A Fashion Icon: How Did Handbags Originate?

For women all over the planet, the idea of a world without handbags seems impossible to imagine. Aside from the style aesthetic of a fabulous designer handbag or designer inspired handbag, how on earth would we carry all the bits and bobs we need on a daily basis?

A version of the handbag has been used since ancient times. Consider that from the dawn of civilization, men and women have used purses as practical articles of everyday life, carrying money and other items for trade, as well as personal items. They were and are today used both to signify status and also to conceal personal items not for public display.

Most early handbags or pouches were attached at the waist belt or girdle. Ever since humans had the need to carry personal items, pouches, purses and bags have been used. The ancients made them from cloth or leather, and initially they were used primarily by men to carry coins. Consider:



  • The Biblical Judas Iscariot was specifically identified as being a purse carrier


  • Ancient Egyptians are shown in hieroglyphics carrying pouches at the waist


  • African Priests carried bags which were decoratively beaded


  • Early rural cultures saw peasants use pouches to carry seeds


By the fourteenth century, drawstring pouches were used by both women and men to carry money. They were attached to the girdle by a long string which hung from the waist. Pockets were yet to be invented. Women’s drawstring bags were often ornate, and were called hamondeys or tasques. Even this early, bags were a way one identified the social status of another. Social prestige was identifiable by the amount of embellishment or adornment on a handbag.


In medieval times, purses were not simply for carrying money. They were associated with betrothal and marriage, and many were embroidered with images depicting love stories.

Chaneries were purses for the specific purpose of holding food for hunting falcons.

Religious relics were held in ecclesiastical purses.

There are not many authentic ancient handbags in existence today, as they were made from perishable materials. Items which do survive are historically amazing and offer a glimpse into the deep past – but also show us how much things really have not changed. The ancients loved their handbags, used them for self expression and to suggest social status – and so do we. It’s a love affair which will likely last as long as humankind does!