The term “fashion” could mean a myriad of different things to different people. Some may abide by its rules as if they are divine commandments, while some may condemn it altogether, on grounds of frivolity and wastefulness. That being said, there are some objects belonging to the controversial realm of fashion, that almost all women—and some men—have carried, out of either necessity, choice, or sheer sense of exhibitionism—one such example being the handbag. Consequently, many of us hardly need to think, before reaching for our handbag prior to leaving home. Thus, the bag has gained an omnipresence in the life and wardrobe of women in general, and the modern, independent, and stylish woman in particular. In fact, some women—myself included—could be seen carrying more than one bag on any particular occasion. On a basic level, the handbag has come to hold our most intimate and ordinary items of personal importance deemed necessary for performing our daily duties.
With the passage of time, sartorially conscious men and women have shown particular interest in the fashions of the past. In fact, in the words of Giorgio Riello, “It is almost paradoxical that a phenomenon like fashion, which is continuously defined as ephemeral, leaves behind such a considerable quantity of surviving artefacts” (7). Therefore, it is the materiality of the fashion object that is of central emphasis to this blog, rather than the immaterial and abstract idea of what fashion may be or represent. Accordingly, the object of fashion has served as a subject of interest for self-proclaimed fashionistas, serious collectors or academic scholars.
Interestingly, the earliest predecessors to the needlepoint bag may be the late seventeenth or early eighteenth-century pockets (fig. 5). Though we may associate pockets with modern women’s fashions, they were initially separate articles made of strong materials such as linen or cotton; their strength also reinforced through lining the interior. These pockets which held a lady’s personal items, such as handkerchief and pocketbook, were also beautifully embroidered in silk. Consequently, wide skirts in fashion, allowed for these roomy and deep pockets to be worn on a band at the waist, and safely concealed from public view (Wilson 34). In fact, due to their close proximity to the wearer’s skin, pockets were even considered by some as underwear (Cox 20). In addition to that, pockets were also highly symbolic of gendered binaries; social conventions demanded that, they be concealed when worn by women, as it was unbecoming for a respectable lady to be seen rummaging under her petticoats and into her pockets. In direct contrast to that, the highly visible and prominently positioned pockets on fashions revealed and asserted the male agency and power (Burman 459).
These pockets eventually evolved into what is most similar to our own purses of today, the ‘reticule,’ which held a woman’s personal belongings and was carried in public (fig 6). In fact, the visibility of a woman’s reticule became a source of public scrutiny and led to instances of mockery and ridicule (Cox 20). Thus, it is important to note that, although material, these bags—or any other material item of fashion—were more than mere objects; they were signifiers of the larger socio-cultural, economic and personal practices within a nineteenth century context (Riello 5). Furthermore, the floral motifs and delicate embroideries of these objects were symbolic of nineteenth century gender dynamics. In direct contrast to the sobriety of the husband, was the frivolous beauty and the sweetness of the wife—the domestic diva in charge of flaunting the familial wealth (Cox 27).
In the highly problematic and misogynistic theories of Thorstein Veblen, “The homely reason for all this conspicuous leisure and attire on the part of the women lies in the fact that they are servants to whom, in the differentiation of economic functions, has been delegated the office of putting in evidence of their master’s ability to pay” (345). All the above considered, one must remain cognizant of the fact that, Veblen was writing for contemporary nineteenth-century society, where such notions—incredibly absurd to the twenty-first century reader—were highly normalized and rather largely accepted. Also, Christopher Breward maintains, the socio-economic significance of a woman’s wardrobe being “specifically concerned with the display of power through a wealth of textiles and the cultivation of physical beauty” dates back to the Medieval period or perhaps even earlier (33).
In this next section, let’s closely examine, and compare my own bag, with the ones belonging to the Ryerson Fashion Research Collection (FRC) by doing a material culture analysis using the Slow Approach to Seeing, as developed by Ingrid Mida and Alexandra Kim.
The first bag from the FRC with catalog number 1989.04.019 is a “black needlepoint purse in floral motif with pink, green and yellow circular pattern. Brass-coloured closure and looped chain handle” (figures 7–10).
My own observation is that there is a hand-made/homemade quality to this purse, as the hand-stitched exterior layer is sewn onto the frame and the interior lining. In fact, I found the irregularity of the frame, as well as the overall floral pattern of the bag to be quite similar to other needlepoint purses c.1910 (figures 11–13).
Consequently, the individual features of this purse are also more closely reminiscent of those popular in the first decades of the century, as seen in this fashion plate (fig 14) c. 1911. It is highly important to note, that the popularity and use of purses was due to the narrowing silhouettes of female fashions during the late nineteenth and into the early twentieth centuries. According to Caroline Cox, women were significantly more engaged in public, which was partially thanks to the emergence of the department store, as well as their opposition to merely spending all their time at home. In fact, these women were interested in having their voices heard as contributing and active members of society and demanded more rights (33).
The second bag belonging to the FRC with catalog number 2013.99.052 is a “needlepoint purse with brass closure” (figures 15–18). This purse has a semi-circular metal frame and chain handle, a kissing clasp closure that is decorated with two small clear beads on top.
The surface is decorated with cross-stitched floral motifs and a central motif of a basket of flowers, and the interior of the purse is lined. The colours of this particular purse are much more vibrant compared to the other one belonging to the collection which, may suggest less use or, perhaps a later date.
I also found that the clasp is quite similar to an embellished purse from c.1920s (figures 19 and 20). Subsequently, this interest in petite point or needlepoint purses was also emphasized in popular women’s periodicals such as this article from The Women’s Wear Daily Archive’s January 23, 1925 issue (fig 22), suggesting “Handbags: Demand Said To Exceed Supply In Hand Embroidered Tapestry Effect Bags…”(25).
Now, lastly—and most importantly—let’s examine my own bag. I have chosen to discuss this bag last, for I preferred to examine the earlier purses first, and subsequently, use their qualities to assist me in examining my own. Indeed, the seller was somewhat correct in her estimation of 1950s or 1960s. Along with this, I have found that although needlepoint bags made a comeback in the 1950s, it was not until the 1960s that they gained wider popularity amongst the fashionable (fig 21). Of course, this observation is based on examining existing sources for bags and finding that most needlepoint bags were dated as c.1960s, rather the 1950s. I am also pleased to find that, contrary to the seller’s belief, this bag, is in fact, an authentic needlepoint bag, however, it is definitely larger in size and its decorative pattern would most likely have been machine embroidered rather than done by hand.
In closing, my research took on a life of its own; indeed, I began by trying to find out more about the bag that I had purchased and, ended up also learning more about the ones found in the FRC. Furthermore, I find it quite fascinating that, needlework, being a pastime activity of higher class seventeenth century women who were excluded from public life, would become one of the defining motifs of the twentieth century and their early strides towards the emancipation of women and their sartorial choices.
Breward, Christopher. The Culture of Fashion. Manchster, 1995.
Burman, Barbara. “Pocketing the Difference: Gender and Pockets in Nineteenth-CenturyBritain.” Gender & History, vol. 14, no. 3, 2002, pp. 447–469.
Cox, Caroline. Bags: An Illustrated History. Arum, 2007.
Ivo, Sigrid. Bags: a selection from The Museum of Bags and Purses, Amsterdam: Tassen,Bolsos, Sacs. The Pepin Press, 2011.
Johnson, Anna. Handbags: The Power of the Purse. Workman Publishing, 2002.
Kopytoff, Igor. “The cultural biography of things: commoditization as process.” The social life ofthings: Commodities in cultural perspective, edited by Arjun Appadurai, Cambridge, 2017, pp. 64–91.
Mida, Ingrid, and Alexandra Kim. The Dress Detective: A Practical Guide to Object-Based Research in Fashion. London; New York: Bloomsbury Academic, an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2015.
Pedersen, Stephanie. Handbags: what every woman should know. David & Charles, 2006.
Riello, Giorgio. “The object of fashion: methodological approaches to the history of fashion.”Journal of Aethtetics & Culture, vol. 3, 2011, pp. 1–9.
Veblen, Thorstein. “Dress as an Expression of the Pecuniary Culture.” Fashion Theory: AReader, edited by Malcolm Barnard, Routledge, 2007, pp. 340–346.
Wilcox, Claire. Accessories: Bags. Thames & Hudson, 2017.
“Handbags: Demand Said To Exceed Supply In Hand Embroidered Tapestry Effect Bags”Women’s Wear Daily Archive, Vol. 30, no.19, Jan. 23, p.25.