and accessories during this period, alongside with the evolution in technologies in the industries of wood and plastic gave access to a wide range of materials which allowed to create more unique designs that reinvented the classics of previous decades (Johnson 3). Designers, during the 50s started to really play and experiment with their creations by incorporating materials such as plastic and wood (See figure 14). Although their handbag designs were getting more innovative, most photographs from this period show that the overall shapes were somehow pretty similar and consisted in most common cases of a top handled style (Johnson 3).
Maybe it is the nostalgia of the pieces created in this decade that reflect my fascination for vintage pieces, or maybe it is more the stories I like to imagine in my head, but I find that there is something special about wearing second hand pieces. Despite the fact that my appreciation of this bag is very personal and that I am fully aware that the vision I have of it might not be shared by others, I am pretty much certain that everyone who will read this article will somehow relate to my feeling and be able to think of an object that for some reason they think is special. As mentioned by Elizabeth Wilson, relation between people and garments can go far beyond materiality and aesthetic (379). In her essay Magic Fashion she state that certain pieces can “take on qualities of the wearer and of the occasions on which they were worn. Their feel and smell come to represent memories, conscious and unconscious. They are far from being simply functional adjuncts to the body, or even a language of communication, although of course they are that too, but take on symbolic significance in ways of which we are not always even aware” (379). I believe that my relation to my mother and her beautiful handbags shaped my perception of this object and the emotional value I attribute it. In a way, it express the concept of singularization introduced by Igor Kopytoff which could be explained here as my fascination for this particular object that goes against its value as a commodity in today’s society (69). In contrast to my own lived experiences and memories, I can not disregard the cultural influences that made me fall in love with that particular style of bags, which, as represented by the photographs above, embody this classic and timeless elegance of the 50s. Somehow, I can not stop wondering if it is this particular bag that evokes sweet memories from my childhood which make my appreciation of it deeper and more meaningful, or if it is actually my personal relation to handbags influenced by my mother that is projected into this particular bag and therefore makes its value more significant. Nevertheless I will keep thinking that objects have more impact on us than we think and that it is by paying attention to what particular ones evoke in us that we can best appreciate their value and how they impact our lives.
Bennett, Jane. “The Force of Things: Steps Toward an Ecology of Matter.” Political Theory, vol. 32, no. 3, 2004, pp. 347-372.
Johnson, Donald-Brian. “Purses with Personality Novelty Handbags of the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s.” Antiques & Collecting Magazine, vol. 112, no. 7, 09, 2007, pp. 44-49, Research Library: Business; Research Library: History; Research Library: The Arts, ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/ docview/197190394?accountid=13631.
Kopytoff, Igor. “The cultural biography of things: commoditization as process,” in Arjun Appadurai, The Social Life of Things, Cambridge University Press, 1986, pp.65-91.
Leonard, Katherine J. “Women’s Perceptions of their Appearances in their Professional Careers between 1950 and 1975”, University of Minnesota, Ann Arbor, 2007, ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global, ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/login?url=https://search-proquest- com.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/docview/304840543?accountid=13631.
McCann, Edwina. “THE LEGACY OF CHRISTIAN DIOR: 1 Edition.” The Australian, 2007.
Mida, Ingrid, and Alexandra Kim. The Dress Detective: A Practical Guide to Object-Based Research in Fashion. Bloomsbury Academic, an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2015.
Wilcox, Claire, Elizabeth d. Currie, and Victoria and Albert Museum. bags. Thames & Hudson in association with the Victoria and Albert Museum, 2017.
Wilson, Elizabeth. “Magic Fashion.” Fashion Theory, vol. 8, no. 4, 2004, pp. 375-385.