Fashion & Feminism: The Evolution of the Handbag (The 1940s)

Posted: Apr 05 2017

World War II consumed the 1940s and Europe and America felt the effects of a devastating and drawn-out war.  Women were once again called to assist with the war effort and met their calling with enthusiasm and dedication.  Rationing replaced shopping and women were forced to be creative when assembling their wardrobes.

Women’s attire took a masculine turn.  Unadorned suits with large shoulder pads and narrow skirts replaced the heavily accessorized looks of the 1930s.  Leather was reserved for military use only, so shoulder bags were often made of military-issue canvas or tweed.  Bamboo became a popular material for handbag handles.  In fact, Gucci first introduced their famous bamboo handle out of necessity during WWII.

During the 1940s, American women shifted their fashion focus from Europe to America.  Once considered the only source of inspiration, Parisian fashion houses became inaccessible and impractical.  This shift opened the door for American designers.  Sensing women needed a practical wardrobe they could mix and match, designers such as Claire McCardell and Koret introduced “separates” and “ready to wear” to women.  Handbags followed suit and became practical accessories to match the new pieces.  A perfect example is the Boat Tote created by LL Bean in 1944.  Originally designed as a gardening tote, it was made of brightly colored canvas and designed in an east to west style (i.e., wider than it was tall).  The open top and top handles gave the bag a casual look to match the ready to wear separates.

A predecessor to the cross-body bag was also introduced in the 1940s.  The “waist-hung” bags hugged the waists of women and provided a hands-free alternative to the clutch.  The design was convenient for driving or riding a bicycle.

Practicality and simplicity were paramount during the challenging war-torn years of the 1940s.  But as the 1950s drew closer, fashion designers embraced more feminine designs.  Full skirts and bright-colored accessories indicated a new decade was on the horizon and a brighter future was ahead.

Join us next week as we explore fashion and feminism in the 1950s.


 1940s Fashion


Ginger Rogers Beautiful Style in the 40s


Gucci Bamboo Handle


Claire McCardell Mix and Match Separates with Waist-Hung Bag

Images Via Claire McCardell, Colliers July 14, 1945, Cover Art by Jon Whitcomb