Fashion & Feminism: The Evolution of the Handbag (The 1950s)

Posted: Apr 12 2017


The end of World War II and the beginning of a new decade brought abundance and prosperity to America.  The economy boomed, a term that would become closely associated with this decade.  Unfortunately, women’s rights did not experience the same boost.  Women and men were assigned strict gender roles during the 1950s. Men returned to work after the war and women were expected to make a happy home for them.  Although this was a step back for women after their contributions to the war effort in the 1940s, women embraced their femininity in their fashion choices and the 1950s brought some of the most memorable and iconic looks in fashion history.

The 1950s silhouette celebrated a woman’s curves.  The “New Look” introduced in Paris by Dior in the late 1940s commandeered American fashion in the 1950s.  Full skirts, long sheaths, belted waists, form fitting sweaters and elegant accessories were seen in every department store window.  Monochrome was a must and women dutifully matched their handbags and shoes.  Black was the most popular handbag and shoe color, but white and pink were close behind.  The need to color coordinate accessories required women to have multiple handbags in their closets.  The collections usually consisted of structured, boxy, styles in leather or alligator skin and elongated, colorful clutch bags with envelope closures.  As the decade progressed, whimsical styles emerged in materials including plastic, Lucite and straw. 

The 1950s also introduced the “IT” bag.  Made famous through celebrity endorsements, two “IT” bags were introduced during the 1950s that remain classics today: Chanel’s 2.55 Flap Bag and the Hermès Kelly Bag.

Chanel came out of retirement in 1954 and reopened her fashion house. One of her first creations was the 2.55 Flap Bag, introduced in February, 1955.  The signature quilting, mademoiselle lock, burgundy leather lining and metal straps made this bag an instant classic.  With Chanel carrying one herself, it was bound to be a success.

The Hermès Travel Bag was one of their classic styles and had been manufactured by the fashion house for years.  However, it was Grace Kelly’s association with the bag that made it famous and led to the subsequent name change.  In 1956 while pregnant with her first child, she carried this bag in front of her stomach to hide her baby bump from the press.  It will now always be known as the Kelly Bag.

Although she is not famous for a particular handbag, Audrey Hepburn was a breath of fresh air in the 1950s.  She credits Hubert de Givenchy with creating her simple, elegant look and together their fashion collaborations made fashion history.  Her influence would continue into the 1960s and beyond.

The Women’s Rights Movement stalled during the 1950s, but the Civil Rights Movement pushed forward with the help of one very brave woman.  Rosa Parks refusal to surrender her seat on the bus was one of the biggest and bravest contributions to any equal rights movement.  We would be remiss not to acknowledge and salute the contribution of this strong woman.  

As the 1950s came to a close, women’s voices grew louder and stronger.   They had taken a step back after the war, but now they wanted more. The Sexual Revolution was coming!

Join us next week as we explore fashion and feminism during the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s.


Coordinating Accessories of the 1950s

Full Skirts and Long Sheath Dresses of the 1950s

Chanel and her 2.55 Flap Bag 


Grace Kelly and the Kelly Bag


Audrey Hepburn Timeless Style


Late 1950s Style in Vibrant Color

The Incomparable Rosa Parks 

Sources:  Vintage Dancer, Chanel, Getty Images, Vintage Handbags by Marnie Fogg