Fashion & Feminism - The Evolution of the Handbag (The 1970s)

Posted: Apr 26 2017


The 1970s were a frustrating time for feminists across America.  Marches and protests were regular occurrences both inside and outside Washington, D.C. as women continued to fight for equal rights.  Although the Equal Rights Amendment passed Congress in 1972, it did not receive enough votes in the states, and thus was not passed into law.  Feeling discouraged by the political setbacks, women began to form their own communities and promote their causes on a grass roots level. 

Handbag designs changed radically throughout the 1970s as the Women’s Rights Movement progressed and eventually began to succeed.  A natural, hippie style prevailed throughout the early 70s.  Bags were typically made of soft leather or suede and often worn cross-body.  These “Hippie Bags” could be personalized through stamping or embossing, and included embroidery and fringe.  The Mulberry label was established in 1971 and was a leading manufacturer of this style of bag.  Karl Lagerfeld also influenced the hippie style.  As Creative Director of Chloé in the 1970s, he created their “Boho” look that is still part of their trademark style today. 

Two female entrepreneurs burst onto the fashion scene at this time.  Miuccia Prada joined the family business in 1970 and became the head of Prada in 1978.  She would introduce their infamous nylon bags in the early 1980s.  Diane Von Furstenberg was another fashion trailblazer.  With the creation of her iconic wrap dress in 1974, she became one of the most celebrated fashion designers in history.  Other trendsetters included models Lauren Hutton, for her unconventional beauty, and Beverly Johnson, the first black model to appear on the covers of both American Vogue and French Elle.

The opening of Studio 54 in 1977 signaled the end of casual style and the beginning of the outrageous Disco Era.  The New York hot spot hosted the world’s most famous fashionistas including Cher, Bianca Jagger, Jerry Hall and Farrah Fawcett.  Halter-tops, spandex and glitter decorated the dance floor and a good time could always be found.  The Whiting and Davis Mesh bag made a comeback and was the perfect accessory for a lamé jumpsuit.  Another popular handbag was the “Buffalo Bag” created by Brazilian designer Carlos Falchi.  The robust shoulder bag was made of luxurious leather and exotic materials.  Carried on the shoulders of women wearing bell-bottoms and tube tops, it symbolized a luxurious, but carefree, attitude.

The 1970s brought an eclectic mix of styles.  The decade began with women shunning traditional fashion and embracing earthy, natural looks that felt less feminine.  The younger generation saw traditional fashion houses as dated and irrelevant to their lifestyle.  With Balenciaga’s retirement in 1968 and Coco Chanel’s death in 1971, it seemed haute couture might be lost forever.  But by the end of the decade, feminists began to see the fruits of their labor, especially in the workforce.  Ironically, high fashion would play an integral part in their success as corporate executives in the 1980s!

Join us next week as we explore fashion and feminism in the excessive 1980s!


 Jane Fonda carrying a hippie-style bag 


Ali McGraw 1970s style


Karl Lagerfeld's Boho chic designs for Chloé


Miuccia Prada transforms the family business 


Diane Von Furstenberg's iconic wrap dress


Lauren Hutton 


Farrah Fawcett at Studio 54 with Mesh bag



Sources:,, Prada, Vintage Handbags by Marnie Fogg