Fashion & Feminism: The Evolution of the Handbag (The 1930s)

Posted: Mar 29 2017

The stock market crash of 1929 and the subsequent onset of the Great Depression brought a new sobriety to the 1930s.  Flappers began to look frivolous as the dark days of the recession loomed.  Women’s fashion turned a serious corner.  By day, women wore dark-colored suits in heavy fabrics and monochromatic colors.  Hats and gloves were common, while draping, large buttons and brooches were added as interesting design elements.  Large, square handbags took the place of smaller, whimsical clutches as women sought practicality in their workday.  The Somber 30s had replaced the Roaring 20s.

However, women found escape from these dark days in the darkness of the cinema, and a new type of glamour was born.  Joan Crawford, Jean Harlow and Ginger Rogers appeared larger than life on the big screen proving women could be both strong and sexy at the same time.  Clingy silk halter dresses with bare backs and shoulders displayed a sensuality not seen before in fashion.  The effect was stunning and beautiful.  Two things women wanted to be after shedding their heavy wool suits at night.

The sensual gowns demanded equally alluring handbags.  Evening bags were manufactured in similar designs as the reticules from the early 1900s, but the updated versions were constructed of luxurious silks and fabrics to match the dresses of the Hollywood sirens.  Asprey, Cartier and Boucheron produced evening bags with semi-precious stones closely related to their jewelry designs.  If you could not afford evening bags with real diamonds, there were plenty of substitutes in man-made materials available.

It was the perfect time to introduce a smaller, sexier handbag to the fashion industry.  The minaudière bag, created in 1933 by Van Cleef and Arpels, was small enough to be held in the palm of the hand and served as a handbag and a powder compact.  Famous cosmetic entrepreneurs Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein saw brilliant marketing opportunities and capitalized on this new compact bag to market their products.  Flappers may have been the first group to store cosmetics in their handbags, but the make-up houses and jewelers were the ones to profit from it. (To see the full story behind the fierce competition between Arden and Rubinstein, check out the musical War Paint on Broadway.)  Minaudières have been recreated time and time again throughout fashion history.  Judith Leiber made them popular in the 1960s and Alexander McQueen produces them today.  But, it was Van Cleef and Arpels that introduced the design at a time when women truly needed glitz and glamour.

The 1930s brought tough economic times.  But, it also brought renewed strength and glamorous style to women in all walks of life.  As history continues to prove, women will survive and flourish, while looking fabulous doing both!

Check back with us next week when we explore fashion and feminism in the innovative 1940s.

 1930s Style

Hollywood Siren Jean Harlow in Evening Dress

Joan Crawford Hollywood Style