Handbags have been used by both men and women since at least the fourteenth century. During the 1300’s and 1400’s, handbags were attached at the waist to the girdle, as well as items such as rosaries, pomanders, daggers and chatelaines. Pockets had not yet been invented, and everything including the drawstring purse hung from the girdle.
These purses, called tasques or hamondeys were a sign of status, and the more ornate they were, the better. They were frequently embroidered and embellished with jewels, for those wealthy enough to afford it. At this time, purses were not particularly used for carrying money, but more as a sign of betrothal and marriage.
Another type of purse at this time was the chanery; this was used to hold food for gaming and falconry.
During the 1500’s and into the Elizabethan era, the small medieval girdle purses became lost in the voluminous skirts that had become fashionable. Women began to instead wear pouches under their skirts, and men would wear separate leather pockets inside their breeches. Poorer citizens carried across-the-body style satchel bags.
This was also a time of poor personal hygiene, and here these handbags served another purpose. “Swete Bagges” were filled with herbs, spices, lavender, and perfumed cotton balls to serve the same purpose pomanders previously had.
In the seventeenth century, purses continued to be hung beneath the clothing, and were often used as decorative carriers for gifts such as jewels, money, and perfumes. Later in the 1600’s, they became more complex and the simple drawstring shape soon became a thing of the past.
Bags were made generally from soft leather or cloth – hence, few examples remain today.
After the French Revolution, women’s fashions became more narrow and simple, and the lack of volume in the newer-style skirts and dresses made it impossible to hide pocket pouches. Purses called reticules were the norm for fashionable ladies, and by now the humble handbag was becoming indispensible to women…
Next time we will continue looking at how handbags have evolved from the 1800’s through to the present day’s designer inspired handbags we women love so much.