An average woman’s handbag is roughly 16 by 11 inches these days, and filled with a little computer, make up, money, ID, vaccination records, driver’s license and registration, dog potty bags, wallet, snacks for the kids; the list goes on. This was not always the case. J.H. sent me a beaded bag measuring 4 by 5 inches with a label from France. Those were the days. The man who took you to dinner in those days actually was expected to bring the fat wallet!
J.H.’s heirloom is a handmade micro-beaded evening bag with glass seed beads from the 1930s, with Tambour embroidered accents in rose and orange in the Point de Beauvais stitch with micro-petit point, with both round and faceted beads. The bag has a white satin lining with a tiny little pocket, which might have held a mirror. The small chain handle is supported by a gold tone spring tension frame sewn onto the fabric.
Designers of the period to look out for are Freddy, Joseph, La Belle Creole, C and M Caron, and Walborg of France; these were carried in the States by Bergdorf Goodman and Saks Fifth Avenue.
A French beaded bag can be lavish, and sometimes embellished with enameling over the metal frame, called Champleve Enamel, or Cloisonne, accented with pearls, faux jewels, and porcelain medallions, often made by Limoges.
The handbag, so necessary today, was not often historically necessary, because for generations women’s dresses had pockets, and we didn’t need to get “out” much anyway. In the 18th century, the couture of high society demanded a lady show off her waist and hip shape, so pockets went out. Women who did leave the house needed to carry a few things, so they made their own bags, literally a bag, which had a drawstring, called a reticule. This was worn off the belt or a waist chain called a chatelaine. Women learned how to hand bead, crochet and embroider these bags, work which served two purposes: they advertised the lady’s skill as a needlewoman (a mark of a good wife), and they advertised their fashion sense to fellow females.
In the late 19th century, the world changed with the advent of country-wide railways, and women traveled — and needed to carry more stuff around — so bags, still mainly in the drawstring style, became larger. But when sticking close to home, a new type of bag was developed which was smaller, usually in metal mesh and steel metal beads, and worn with a silver clip from which dangled a short chain, off the sash or belt. These little bags were accompanied by a small silver chained flask for smelling salts, or a keychain for house and furniture keys. These small bags are mistaken today for coin purses. For larger bags worn out of doors, France remained the leader in beaded bags and the center of the beading world.
American women noticed the French steel-beaded French bags, and American factories began to make these bags, but the problem was our metal beads rusted. France retained its lead!
The 1920s was the highpoint of beaded clasp and reticle bags because women, for perhaps the first time in history, entered society on their own. We became more independent of husbands and home and needed to have our gear with us, such as the newfound institution of lip rouge, mirrors, money and — gasp — sometimes cigarettes.
In the 1930s, due to the economics of the time, women entered the workforce, and again bags became larger; women needed to carry more. During the depression era we see handmade bags again, and these could be made cheaper than a dress, so a woman could have a few bags.
French glamour took over the fashion world in the 1940s, and the beaded little bag for evening was invented based on the beaded prototypes of French bags of the past. These bags were accented with either geometric or floral designs and hung from a small chain handle.
In the 1950s, the dinner bag was born — because flash and glitter were in style — and because of this, emphasis was placed on the design of the beadwork, which was also rhinestone work, sequin work or faux jewel work, and were carried as clutches. Therefore a metal zip top was required. Clutches are still the evening bag of choice, and in an inversion of the history of women’s liberation, the smaller the clutch the more it speaks of a man somewhere to carry the large wallet.
J.H.’s bag is valued at $140.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart’s “Ask the Gold Digger” column appears Mondays in the News-Press. Written after her father’s COVID-19 diagnosis, Dr. Stewart’s book “My Darlin’ Quarantine: Intimate Connections Created in Chaos” is a humorous collection of five “what-if” short stories that end in personal triumphs over present-day constrictions. It’s available at Chaucer’s in Santa Barbara.