From 38,000 BC to now: this is how purses have changed over the years

Purses have existed for a long time.

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Purses have existed for a long time.
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Aaron Davidson/Getty Images

  • People have been using handbags since ancient times.
  • 18th-century “purses” were actually pockets.
  • Designer “status bags” originated in the ’50s.

If you keep your whole life in your purse, it’s easy to take your favorite accessory for granted. But there’s a whole history behind that tote or saddle bag you’re carrying.

Here’s how handbags have evolved through the years.


Handbags have been depicted since ancient times.

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The first piece of art that depicts a modern purse.
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Metropolitan Museum of Art

From Iraq to New Zealand, archaeologists have identified handbag-like symbols in ancient carvings. Though interpretations vary, the etchings might represent the cosmos, with the “strap” standing in for the sky’s hemisphere and the base denoting the earth.

One of the oldest sites featuring a handbag image is Göbekli Tepe, a collection of monoliths in Southeastern Turkey believed to be linked to prehistoric worship. Dating back around 11,000 years, the structures predate Stonehenge.


Hunter-gatherers stored food and supplies in pouches.

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Not the purse pictured.
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NPS

Starting in 38,000 BCE, hunter-gatherers used fiber-based pouches and bundles to stow food and supplies. The earliest of these primitive pouches were simple, but they became more complex towards the end of the Stone Age.

In 2012 near Leipzig, Germany, archaeologists found remnants of what might be the world’s oldest purse – a collection of more than 100 dog teeth embedded in the dirt – in a grave circa 2500 to 2200 BCE. The teeth were arranged in a pattern that suggested they once decorated a textile or leather bag.

“Over the years the leather or fabric disappeared, and all that’s left is the teeth. They’re all pointing in the same direction, so it looks a lot like a modern handbag flap,” Susanne Friederich, an archaeologist with the Sachsen-Anhalt State Archaeology and Preservation Office, told National Geographic.


The word “purse” comes from bags used in ancient Greece.

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These purses were made of leather.
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Flickr/Conor Lawless

In ancient Greece, people carried coins in pouches called “byrsa” (“hide, leather”), which entered the English language via Latin to become “purse.”


In the middle ages, people in western Europe hung pouches from their belts.

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Purses were hung from belts.
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Flickr/Cari Wagner

During the middle ages, people in western Europe hung pouches from their belts and girdles. Made from materials ranging from leather to silk, the bags had different names depending on one’s social class. If they were carried by nobles or others who distributed charitable funds, they were called almoners. Common purses were known as gipsers, while pilgrims referred to their bags as scrips.


Handbags were also used in other parts of the world at this time.

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A bronze purse was first seen in Iraq.
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royaltystockphoto/ iStock

One of the oldest known predecessors of the modern purse is a woman’s handbag from 14th-century Iraq. The brass bag, inlaid with gold and silver, depicts a Mongol court scene.

“These images of a ruler or nobleman seated alongside his consort reflect the public role that women played in Mongol culture,” Rachel Ward, a curator at the Courtauld Gallery in London, England, told the BBC. “It’s unusual for them to be portrayed like this in Islamic art, either before or after the Mongol period.”


By the Renaissance, the purse took the form of a drawstring bag.

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During the Renaissance, purses were patterned pouches.
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KenTannenbaum/ iStock

The pouch-like bags, which were alternatively held together with a metallic frame instead of a drawstring, typically featured patterned or embroidered fabric that recalled designs from the Middle East and Asia. They held money as well as flowers, herbs, and spices that concealed odors.


18th-century “purses” were actually pockets.

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Men’s clothes started having pockets.
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Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images

During the 18th century, men’s clothing was designed with built-in pockets. Women, in contrast, had to keep their things in external pockets that they tied around their waists beneath their skirts.

As high-waisted gowns became popular by the 1790s, slimmer silhouettes made it harder for women to hide their pockets underneath their clothing. Therefore, the earliest handbags were essentially pockets equipped with handles.

Caroline Cox, the author of “Bags: An Illustrated History,” notes that the OG handbags stirred controversy because they were considered to be undergarments masquerading as outerwear.

“The idea of a woman parading her personal belongings in a visible pocket was an act akin to lifting up her skirts and publicly revealing her underwear,” Cox wrote.


Pockets evolved into “reticules” in the 19th century.

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A reticule.
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LACMA

Originating in France and named after netted bags from ancient Rome, the reticule (known as an “indispensable” in England) was a compact, wristlet-like bag that could fit small items such as perfume and a fan. It was crafted from cloth and could be decorated with beading.


Bags became more functional beginning in the Victorian Era.

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Louis Vuitton luggage became popular.
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Louis Vuitton

As travel became more common in the late 19th century due to advances in transportation, bag designers focused on function.

Luggage and saddle makers in France, such as Louis Vuitton and Emile Maurice Hermès (two of the most influential luxury retailers to this day) met the need for more practical handbags by creating products that were basically small suitcases.


Luxury bags were all the rage in the early 20th century.

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A current version of Cartier’s crocodile-skin jeweled purse.
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Cartier

Handbags made from lavish materials like crocodile skin and satin were popular in the early 1900s. Styles were eclectic, spanning from small silver mesh bags to elaborately beaded purses from Italy and Germany.

By the ’20s, jeweled purses, including designs by Cartier, were the “it” accessory. So were sleek bags with geometric designs, which took off after the 1925 Exposition of Decorative Arts in Paris, France.


The clutch caught on in the 1930s.

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Clutches had compartments for organization.
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Getty/Frazer Harrison

Originally known as an envelope bag, the clutch was the bag that defined the 1930s. It came in materials ranging from plastic to leather.

Short-handled purses that could accommodate goods such as beauty products and cigarettes were popular for daytime wear. These bags, which boasted separate compartments to keep items organized, were commonly sold in black, white, and brown, though other colors were available.

For a touch of whimsy, some consumers opted for novelty bags, which were shaped like telephones, keyboards, and other objects.


Handbags in the 1940s took a cue from World War II.

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A modern version of a ruched leather purse from Urban Outfitters.
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Urban Outfitters

Taking a cue from leather World War II messenger bags, 1940s handbags were deeper than ’30s clutches but similar in shape.

Shell-shaped bags, characterized by ruched pleats, were also ubiquitous in the ’40s, as were handmade crocheted designs and purses formed from woven plastic.


The ’50s gave us “status bags” from designers like Chanel and Hermès.

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Hermes’ Kelly bag.
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Wen-Cheng Liu/ Wikimedia Commons

Some of the most iconic handbags of all time were released in the 1950s. For example, Chanel launched its now-classic black quilted “2.55” bag, named for the year and month it came out.

Plus, Hermès’ “Kelly” travel bag entered the spotlight when Grace Kelly (from whom the bag takes its moniker) was photographed holding it over her stomach, possibly to conceal a pregnancy. Prior to the actress’ Kodak moment, the bag was called the “Haut à Courroies” (“bag with tall handles”).

Additional ’50s trends included bags made from novel materials (Lucite, straw) and purses that were color-coordinated with other accessories.


The “2.55” and “Kelly” bags remained popular into the ’60s.

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Chanel’s 2.55 bag.
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Chanel

According to Abigail Rutherford, director of vintage couture and accessories at Leslie Hindman Auctioneers in Chicago, Illinois, women in the 1960s wore status bags such as the Chanel “2.55” and the Hermès “Kelly.”

Designers also experimented with materials such as plastic and vinyl.

“In the ’60s, if they carried a non-leather bag it was probably made of plastic rather than Lucite because Lucite was more expensive,” Rutherford said in an interview with Collectors Weekly.


Trends in the ’70s ranged from leather to nylon.

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Coach’s saddle bag.
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Coach

When Coach launched its classic saddle bag in 1972, the company helped ensure that leather was one of the biggest trends of the ’70s. Alternatively, LeSportsac, which was founded in 1974, also made nylon bags a must-have.


’80s bags were all-out.

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Kim Kardashian West holding a Judith Leiber bag.
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Christopher Polk/Getty Images

The ’80s gave us the Hermès “Birkin” bag, an enduring status symbol named for British actress Jane Birkin. Since debuting in 1984, the spacious yet stylish bag has been adored by celebrities and anyone else who can afford its hefty price tag.

Fanciful crystal-encrusted evening bags, such as the ones designed by Judith Leiber, were also big in the ’80s.


High fashion and kitsch ruled the ’90s.

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Carrie Bradshaw with a baguette bag.
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HBO

When it comes to 1990s handbags, Fendi’s “Baguette,” which fits under the arm like the eponymous bread, was one of the most memorable. Its appearance on “Sex and the City” secured its place in fashion history and pop culture.

Of course, as any ’90s kid will remember, the decade was also defined by kitschy bags, from translucent Lisa Frank backpacks to fuzzy animal print totes.


2000s bags were colorful and funky.

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Chloé Paddington bag.
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Philip Ramey/Corbis via Getty Images

From Dooney and Bourke’s printed barrel handbags to Juicy Couture’s terry cloth purses – the bag equivalent of the company’s trendy tracksuits – 2000s bags were colorful and funky.

The Chloé “Paddington,” known for its bold padlock, and the Dior saddle bag were among the most desirable high-end handbags from the aughts.


Today, you can opt for trendy or timeless styles.

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Currently, there are lots of different choices when it comes to purses.
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Peter Michael Gills/Getty Images

Whether you want a bright-colored satchel, a sleek leather tote, or a quilted shoulder bag, you can take your pick of trendy and timeless styles. And if you’re in search of a sustainable accessory, some companies offer vegan alternatives to cowhide.

Visit INSIDER’s homepage for more.