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Queen Elizabeth II, holding her Launer London handbag

A handbag, commonly known as a purse in North American English, is a handled medium-to-large bag used to carry personal items.

Purse, handbag or pouch[edit]

The term "purse" originally referred to a small bag for holding coins. In many English-speaking countries, it is still used to refer to a small money bag. A "handbag" is a larger accessory that holds objects beyond currency, such as personal items. American English typically uses the terms purse and handbag interchangeably. The term handbag began appearing in the early 1900s. Initially, it was most often used to refer to men's hand-luggage. Women's bags grew larger and more complex during this period, and the term was attached to the accessory.[1] "Pocketbook" is another term for a woman's handbag that was most commonly used on the East Coast of the United States in the mid-twentieth century.[2]

Modern origin[edit]

Women's fashion from 1830, including a reticule handbag from France[3]

Early modern Europeans wore purses for one sole purpose: to carry coins. Purses were made of soft fabric or leather and were worn by men as often as ladies; the Scottish sporran is a survival of this custom. In the 17th century, young girls were taught embroidery as a necessary skill for marriage; this also helped them make very beautiful handbags.[4]

By the late 18th century, fashions in Europe were moving towards a slender shape for these accessories, inspired by the silhouettes of Ancient Greece and Rome. Women wanted purses that would not be bulky or untidy in appearance, so reticules were designed. Reticules were made of fine fabrics like silk and velvet, carried with wrist straps. First becoming popular in France, they crossed over into Britain, where they became known as "indispensables."[5] Men, however, did not adopt the trend. They used purses and pockets, which became popular in men's trousers.[6]

The modern purse, clutch, pouch, or handbag came about in England during the Industrial Revolution, in part due to the increase in travel by railway. In 1841 the Doncaster industrialist and confectionery entrepreneur Samuel Parkinson (of butterscotch fame) ordered a set of traveling cases and trunks and insisted on a traveling case or bag for his wife's particulars after noticing that her purse was too small and made from a material that would not withstand the journey.

He stipulated that he wanted various handbags for his wife, varying in size for different occasions, and asked that they be made from the same leather that was being used for his cases and trunks to distinguish them from the then-familiar carpetbag and other travelers' cloth bags used by members of the popular classes. H. J. Cave (London) obliged and produced the first modern set of luxury handbags, as we would recognize them today, including a clutch and a tote (named as 'ladies traveling case').

These are now on display in the Museum of Bags and Purses in Amsterdam. H. J. Cave did continue to sell and advertise the handbags, but many critics said that women did not need them and that bags of such size and heavy material would 'break the backs of ladies.' H. J. Cave ceased to promote the bags after 1865, concentrating on trunks instead, although they continued to make the odd handbag for royalty, celebrities or to celebrate special occasions, the Queen's 2012 Diamond Jubilee being the most recent. However, H.J. Cave resumed handbag production in 2010.[7]

20th century[edit]

When handbags started to become popularized, they were heavily criticized as it was seen as unfeminine. In the early 20th century, Sigmund Freud argued that purses were sexually suggestive as the structure of the purse symbolized female genitalia and sexuality. Before handbags, pockets were secured inside of a woman's dress which held personal items and retrieving items was done discreetly and modestly. Due to handbags being carried in the open, the accessory exposed a woman's personal items. Freud compared women retrieving items from their purse as a representation of masturbation. According to Freud's argument, women who carried purses openly displayed their sexuality due to the sexual symbolism of the purse.[8]

As handbags grew into the mainstream in the 20th century, they began to transform from purely practical items to symbols of the wearer's wealth and worth in society. The styles, materials, prices, and, most importantly, the brand names of purses and handbags became just as (if not more) valuable than the functionality of the bags themselves. Handbags transitioned from being seen as unfeminine, to being seen as specifically feminine and unmasculine. While women's bags served as fashion accessories not meant to hold more than a few personal and beauty items (feminine things), men's bags stayed more in the realm of briefcases: square, hard-edged, plain; containing items pertaining to the “man’s world”: business-related items, documents, files, stationery and pens. The gendered division between the personal bag and the business bag meets in the middle with the unisex alms purse originating in the Middle Ages meant to carry coins to donate to the church or the poor. The charitable symbolism of the alms purse later carried over to women's handbags in general; a woman carrying a bag was seen as upper class and therefore potentially using the bag to hold her donations.[8]

During the 1940s, the rationing of textiles for World War II led to the manufacturing of handbags made in materials like raffia or crocheted from yarn.[9] Some women crocheted their own small handbags from commercial patterns during this period.

Men's bags [edit]

A casual messenger bag

The oldest known purse dates back more than 5000 years, and was a pouch worn by a man, Ötzi the Iceman.[10] Men once carried coin purses. In early modern Europe, when women's fashions moved in the direction of using small ornamental purses, which evolved into handbags, men's fashions were moving in another direction. Men's trousers replaced men's breeches during the course of the 18th and 19th centuries, and pockets were incorporated in the loose, heavy material. This enabled men to continue carrying coins, and then paper currency, in small leather wallets. Men's pockets were plentiful in the 19th century and 20th century trousers and coats, to carry possessions, such as pipes, matches, and knives, and they were an item frequently mended by their wives.[6]

Men's purses were revived by designers in the 1970s in Europe.[11] Since the 1990s, designers have marketed a more diverse range of accessory bags for men. The names man bag, man-purse and murse have been used. The designs common in the U.S. 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. These bags are often called messenger bags or organizer bags. In many other countries, it is common for men to carry small rectangular shoulder bags, often made of leather. The leather satchel is also common. Men's designer bags are produced by well-known companies such as Prada, Louis Vuitton, Coach, and Bottega Veneta in a variety of shapes and sizes. The global men's bag and small leather goods trade is a $4-billion-a-year industry.[12] Sales of men's accessories including "holdall" bags are increasing in North America.[13]


An 1875 Chatelaine bag, with a buckram frame and velvet body. It would have been "hooked" into the waist of the skirt.
Crocodile skin handbags in a conservation exhibit at Bristol Zoo, England

As a fashion accessory, handbags can be categorized according to the silhouette of the bag, as well as the type of handle.

  • Baguette: a small, narrow, rectangular shape purse, resembling a French loaf of bread (baguette).
  • Barrel: shaped like a barrel or closed tube, usually with shoulder-length straps.
  • Bowling bag: a popular 1990s "retro" style for younger women, modeled after American bags used to carry bowling balls.
  • Bucket bag: a round bag, shaped like a bucket, medium-size or large, with shoulder straps and a drawstring closure.
  • Carpet bag: The carpet bag, popular in the 1920s-1940s made a resurgence in the 1960s-1970s and was made popular by Mary Poppins. It was typically an oversized tote bag not constructed of carpet, but rather a thicker fabric that resembled carpet which incorporated crushed velvet and a variety of patchwork fabrics.
  • Clutch: a handbag without handles, rectangular in shape, often an evening bag but used during the day as well. Some will feature a strap that can be worn over the shoulder.[14]
  • Doctor's bag: also known as a Gladstone bag, modeled after a Victorian-era doctor's bag for making housecalls.
  • Drawstring bag: a bag that closes with a drawstring at the top, and often has two straps to be worn over the shoulders like a backpack.
  • Fanny pack: is typically a smaller bag that can be worn around the waist, over the shoulder, or even across the chest area. Called a Bumbag in the UK.
  • Half-moon bag: is shaped like a half-moon.[15]
  • Hobo bag: medium-size crescent-shaped bag with a top zipper and often a slouch or dip in the center; a modern, casual silhouette.
  • Kiondo: a handwoven handbag made from sisal with leather trimmings. It is indigenous to Kenya.
  • Lighted: a handbag with a lighting system which has been attempted since the 1950s without success until recently when in 2011 the first successful lighted handbag was brought to market.
  • Lucite handbags: Post World War 2, there was an abundance of plastic in the United States. This gave rise to the Lucite Handbag. Each bag was produced off an injection mold and designed in an array of stunning colors and shapes. Llewellyn and Patricia of Miami were some of the largest producers of these types of bags.
  • Messenger bag: a bag with typically one long strap worn across the body, inspired by bags worn by urban messengers to deliver business mail, a modern silhouette.
  • Minaudière: a small rectangular evening bag, usually hard-bodied, sometimes held inside a soft fabric bag that serves as a sleeve.
  • Muff: a winter bag made of real or faux fur, wool, or velvet that has zippered compartments and a slip opening for hands.
  • Pocketbook: is a small purse, rectangular in shape.
  • Pouch: a small bag such as a pocket, teabag, money bag, sporran, etc.
  • Reticule: also known as a ridicule or indispensable, was a type of small drawstring handbag or purse, similar to a modern evening bag, used mainly from 1795 to 1820.
  • Saddlebag: shaped like a horse saddle, may have equestrian motifs and hardware to emphasize the design.
  • Satchel: a soft-sided case usually of leather.
  • Tote bag: is a medium to large bag with two straps and an open top.
  • Trapezoid bag: is shaped like a trapezoid, usually made of stiff material.
  • Wristlet: a small handbag with a short carrying strap resembling a bracelet that can be worn around the wrist. Similar to a clutch in design, but with the added wrist strap.

According to the type of handle, handbags are often categorized as:

  • Crossbody bag: one long strap that crosses over the body, with the bag resting by the waist.[16]
  • Clutch: is typically a small handbag without handles with an optional shoulder strap.
  • Fanny pack: is typically a smaller bag that can be worn around the waist, over the shoulder, or even across the chest area.
  • Shoulder bag: any bag with shoulder-length straps.
  • Sling bag: one long, wide strap that crosses over the body, with the bag resting on the back.
  • Tote bag: a medium to large bag with two straps and an open top.

Handbags that are designed for specific utilitarian needs include:

  • Camera bag: for carrying photography equipment.
  • Cosmetic bag: a small bag for holding cosmetics, often made of synthetic waterproof protective material.
  • Diaper bag: carry all necessities for baby with numerous pockets including a removable changing pad.
  • Duffel bag: a large cylindrical bag usually used for travel or sports gear, sometimes called a "weekend bag".
  • Gym bag: for carrying toiletry items and the clothing and/or shoes a person intends to use for their workout.
  • Laptop bag: a medium to large bag that contains a padded interior compartment or sleeve for protecting a laptop computer.
  • Security bag: protects the carrier from travel theft and includes an invisible stainless steel strap sewn into the fabric and a protectant on the main zipper.
  • School bag: for carrying school needs ex: books, pencils, etc.


1860 Woman's handbag with frame and kissing lock (LACMA)

A distinction can also be made between soft-body handbags or frame handbags, where a metal frame supports the textile or leather of the bag. Frame bags often use a kissing lock closure, with two interlocking metal beads set on the top of the frame. Kissing locks were popular on handbags during the early- to mid-20th century, and remain popular with vintage collectors and in "retro" designs. These locks are still seen on smaller coin purses.

Coinage as a verb[edit]

The verb "to handbag"[17] and its humorous usage was inspired in the 1980s by UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher having “weaponized” the handbag in the opinion of British biographer and historian David Cannadine.[18] As “her most visible symbol of her power to command” the bag became an emphatic prop that she produced at meetings to show she meant business. She would invariably bring out of the bag a crucial document from which she would quote, her speech notes often being cut to size to fit inside. Because Thatcher was Britain's first female prime minister, former Daily Telegraph editor Charles Moore wrote in his authorised biography of 2013, “her handbag became the sceptre of her rule”.[19]

The verb's more general meaning of "treating ruthlessly" came to symbolize Thatcher's whole style of government. Victims of her handbaggings, from political leaders to journalists, have testified[20] to what the German chancellor Helmut Kohl perceived as her “ice-cold pursuit of her interests”. US secretary of state James Baker recalled her standby ploy: “When negotiations stall, get out the handbag! The solution is always there.”

Julian Critchley, one of her biggest Tory backbench critics, once said, "Margaret Thatcher and her handbag is the same as Winston Churchill and his cigar."[21] Thatcher's bag was almost as newsworthy an item as she was herself and on the day she died, one of her handbag-makers saw a sharp rise in sales of her favorite structured design. The original bag Thatcher asserts on a signed card was the one “used every day in my time at Downing Street”[18] is archived at Churchill College, Cambridge. Made of dark blue leather “in mock-croc style”, it was a gift from friends on her birthday in 1984.

Gallery of popular silhouettes[edit]

Gallery of traditional types[edit]

Gallery of contemporary types[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Browning, Marie (2006). Purse Pizzazz. Sterling Publishing. p. 8. ISBN 978-1-4027-4065-7.
  2. ^ McCormick, Kendall. "Difference Between a Purse vs. a Handbag". LoveToKnow. Retrieved 30 April 2022.
  3. ^ "Los Angeles County Museum of Art". Collectionsonline.lacma.org. Archived from the original on 24 October 2011. Retrieved 30 November 2012.
  4. ^ Timmons, Henrietta. "History of Handbags- From the 14th Century to Present Day Handbag Designers". Retrieved 28 May 2017.
  5. ^ Hagerty, Barbara G. S. (2002). Handbags: a peek inside a woman's most trusted accessory. Running Press Book Publishers. pp. 14–5. ISBN 0-7624-1330-1.
  6. ^ a b Burman, Barbara; Turbin, Carole, eds. (2003). Material Strategies: Dress and Gender in Historical Perspective. Wiley-Blackwell. pp. 83–4. ISBN 978-1-4051-0906-2.
  7. ^ Stockley, Philippa (2 September 2012). "Yes, the contents mean a lot, but it's the bag that matters most". The Independent. Retrieved 27 September 2015.
  8. ^ a b Hiner, Susan (10 June 2010). "Accessories to Modernity: Fashion and the Feminine in Nineteenth-Century France". JSTOR. University of Pennsylvania Press: 178–210. JSTOR j.ctt3fhhgk.10. Retrieved 11 May 2021.
  9. ^ Pedersen, Stephanie (2006). Handbags : what every woman should know. Internet Archive. Cincinnati, OH: David & Charles. ISBN 978-0-7153-2495-0.
  10. ^ Gerval, Olivier (2009). Studies in Fashion: Fashion Accessories. A & C Black. p. 44. ISBN 978-1-4081-1058-4.
  11. ^ Sarti, Giorgio (2006). Vespa: 1946-2006: 60 Years of the Vespa. St. Paul, Minnesota: Motorbooks. p. 117. ISBN 978-0-7603-2577-3.
  12. ^ Standard & Poor's (2011). Standard & Poor's 500 Guide. Coach Inc.: McGraw-Hill. ISBN 978-0-07-175491-0.
  13. ^ Clifford, Stephanie (19 February 2012). "Men Step Out of the Recession, Bag on Hip, Bracelet on Wrist". The New York Times.
  14. ^ "Similar But Differents: Clutch vs Wristlet". The Luxonomist (in Spanish). 1 November 2015. Retrieved 26 January 2021.
  15. ^ Bobila, Maria. "18 Half-Moon Handbags for When You're Tired of Your Bucket Bag". Fashionista. Retrieved 26 January 2021.
  16. ^ "Guide to Buying and Wearing Your Best Crossbody Bag". Pakapalooza. Retrieved 26 January 2021.
  17. ^ "Handbag | Definition of Handbag by Lexico". Lexico Dictionaries | English. Archived from the original on 5 October 2019.
  18. ^ a b Cannadine, David. "Prime Ministers' Props, Series 2, Margaret Thatcher's Handbag". BBC Radio 4, 2018-08-29. Retrieved 29 August 2018.
  19. ^ Charles Moore (2013). Margaret Thatcher: The Authorized Biography, Volume One: Not For Turning. Allen Lane: London. ISBN 978-0-7139-9288-5.
  20. ^ "I was handbagged by Mrs Thatcher". BBC News. Ollie Stone-Lee, 9 April 2013. Retrieved 17 June 2014.
  21. ^ Alexander, Hilary (12 April 2013). "Margaret Thatcher: style, Aquascutum and the original power dresser". Daily Telegraph. Archived from the original on 12 January 2022.
  22. ^ "Purse | Mexican | The Met". The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Further reading[edit]