Fashion & Feminism: The Evolution of the Handbag (1900-1920)

Posted: Mar 14 2017

Fashion has always reflected a woman’s place in society.  This has never been more evident than in the evolution of the handbag.  From as early as 1900, women realized they needed a means to carry their personal possessions.  Men had multiple pockets to hold their necessities, but women’s fashion did not offer the same conveniences.  So, women took matters into their hands, literally.  They created their own handbags.  What became known as “Reticule” bags were designed to meet the needs of women inside and outside the home.  The small, ornate bags made of silk, velvet or cotton were large enough to hold personal items such as visiting cards, a handkerchief, a small notebook, and a needle and thread.  The bag closed with a simple drawstring at the top.  It was a small, but significant, step forward for women and gave them privacy and personal freedom to carry their possessions.

The second decade of the 20th century marked an even larger step forward for women.  As the First World War raged around the world, women were called upon to enter the workforce.  It was the first time women were seen as essential outside the home and it changed the way women saw themselves in society.  Their liberation was reflected in their wardrobes, as well.  Hemlines were shortened and necklines were opened to accommodate the manual labor that was required in hospitals and ammunitions factories.  A larger handbag was also required to accommodate the personal belongings women needed while away from home for extended periods of time.  A larger, structured bag became the common accessory and it was symbolic of the larger roles women were assuming in society.  Women were no longer simply ornamental, and neither were their handbags.

When the war ended, women refused to retreat back into their homes to resume housework and plan social engagements. They had experienced life on the outside and wanted to work, vote and contribute to society in quantifiable ways.  They were also willing to fight for those rights.  On August 18, 1920 women won the right to vote in America and so began the Roaring 20s!

Be sure to check back next week when we explore fashion and feminism during the 1920s Jazz Age.


 Reticule Bags (Early 1900s)

Working Bags during WWI