Of handbags and the 1950s

September 6, 2009 at 6:28 am 4 comments

I’m in a reflective mood. I’ve been thinking a lot about the 1950s and 60s. This has been brought on I think by that fabulous series Mad Men – have you watched it? If not, do yourself a favour. The attention to historical detail is stunning, even down to the lipsticks and the handbags of the time (in case you are wondering, nope, I’m not that old to have been around in the 50s toting lipsticks and handbags).

It’s the latter item – handbags – that really piques my interest. I collect handbags of the 1940s and 1950s. I love their slimness and elegance, along with the way a woman would hold the bag by the hand or over the arm in the fashion followed by the stunningly gorgeous, Grace Kelly.

People who know me and my penchant for handbags, know that I have a tendency to carry my bag just so.  The other day, I was in my favourite vintage shop pondering whether I should purchase a superb 1950s dark navy crocodile handbag (or purse as they were more commonly called then).  It was sleek, slim and stylish. But as I pondered, the question on my mind was: how on earth would I even get my wallet in there? The bag is so slim it made me think about what on earth women of the 1950s carried around with them.

So here’s my current daily handbag – it’s Italian, functional, practical and I can carry it over my arm a’la 1950s style:


And here are two of my 1950s handbags:


The one on the left has a Lucite handle (common in the 50s) with navy bead work and shiny silver detail. The one on the right (which I suspect is more 1940s) is navy bead work in a geometric pattern. Both snap shut with the single metal clasp that was common for the era and both have short handle straps. Now, here’s my current handbag compared to the geometrically beaded bag:


If you haven’t nodded off by now, you will immediately notice what made me start reflecting – how much bigger women’s handbags are now. What does the size of a handbag say about a woman? About the era? I pondered this for several days. I even went off and weighed my bags: my current Italian baby weighs 3.5 kgs with all my stuff in it; the 1950s bag with the Lucite handle weighs 700g (with lipstick, folded money and a small mirror, which is about all I can get in there); and the geometrically beaded job weighs 500g with the same items in it (it’s an incredibly light purse).

Hello? I am toting a handbag that is 3.5kgs?? so what’s in there you may ask. Good question….wait a minute.. let me open up the bag and reveal (deep breath):

  • Hello Kitty! small bag with 8 lip glosses (well, a girl does need a lip gloss pallete);
  • one rather large wallet to carry money, license and all the crap you have to carry around with you to prove who you are at a moment’s notice;
  • gold coin purse (I separate my gold coins from other coins so I can feed the pig);
  • keys for the house, car and drawers at work;
  • plastic identity cards to swipe and enter my place of work;
  • two packets of Panadol (you never know how many headaches a day at work will give you);
  • a lucky charm;
  • sunglasses;
  • another small bag with items to touch up make-up during the day;
  • small perfume;
  • iPod Nano (to shut out the noise of yobos on the train);
  • mobile/cell phone (I refuse to have a slaveberry BlackBerry. I’m still contemplating an iPhone);
  • latest book I’m reading (which is Virginia Woolf’s, The Waves).

Yeegads! I decided to chat to one of the women I know well at another vintage shop – she was a young woman in the 1950s and well remembers that time. So I asked her what she used to carry in the slim purses of the day – one lipstick, one small mirror, gloves.  I stared at her. Anything else? Surely you carried money? more lipsticks? house keys? Nope, she said. My husband carried everything – he paid for anything I needed; he had the house and car keys; we had no mobile phones in those days. Life was simpler she said.

Aha! I thought….the 1950s handbag was a symbol of femininity certainly. But it also sent a sexual message – I am submissive, I am not empowered, I’m a good wife or potential wife, I let the man carry the important stuff. I thought how much more liberated a woman is today. But then I thought: hang on, I’m toting around a 3.5kg bag. This is liberated???

True. The modern handbag, which is far larger than 1950s bags and usually slung over the shoulder, says a multitude of things about the contemporary female:

  • I’m my own boss – I carry the keys to my house; I carry my own money and can pay for myself thank you;
  • I like electronics. I have a BlackBerry or an iPhone in my bag – just like the guys have;
  • I have a career;
  • I’m empowered.

But heck: 3.5kgs? Either I’ll have to downsize what’s in my bag or bring back the 1950s!

Entry filed under: Reflections. Tags: , .

Don’t it make my brown eyes blue On the nature of genius

4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Brian Bailey  |  September 8, 2009 at 1:01 am

    Very enjoyable post Kim. I’m a fan of Mad Men too, I was put onto it by a very good friend who spent her formative years in the period depicted and who loves the sense of re-living her parents’ era.

    What intrigues me is that the male’s ‘burden’ – in terms of what is carried – hasn’t changed that much.

    The last few days I have been travelling to and from work without a bag. That leaves me with a wallet, mobile/ PDA, a bunch of keys (which I actively prune so more or less fit in my jacket pocket) and a rail pass. I have a few coins but only what I put in my pocket in the morning, just enough to get me to the office with a large cappuccino in hand and perhaps a copy of the Fin. My 14 year old ran off with my iPod but I haven’t really missed it, so that’s it.C’est tout.

    And a book (in the past 10 days, since you ask), ‘Surveillance’ by Jonathan Raban, ‘Pleasures and Sorrows of Work’ by Alain de Botton and a copy ‘Archives and Manuscripts’ with an article on Recordkeeping, Metadata and SOA – a collaborative piece by one of my bosses among others (and yes, of course the most absorbing!)

    The obvious differences in burden seem to be about personal hygiene alternatives and also about the way we respond to emerging issues. The wonan’s handbag appears a risk management toolkit replete with medical and fashion contingencies.

  • 2. thinkingshift  |  September 8, 2009 at 1:28 am

    Hey Brian! Frankly, I hadn’t given much thought to what a man carries these days so thx for enlightening me! I guess that’s why there has been a proliferation of “man bags” in recent years.

    Love your comment about a woman’s handbag as being a risk mgt toolkit LOL!

    Mmmmm…haven’t read Raban’s book, must get onto it.

  • 3. john hogg  |  October 20, 2011 at 5:03 pm

    hi i came across your artical i have just found a bag while clearing my mums house i know she had it in the 60,s but no sure if it is a 50,s or 60,s bad on the label in side it only says LANC and has a picture or a rose and says maid in England it is a black glossy bag i wondered if you have ever head of the make lanca my email is davidthebruce45@aol.com

  • 4. NikeChillemi  |  February 27, 2012 at 4:02 pm

    I think there was a distinciton between what bag a woman carried to her job and what she carried when going out to dinner or whatever.

    The work handbag was larger than the evening’s slim bag. They carried lipstick, a comb, a tissue or cloth hankie, and a small coin purse.


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