Enthusiasms: Handbags and Modernity

Trunk, portmanteau, hatbox and handbag for the stylish traveller in 1915 (Vogue)

What is modern about the handbag? It’s a tricky question to answer, as both terms are so slippery. Is modernity a concept tied to the latest innovations of the 21st Century, with everything that went before past and dead? Or is it a state of mind that may appear at any time, with things defined as ‘modern’ in 1920 – which 100 years on look hopelessley dated. Fashion between 1915 and 1920 is a fertile ground for examining this inconsistency, with some aspects that seem fresh and forward-looking, but much that reflects a world that is unimaginably different from ours. Articles in American Vogue from 1915 are addressed to women who saw themselves as indubitably modern: keen to travel, to take part in society, even to work ….. and yet whose appearance was strictly regulated, with outfits and accessories for different times of day and different social settings, each of them following a seasonal fashion cycle. For fashionable middle-class women (and men), any trip would require numerous pieces of luggage to contain garments and accessories: and paid help from porters or servants to manage them all.

The multitude of fashionable accessories gave well-off women many opportunities to demonstrate their taste (or lack of it), Fashion magazines constantly promoted the latest designs in hats, shoes, gloves and bags – some of which showed more than a little influence from the past. Beaded purses used techniques 100 years old, and motifs borrowed from Persian carpets or Japanese silks, to create statement pieces to dangle from the wrist. There was more than a suspicion of the ‘reticules’ of the French Empire of 1815 in some of these bags – as there was in the high-waisted, narrow-skirted cut that had been fashionable in 1910.

Yet alongside the exquisite examples of beadwork are pieces that are radical in their simplicity: handbags in plain leather whose only decoration comes from the use of contrasting colours, or an unexpected angle on the flap. These seem like a rejection of the over-decorated, over-complicated world of pre-World War I dress codes. But in fact they are just as elitist in their implications as a matched set of steamer trunks. A bag barely large enough to hold a change purse and a doorkey proclaims the owner as someone whose material needs are supplied by deliveries – not by trudging round the grocery store. And the pose required by the clutch, with one arm held close to the side, implies that she doesn’t need her hands to hang on in the underground – or to push a pram. She can count on someone else to do this for her – or hopes she can….

A gentleman’s weekend luggage was jusst as complex as a lady’s – Vogue 1915
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