A Brief History of Handbags, Coin Purses, and Clutches

We’re all here because we love one thing - figural vintage wicker handbags. But where did these handbags come from (besides my ridiculous brain that is)? I thought perhaps it would be fun to discuss the history of handbags, coin purses, and clutches with you today. 

But before we begin, I think it’s important for you to truly understand your purse. 

Let’s talk about some different types of handbags we so cherish, and then take a look at the history of handbags from hunter-gatherers to laptop-toting location-independent workers.

What’s in a name?: All the purse-sibilities 

There are so many varieties of purse that it can leave you a bit perplexed. Purse-plexed, if you will.

So I would like to explain the difference between some important styles and types of purses so you have a better understanding once we talk about the history of handbags. 

Some common styles of purses include: 

  • Basket purse: A basket purse is any woven purse made in a natural material such as straw, rattan, or bamboo. It can be in the rigid style of an actual wicker basket (think the cutest picnic basket purse ever) or can be a floppy tote.

    A basket purse could also refer to those small circular designs in Bali, or even to our very own figural animal bags. We are very much fans of basket purses.
  • Clutch: A clutch is a small, slim, hand-held handbag. It is usually rectangular in shape, and may come without handles or with a little wrist strap included. Some may even feature a shoulder strap!

    A clutch can be made in a hard clam shell or envelope style, or made as a soft fabric pouch. The main quality that defines a clutch is its proportions. This purse is meant for holding your night-out essentials - it is not a carry-all bag.

  • Coin purse: A coin purse is a small purse used specifically for keeping coins organised. They can have button or zipper closures, and can come in all shapes and styles - like our animal-shaped coin purses!

  • Crossbody bag: A crossbody bag is any bag with one long shoulder strap that crosses diagonally over the body with the bag resting by the hip.

  • Handbag: A handbag may refer specifically to a style of purse that is worn hanging off one elbow or shoulder. It can also be synonymous with “purse” as an overarching description. In this post on the history of handbags, handbag simply means “purse.”

  • Hobo bag: A hobo bag is a slouchy, crescent-shaped purse with a long strap that is worn over the shoulder. Hobo bags are usually quite large and are made from soft, flexible material that slumps when set down.

  • Messenger bag: A messenger bag is based on the old bags worn by mail carriers. Today, they might be used for laptop bags or school supplies, or simply as an everyday purse.

    Messenger bags are worn in the crossbody style and have a fold-over top flap that buckles or buttons in place to keep the items inside secure.

  • Tote: A tote bag is a medium-to-enormously-large bag with two handles and an open top. Totes are usually quite rigid, made from sturdy material like nylon or canvas that can hold heavy loads (think our reusable tote bags). They are also known as “shoppers” or “carry-all bags.” 

Now that you have a basic understanding of purses, it’s time to delve into the history of handbags as a whole so you can see where they came from - and why they are still so incredibly important today. 

The history of handbags 

Believe it or not, the history of handbags has ancient roots, just like our lovely dinosaur purse collection. While dinosaurs themselves were not slinging satchels (I do love to picture this though) the first purse arrived shortly after. 

There are many things we still don’t understand about this time. For example, did you know that the Brontosaurus never really existed? (If not, then you might also want to head over to our dinosaur trivia page.) 

But one thing we do know is this. 

Purses were there. 

A brisk beginning

The history of handbags began in the Ice Age, and the very first purse was possessed by a man. His name was Otzi.

You see, Otzi the Iceman found that when being pursued by a sabertooth tiger, it was very nice to have your hands free. 

And so, he fashioned a fur pouch to hold his essentials - fully equipped with drawstring closures. 

Otzi had absolutely no idea what a trendsetter he was, and would sadly never find out. While his purse may have saved him from an earlier end, it could not save him from the ultimate arrow to the back

From handbags to hieroglyphs

A few thousand years later, and in much warmer climates, purses showed up in Ancient Egypt. 

Once again, it was men who adorned themselves with these accessories. Hieroglyphs depicted men carrying pouches around their waists, often adorned with jewels and finery. 

Purses had moved from a simple necessity to a status symbol and fashion statement. 

Medieval money sacks 

The history of handbags takes a bit of a leap here. While there are plenty of ancient handbag-like symbols that have popped up all over the world (leading to much speculation) the common use of handbags was not well documented until 13th century Europe. 

But we know some form of handbags were around, because as long as coins have existed in society, we have needed coin purses for carrying our fortunes.

During medieval times, people carried around drawstring leather pouches made from animal skins or bladders called almoners or alms bags. These were used for holding coins among other things. 

By the 15th century, both men and women were using coin purses, and they had become a status symbol in their own right. The quality of the bag, and the fine embroidery upon it, helped to show off the wealth and station of the bearer. 

But these fanciful displays were not set to last, as the history of handbags took another turn. 

A renaissance in the history of handbags

When art was at its most visible, and the age of inventions was upon us...purses were nowhere to be found. 

That’s because fashions of the day all but obscured them. Indeed, in the 16th and 17th centuries, women started wearing such voluminous dresses that they simply could not wear their coin purse outside their outfit. 

There was only one option - to put the purse inside. 

And so, the coin pouch was worn, out of sight, tied around the waist on the inside of a woman’s skirts. 

Shortly afterward, the pocket was invented. This meant women could store their essentials safely inside their clothes. There was simply no need for purses anymore. With such girthy pockets, they could fit anything they could possibly dream of carrying!

*A moment of gratitude for dresses with pockets* 

Instead of a coin pouch, men began to carry wallets to keep their coins organised in their pockets. 

But we all know fashion is always evolving, and the winds of change were already brewing in the history of handbags. 

The silhouette scandal 

By the end of the 18th century, volume was no longer popular. Slim was in. 

This was a problem for our pocket-loving ladies.

The slender, high-waisted gowns left little to the imagination. And if you think panty-lines are bad, just think of the pocket-lines. They were a serious fashion faux pas.

Everyone knew one thing for certain - interior purse pockets simply HAD to go. 

And so, the history of handbags took a turn yet again and the reticule was born. The reticule, also known as an indispensable, was a small handbag with a wrist strap that was made for holding a bit of makeup, some perfume, and perhaps a fan. 

These indepensibles were often embroidered, and sometimes made of beautiful mother-of-pearl shell or suede leather. They became all the rage among the ladies. 

But not everyone found the indispensables...quite so indispensable. 

You see, at this point in history, purses were still considered undergarments. And women were now WAVING THEM AROUND IN PUBLIC. 

As noted in Bags: An Illustrated History, many people viewed these handbags vulgar, as if a woman were lifting up her skirts and showing her underthings off to the world. 

YOU GO GIRLS. 

The clutch commences 

Later, in the roaring 20s in the United States, there was a resurgence of classical style dresses - and thus, the reticule was back in style with a revamped look. 

The flapper dress called for a woman’s clutch purse that would not detract from the line of the body, and that would not get tangled in all the tassels. And so, straps were out. 

Instead, a handle-free bedecked and bedazzled bag was born. The classic woman’s clutch. 

Gem-encrusted clutches quickly became THE accessory for stars and socialites alike. 

It wasn’t until WWII that the clutch gained popularity as an everyday item for the masses, but since then, the clutch has never lost its charm. 

Power to the purse 

The history of handbags took another turn in the late 1970s when the purse of Margaret Thatcher, then UK Prime Minister, became an icon in its own right. 

Margaret Thatcher became known for not only her no-nonsense philosophy, but her chunky black leather handbag. It was this handbag that launched the era of luxury leather handbags with four-figure price tags - as well as the notion you should change your bag to suit your mood. 

But Margaret’s wasn’t the only purse with power. The Queen would often use her handbag to signal to her guards when conversations or meals were over. With the right cue, any guest who had overstayed their welcome would be ushered from the room, no awkward goodbyes needed.

If only it were so simple for all of us!

The birth of the modern handbag

Women wanted handbags. Functional, powerful ones. And women were now traveling and socialising and working more than ever - so they needed a way to transport their important belongings. 

Enter portable luggage - aka the modern handbag. Louis Vuitton and other luggage makers began to create sturdy, functional purses...and the rest was history!

Now we have purses of every shape and size. Seasonal purses. Coin purses and wallets within purses. Evening purses, fanny packs, and beach totes. Even wicker animal handbags

And today, purses are cycling back around to being unisex. Messenger bags, satchels, and crossbody packs are becoming popular for men world-wide. There is nothing stopping anyone from enjoying ANY style of purse they please - and we very much love to see anyone and everyone enjoying our quirky creations.

Why just one purse won’t cut it today 

There is a purse for every occasion - but not all purses work for all occasions across the board! 

If you’re taking a trip to the beach, you’ll most likely want a tote or basket bag to carry all your seaside essentials: from sunscreen to beach towel to engrossing beach read. 

But it is quite easy to lose small things in such a large bag. If you don't want to walk around constantly digging in your bag or jingling everywhere you go, then a coin purse or clutch bag is essential. 

Likewise, if going to a concert, you’re not going to want to lug your carry-all bag about (and the crowd certainly wouldn’t thank you for smacking them with one).

Sometimes, small is best. 

And so, while I have only the deepest fondness for our large, curvy wicker animal handbags, I do realize that sometimes their gorgeous girth just doesn’t fit the situation. 

Which is why I’ve started creating some other handbag options for you

Welcome to the Wicker Darling shake-up!

My delicious and delicate meat pies, everything I do I do for YOU.

I want your Wicker Darling designs to be the most functional and adorable accessories possible, so I am always listening to feedback.

You asked for more stand-alone coin purses, and now you have them! And you’re in luck because in the history of handbags, I don’t think there have ever been such cute companions as our mini coin purses and our wicker animal bags. They are (quite literally) MADE for each other. 

AND we will ALSO have some very lovely, Australiana-inspired new purse designs sneaking into the workroom shortly - and I don’t mean our usual handbags. 

That’s right, you’ll see some clutches crawling onto the website very soon. 

And in true Wicker Darling fashion, we will be mixing up not only our materials and designs, but our order process as well. So get your well-clad backside over to our mailing list to get the details FIRST. You won’t want to miss what’s coming later this year.

September 28, 2021 — Averi Melcher