Fashion & Feminism - The Evolution of the Handbag (The 1980s)

Posted: May 03 2017

Big, Bigger, Biggest!  The 1980s could be summed up in these three words.  But with the excessiveness of this decade came tremendous opportunities for women.  Sandra Day O’Connor became the first woman appointed to the Supreme Court, while Geraldine Ferraro became the first female vice presidential candidate.  Sally Ride was the first American woman in space, while Oprah Winfrey became CEO of her own production company.  The marches and protests of the 1970s had paid off and women were finally being taken seriously in the workforce.

The typical wardrobe of a female professional consisted of a “power suit” (blazer and knee length skirt) accompanied by big hair, big shoulder pads and a big clutch handbag.  Everything was oversized, including the height of her stilettos.  To make an even bigger impact, the power suit was usually bright red.  Status was important in the 80s.  Everyone wanted to flaunt a label that reflected money and privilege.  Hence, branding became vital to manufacturers, including fashion designers.  The need to label inspired several of the traditional fashion houses to relaunch their classics, but this time in bold letters.

In 1983, Karl Lagerfeld became the Creative Director of Chanel and made the fashion house hip again by branding the front of the 2.55 Flap Bag with large interlocking CCs.  Dior reinvented their quilted bags from the 1950s and added a dangling D-I-O-R gold charm to the front.  (This bag would later be renamed the “Lady Dior” after Princess Diana.)  Hermès introduced the Birkin in 1984, an updated version of the Kelly bag.  Larger, less structured and named after British actress and style icon Jane Birkin, it continues to be the most expensive handbag sold in the world.  America demanded branding and it paid off in profits to the designers.

The 1980s also made “leisurewear” a fashion statement.  The precursor to “athleisure”, the casual, sporty ensembles were made famous by Olivia Newton-John and the movie “Flashdance.”  Leisurewear needed a new, casual handbag and Miuccia Prada answered the calling with her Velo nylon bags.  The nylon Prada backpack became one of the most popular bags of the 80s.  The triangular silver logo let the world know that Prada created it.

The 1980s were all about flaunting what you had.  This bravado brought new opportunities for women in the workforce.  Finally seeing progress in the Women’s Rights Movement, women became even more driven.  However, after getting their foot in the corporate door, they realized they were staring at a glass ceiling.  Another battle was before them and would continue into the 1990s and beyond.

Join us next week when we explore fashion and feminism in the minimal 1990s.


Vintage 1980s power suit patterns


Princess Diana in red power suit with clutch

Karl Lagerfeld's 2.55 Flap Bag with interlocking CCs


Lady Dior Bag


Jane Birkin and her famous Hermès Birkin Bag


Olivia Newton-John modeling leisurewear


Prada Nylon Backpack


Oprah Winfrey in the 1980s


Sandra Day O'Connor - First Female Supreme Court Justice

Sources:  Chanel, Prada, Vogue, Versace, PurseBlog, Vintage Handbags by Marnie Fogg