Wednesday 30 July 2014


Here's a must-have for all handbag aficionados! 

Discover the provenance of the Hermes Kelly, Chanel 2.55 and Fendi Baguette, plus an impressive line-up of historical and modern designs, in Meredith Etherington-Smith's latest book, The Secret History of the Handbag.

The author expertly leads us on a visual journey of the rise of the handbag, highlighting the social history of the bag and revealing many lesser-known facts en route, including that Leonardo da Vinci conceptualised the prototype for a messenger-style bag in c.1497.

Meredith Etherington-Smith worked as an editor at Harper's & Queen, Paris Vogue and Town & Country, and has written several books, including a biography of Salvador Dali and Vanities: The Golden Age of Necessaires and Minaudieres. She has edited Christie's Magazine since the 1990's.

You can view my piece on The Secret History of the Handbag for here and read my Q&A with Meredith Etherington-Smith, below. 

Enduring style icon JacquelineKennedy Onassis (1929-1994) at Heathrow airport with her eponymous Gucci Jackie bag, 1971 Picture courtesy of Mary Evans Picture Library/Interfoto Agentur

LJ: Why did you call your book The Secret History Of The Handbag?

ME-S: The title of the book is The Secret History of the Handbag, because I felt that although almost everyone carries a handbag of one sort or another and can recognise a Birkin when they see one being lugged around by Victoria Beckham, they really don't know when and why these essential means of transporting our daily lives were invented and just how long ago. Did anyone know, for instance, that Leonardo da Vinci actually designed an elaborate and beautiful handbag? No, they didn't! So it is really a secret history and a fascinating one, which leads via medieval pockets and messenger bags through the centuries, to the bag you carry today.

Hollywood film legend Bette Davis (1908-1989) photographed holding a leather clutch bag with a decorative S-clasp, 1934 Picture courtesy of Elmer Fryer/Getty Images

LJ: Is there an era that you feel is particularly significant re: the development of handbags?

ME-S: The key era in the development of handbags was the late l840's, when railway coaches made horse-drawn coaches redundant and the old saddlers, such as Louis Vuitton and Hermes, suddenly had to find something else to do other than stitch leather reins and bridles. So, in addition to going into leather luggage production suitable for railway platforms, rather than the back of mail coaches or private carriages, they saw the need for women to have a piece of mini-luggage to keep their personal belongings and travel documents in when they changed trains. Porters could be entrusted with luggage, but women needed something secure and portable for their personal belongings. Voila! The handbag was born.

Carpet bag, American, c.1865 Picture courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art/Scala Archives

LJ: Which is your favourite handbag in the book? 

ME-S: My favourite handbag in the book is actually one of the least 'shouty' - it's the British Launer London bag which is always carried by Her Majesty the Queen. It was also carried by Margaret Thatcher when she was Prime Minister, leading to the phrase when she dismissed someone that she had 'handbagged' them. Why is it my favourite? Because it says,'I don't need a handbag with a recogniseable logo or an eye-popping design – I am above such things.' It is, in other words, emblematic of quiet, elegant, long-term power.

The Traviata by Launder London, suppliers of handbags to Her Majesty the Queen
and the late Margaret Thatcher 
Image credit 

Princess Diana (1961-1997) arriving in Buenos Aires wearing a suit by Versace and carrying a black quilted Lady Dior bag by Dior, named in her honour, 13th November 1995 Picture courtesy of Tim Graham/Getty Images

A close-up of Princess Diana’s (1961-1997) clutching her favourite Lady Dior quilted handbag by Dior, 24th November 1995 Picture courtesy of Tim Graham/Getty Images

LJ: What epitomises a great handbag today? 

ME-S: There has been a stealthy change in the world of the fashionable handbag – fashion and brash logos are increasingly out, craftsmanship and design harkening back to the saddlery bags of the mid l9th Century is definitely in. I think that a great handbag today suffers from association with celebrity if it is too identifiable. Too many people try and copy it for a start and as the copies get cheaper and nastier the original impeccable craftsman-made handbag becomes devalued. So, to my mind, a great contemporary handbag doesn't show a logo, is virtually hand-stitched and is of a very quiet design. No more Conan-the–Barbarian buckles and straps and other clanking metal fitments – instead just leather polished to the shine of a chestnut, visible hand stitching and invisible metal, if indeed the bag has any. Stealth wealth is the new watchword for handbags.

Stealth wealth is the new watchword for handbags 
Meredith Etherington-Smith

Model and actress Agyness Deyn with her Louis Vuitton Speedy 30 bag at the Louis Vuitton Tribute Party to StephenSprouse, 8th January 2009. The Speedy was originally designed in the 1930’s Picture courtesy of Rob Loud/Getty Images

LJ: Do you think that the vintage market is important for handbags today?
ME-S: The vintage market is a wonderful place to truffle around for handbags from the golden age of the 1920's and 1930's – and even later. The big tickets are the instantly recogniseable classics; the quilted Chanel 2.25, the Hermes Kelly and Birkins and certain Louis Vuittons. The interesting thing about the 'vintage' market is that 'vintage' can mean six months ago – certain sites offer virtually unused Hermes and Chanel – it's a way of jumping the enormous waiting lists. So yes, the vintage market is important – a truly great handbag never really goes away and I think handbags look even better when they have some age!

Handbag decorated with black and white jet while the strap is made of black galaxite, 1920 
Picture courtesy of The Art Archive/Private Collection/A.Dagli Orti

The vintage market is a wonderful place to truffle around for handbags from the golden age of the 1920's and 1930's – and even later Meredith Etherington-Smith

Scarlet and black leather S-clutch bag, European 1927-29 Picture courtesy of Simone Handbag Museum, Korea

 The Secret History of the Handbag by Meredith Etherington-Smith, £30, Double-Barrelled Books

Two specialist museums celebrate the history and development of the handbag:

The Simone Handbag Museum, Seoul

All images featured in this post are from The Secret History of the Handbag, excluding the Launer London image.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please don't spam. Spam comments are not approved.