1950s Fashion: Decade of the Plastic Handbag

The Lucite Craze: Geometric Gems

The Lucite handbag is one of the most iconic fashion accessories of the 1950s. Collectors Weekly describes them as “geometric gems” that looked like “portable jewel boxes turned inside out.” The cylindrical or box-shaped purses came in a variety of colors and inventive designs. Some, for example, doubled as compacts or jewel boxes. Many were adorned with glitter, rhinestones, or elaborate carvings.

The Lucite bag fell out of popular favor in the 1960s, along with the introduction of vinyl, a more versatile and cheaper alternative. Little did the designers of the day suspect that the “fad” was far from over! Following is a brief overview of some of the most famous designers of the popular and enduring Lucite bag.

 Wilardy Originals began in New York in 1946, the brainchild of Charles William Hardy and his son William Hammond Hardy. Charles was a mathematics wiz and a crack businessman, according to his grandson, Billy Hardy, while William was the artistic visionary. Will ran the business from the 1960s to the 1980s, during which time he designed his now-famous Lucite handbags.

Vintage Handbags
Vanity purses laminated with colored or gold glitter, such as these examples from Wilardy, were popular throughout the 1950s.

Vanity purses laminated with colored or gold glitter, such as these examples from Wilardy, were popular throughout the 1950s. (CollectorsWeekly).

It’s interesting to hear Billy’s story of w hat it was like growing up in this entrepreneurial and artistic family. Following is an excerpt from “Wilardy History” on Wilardy Original’s web site:

 “My father’s concept of “summer camp” was to bring me to the factory and show me how the business was run. The din of the factory was something to be experienced: the whine of the table saws and routers reducing raw material from large sheets into smaller parts; the gasp of vacuum pumps shaping heated plastic into various shapes; the clack of various hydraulic presses stamping out parts; the treadmill-like churning of huge sanding belts being sprayed and lubricated with water; the gentle rhythmic ticking of the riveters attaching hinges, clasps, and handles; and the lapping of the wheels of buffing machines, as every scratch was slowly removed to produce the finished product. The smell of the glues and solvents used to fuse together the plastic joints, the gassing off of the plastics from the friction of cutting tools, and even the tape used to box and ship the product added to the experience.”

1950s Handbags by Willardy Originals (from the company's website).
1950s Handbags by Wilardy Originals (from the company’s website).

Billy Hardy didn’t see his friends’ mothers with these purses and couldn’t understand where all the interest was coming from. But he soon realized they were something special:

“What I didn’t realize was that these were very exclusive items costing plenty at the time. These lucite purses were being sold in Hollywood, Miami, Paris, London, and Fifth Avenue in New York.”

 

Vintage handbags
Will’s Brother-in-law with a Wilardy Original purse display.
vintage handbags
A Wilardy accordian style bag.

Other Famous Makers 

Llewellyn. Llewellyn Bley made elaborately styled handbags that commanded high prices in the 1950s, despite being made of plastic, says Collectors Weekly. Llewellyn known for his innovative designs in Art Deco and Art Nouveau styles. One of his most famous creations was the Beehive, which featured three brass bees on its lid. Llewellyn was a master of making hard plastic appear soft, with sides that appear to be pleated or fanned. The Conestoga Wagon purse, for example, looks like a duffle bag with twisted handles.

Llewellyn was known for its carved Lucite bags, as well as ones like this one made from shell, a hard plastic material composed of cellulose acetate. (Source: CollectorsWeekly).
Llewellyn was known for its carved Lucite bags, as well as ones like this one made from shell, a hard plastic material composed of cellulose acetate. (Source: CollectorsWeekly)

Charles S. Kahn. This Florida designer produced bags in shapes of hat boxes, barrels, drums, and cylinders in a variety of bright, flashy colors and finishes. According to a feature on vintage bags in a 2007 issue of Country Living, plastic handbags designed by Kahn are often identifiable by a distinctive clasp featuring three metal balls and a paper label placed inside the purse below the hinge of the lid. Plastic purses in bright colors like red, aqua, emerald green, and pink are among the most rare and valuable for collectors, according to the article. Design, color, trim, and condition are the most important factors to consider because cracks, crazing, or warping cannot be repaired.

Charles Kahn purse
A Charles H. Kahn purse that was featured in Country Living. It was valued at approx. $900 back in 2007 when the article was written.

Myles Originals, by Artistic Display Company, was the first lucite bag maker in Miami, according to brief history by Bag Lady University, and were popular among affluent resort vacationers to Florida after WWII. The company introduced a composite material called Lamoplex–sheets of plastic with materials like metal strips laminated between–to create a crushed-crayons effect.

myles original bag
A Myles Originals “sports bag” with Lamoplex top and removable compact inside (from Bag Lady University.)
From Bag Lady University: This bag in black and gray is illustrated on page 22 of "Plastic Handbags: Sculpture to Wear," by Kate Dooner. A green example sold online for $178 in 2005.
From Bag Lady University: This bag in black and gray is illustrated on page 22 of “Plastic Handbags: Sculpture to Wear,” by Kate Dooner. A green example sold online for $178 in 2005.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Other Resources

Looking for more details on vintage bags? Here are some websites that I’ve found helpful:

Wilardy Originals. The web site for the 1950s designer of Lucite handbags features vintage photos, catalogs, and a history of the company.

Guides from Yoogi’s Closet, luxury goods reseller.

PurseBlog: An active blog with links to guides on buying new and vintage designer bags.

The Hermes Birkin Authenticity Guide: 5 Tips to ensure the Birkin You’re Buying is real.

Plastic Handbags: Sculpture to Wear, by Kate E. Dooner. Beautiful photos of over 300 classic plastic handbags. Available on Amazon.

Bag Lady University: A companion site to the vintage bag seller, Bag Lady Emporium, that features great information on the makers and history of vintage bags and jewelry.

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