Fashion & Feminism - The Evolution of the Handbag (The 1990s)

Posted: May 10 2017

By 1990, the Women’s Rights Movement had morphed and recreated itself many times, but it was still a forward-moving machine.  After making headway in almost all professional arenas, women were ready to address Congress and the Military.  Within three years, three monumental events occurred in the Women’s Rights Movement: the Family and Medical Leave Act went into effect allowing women to take employment leave after giving birth, the Violence Against Women Act passed allowing women to seek civil rights remedies for gender-related crimes, and Shannon Faulkner became the first woman to attend the Citadel in its 152 year-history.  Women’s rights had come a long way!

Minimal 1990s fashion was a stark contrast to the Big 80s.  The decade began with androgynous “Grunge Fashion” inspired by alternative rock bands in the Northwest.  Although flannel shirts, ripped jeans and hiking boots seemed appropriate attire for an outdoor hike, this look was also embraced in everyday life.  Luckily, this fashion period moved through quickly making room for inventive looks from up-and-coming designers.   

Traditional fashion houses understood they needed to speak to a younger generation.  Women wanted more fashion choices in the same way they wanted more life choices.  In 1992, Gucci hired Tom Ford as their Creative Director and in one prophetic decision transformed their entire brand.  He brought sexy back to Gucci with stilettos, velvet pantsuits and cutout jersey dresses.  He reworked the bamboo handle bag in unstructured python skin and added gold metallic leather to the Jackie bag.   America couldn’t get enough of this magnetic designer.  Single-handedly, he led Gucci to its most acclaimed period in fashion history.

In 1997, Louis Vuitton took a risk on an up-and-coming designer named Marc Jacobs and it quickly paid off.  In a mere nine months, Jacobs’ restyled version of the Monogram Canvas, the Monogram Vernis, made 40M in sales.  Jacobs is also responsible for many other modern-day Louis Vuitton bags including the colorful Speedy Monogram Multicolore, a collaboration with Takashi Murakami.  However, Jacobs not only created iconic handbags for Louis Vuitton, he convinced them to back his own fashion label.  Two of the most popular bags in the 90s came from Jacobs’ own line, the Sofia, inspired by his muse Sofia Coppola and the Stam bag, inspired by Canadian model, Jessica Stam.

Female designers were also leaving their mark on 1990s fashion.  Women created two of the most memorable and lucrative handbags of the decade.  Silvia Venturini, granddaughter of Edoardo Fendi, added the infamous Fendi Baguette to her family’s famous designs.  A tiny bag designed to fit high under the arm as if you are carrying a loaf of French bread, it was a style detour from the minimalistic designs of the 90s.  Exotic materials and limited releases each season guaranteed this hot handbag would stay in demand.  With Carrie Bradshaw modeling it on Sex and the City, how could it not!

As the head of accessories for Mademoiselle magazine, Kate Spade saw a need for a stylish, everyday bag and decided to create her own.  She launched her company in 1993 with a tote made of satin-finished nylon in a simple, square shape.  It became an overnight success.  Women loved the casual, stylish bag that came in multiple colors to match any outfit.  In 1996, the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) awarded her "America's New Fashion Talent in Accessories" and in 1998 "Best Accessory Designer of the Year".  Kate would go on to create successful lines of clothing and home furnishings before selling her company for a significant profit to the Neiman Marcus group in 2006.

Girl Power was at an all time high in the 1990s thanks to strong female icons in television and music.  Two music icons made a huge impact on fashion during the 1990s and would continue with their own fashion labels into the next century.  Victoria Beckham, otherwise known as Posh Spice, told us what we “really really” wanted in fashion as the most stylish Spice Girl on stage.  Her fashion statements inspired women around the world to seek her look.  We continue doing so today as she wows us each season with her own fashion label.  Gwen Stefani, the punk rock queen of the band No Doubt, was a breath of fresh air in the early 90s.  She infused her feministic views into songs like “Just a Girl,” and young women around the country saluted her.  A fashion queen, as well as a punk rock one, she went on to create her own multimillion-dollar fashion label L.A.M.B.

Minimalism really only described fashion in the 1990s.  In so many other ways, it was a plentiful decade for women.  Furthering equal rights and becoming fashion entrepreneurs was only the beginning for a country full of feminists.

Join us next week as we conclude our Blog series with Fashion and Feminism in the New Millennium.

Grunge Fashion in the early 1990s


Tom Ford


Kate Moss modeling Tom Ford's Gucci


Tom Ford's Restyled Jackie Bag


Louis Vuitton - Marc Jacobs Exhibit at the Musee des Arts Decoratifs 2012



The Infamous Fendi Baguette


Kate Spade Stylish Totes


Victoria Beckham as Posh Spice


Gwen Stefani with No Doubt


Shannon Faulkner at the Citadel


Sources:  The State, Fendi Roma by Carla Ducci, Vogue, Vogue Cover via Peter Lindbergh,, Vintage Handbags by Marnie Fogg