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Bags of fun

By rob taylor  |  Posted: November 30, 2012

Shopping for a bag in Birmingham.

Shopping for a bag in Birmingham.

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LADIES are often tormented about the contents of their handbags. Mine is just the perfect dimensions so that I can completely organise my life from its innermost secrets. I have to admit, it's practical with double zip pockets for safety, but smart enough for special occasions, and certainly not too bossy that could make me look puffed up with self-importance.

How did this female obsession with toting our belongings really begin, and how did a lady cope with storing her necessities in the old days? Any picture of the 18th century appears to concentrate on the poor and their plight, however this is misleading as it was also a time of increasing wealth. This was, of course, only for the "few," even so we could quite easily call it "the birth of a consumer society."

 Consequently, just as these days, fashions were enthusiastically purchased and then quickly discarded. During the mid 1700's a young lady could buy for the first time a handbag, but by the end of the century they were called "indispensables."

 Before, ladies, particularly housekeepers, kept their necessary bits and pieces dangling from chatelaines tied around their waist.

As their necessities became greater they were stuffed inside loose fabric pockets, taped around the waist and reached through slashes in their voluminous skirts.

 When the Neo-classical style came in during the 1800's, the new high-waisted, slimline dresses, made of daringly transparent material, rendered bulging pockets less practical and impossible. Consequently, the pocket had to come out into the open, making fashionable ladies adopt a small drawstring bag which was hung from the wrist. This became known as a "reticule."

 Cynics of the new fashion called them "ridicules;" even then they were being tormented about their handbags, but thankfully the fashion stuck and the handbag became a female necessity. A small bag is also called a "poke," so that's why our menfolk "poke fun at us."

 Some fabulous little handbags were made in the 19th century, from every type of fabric, and beautifully decorated.

But the most notable were pouches sewn with thousands of tiny brilliantly coloured beads.

"Beading a bag" was one of those female accomplishments like "sewing a sampler" (an embroidered picture). In response to rising demand from the affluent classes, skilled young ladies were employed in this intricate work, and became part of a group of people who the Victorians used their favourite word for - "artisans."

 The Twenties fashions, with its extremes of shorter skirts and short shingled hair, favoured natty little bags. With the new tubular silhouette the handbag was still clutched steadfastly. For the first time women could smoke and wear make-up in public, so they needed somewhere to keep their lipstick, powder compact and cigarette case. Ladies could suddenly have bags of fun in so many ways in the liberated Twenties.

I'm not quite sure if the ladies at Great Bridge just had a penchant for handbags, but this collection of postcards does suggest a fetish. Or did they simply have plenty of necessities to carry around? What was the autumn trend when this comic picture postcard, "Sh-hopping" was sent on October 20th 1925, to Miss Clara Cresswell, while she was working at 85, Arthur Street, Small Heath, Birmingham, from her sisters back home in Great Bridge. Clara had always worked in "service," as a young girl at the "Royal Oak" in Great Bridge, but in 1925 she was working in the big city. In awe of this step up the ladder and knowing there were beautiful things on sale at the posh shops, this message was sent to Clara.

"Dear Kid, Just a line hoping you got back safe. Floss wants to know if you will get, "Handbag" instead of the other present.

Floss sends Best Love, also children. Bill's birthday today. With Best Love to "Yo."

 Sister Kid, old name."

 Maybe we can assume this was a present for their mother, consequently the perfect handbag didn't have to go only with one outfit. The most important thing was, it had to be big enough to carry all the paraphernalia of a day of shopping and classic enough for a day out with "pa" as they referred to him on the other comic picture postcard, "Ain't the Price of Clothes Something Awful."

 Portrait Let's hope Clara didn't visit the greengrocers and buy a "potato sack" as suggested, as by the look of the portrait of mother and child from the Cresswell family album they were a smartly dressed household, therefore only a "nappa" leather handbag would "do" for mother.

It is always up to the giftgiver to devise a handbag with meaning; practical as well as fashionable. In this case Clara had been instructed to buy the intended present as she was living in Birmingham and so there would be a greater choice. Remember all the synthetic materials that we have today were not really fashionable then. Which did Clara choose for their Ma. Calfskin, matt crocodile or even snake skin? Mappin and Webb was one of the best Birmingham retailers of jewellery, silver, dressing cases and handbags (I had bags of fun in their shop during the 1960's and 1970's).

However, this advertisement dated 1880, shows one of their sophisticated dressing cases made from crocodile skin, yet in 1925 when Clara may have been searching for the present at their showroom in Bull Street, the company would have been displaying fine leather handbags capturing the liberated mood of the day.

Did Clara "bag" one? Handbags have always changed their shape, reflecting the fashions of each period.

During the 1930's, flat leather and fabric "clutch" bags complimented the new bias-cut dresses; however in the 1940's when there was a shortage of materials, "a girl had to use her imagination."

 Hollywood Every young girl was influenced greatly by Hollywood, because at the "flicks" she saw all the wonderful clothes and accessories. Girls wanted to try to imitate them as best they could on their allocation of clothing coupons. Although there was the illicit trade, whereby no coupons were needed, by men with cases full of clothes including shoes and handbags. Not every girl could afford the prices, and so it was "make do;" bags were made from old felt hats, or if she had nimble fingers, with a punch, a few press-studs and some offcuts of leather, she could make a huge purse-shaped bag that could rival any in the window at Mappin & Webb. It was wartime, but this was certainly more fashionable than a potato sack.

In the 1950's, when austerity was over, everyone wanted fun and frivolity, therefore it was the silliest age for handbag design. This was a time when I would go shopping with my mom for matching shoes and handbags - everything had to be co-ordinated in the old days. One of my favourite little shops was Jax in West Bromwich as they used to sell those "dotty" little Doris Day-style basket shaped bags decorated with fake fruit.

But mom said "must you?" — so I had to settle for a round pleated model in beige.

Suddenly, these days the wearing of white stiletto shoes and sporting a white handbag are good taste, but way back in the 1950's, mom considered them "unstylish and common."

 Definitely a crime of fashion.

What would the Cresswell family think of the fact that in 2012 a white bag with dangling bits and a designer logo is a sign of indulgence or luxury? Would they have used the new word "naff" or just agreed they were bags of fun?

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