Vintage Purse Guide: Evening Bags and Clutches

Clutches, evening bags, box purses and more!

Before World War I, most women didn’t carry any sort of handbag or purse. However, as the century progressed, fashion evolved to suit their changing habits and lifestyles. Young women were getting away from wearing the long, full, ample-pocketed skirts and dresses that their mothers and grandmothers wore, and turning toward styles more suitable for working in offices or socializing in the evenings. People were also starting to travel more.

For all those reasons and others, women needed something to carry around their everyday essentials like vintage handbags 1950s purseskeys, vanity cases, and cigarette holders. And they wanted that something to look good with their newly fashionable outfits.

It all started with the reticule, which I cover in another post. Those gave way to evening bags in the 1940s, which remain very popular today. According to one blogger on Fabrics.net, “it was said that the woman of means could indulge her fancy in its wildest flight, so beautiful, extravagant, precious and costly were some of the bags.” Bags were often elaborately designed with embroidery, beading or tapestry. The relatively strong economic times of the 1950s strengthened this trend. Designers catered to women’s fascination with glamour and luxury.

Following are some popular variations on the standard evening bag, starting with the clutch purse. Photos are from vintage Etsy shops (including mine) and various other vintage purse and collectors’ sites, as noted:

Clutch Purses are the more modern and glamorous cousin of the reticule. Popular in the 1920s and 30s, they remain a favorite vintage style today. According to Fashionista, the handheld structured bags are the preferred accessory for stars and socialites at special events.

Unlike shoulder bags or larger purses, clutches compliment an outfit without detracting from its effect with handles or straps. As women began to carry more in their purses, the clutch purse became more of an accessory than a practical carryall. Women would carry a larger shoulder bag during the day and reserve a collection of dainty clutches for evenings out.

Judith Leiber minaudiere
This Elephant minaudière is listed at $4,995 at Judith Leiber Couture

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vintage white beaded clutch - white evening bag - bridal purse
A 1950s white beaded clutch.

 

Today, designers hire artists to handcraft specialty clutch purses, says Fashionista. The price reflects that special care, with top label clutches priced in the thousands of dollars. One of the most famous modern designers is Judith Leiber, who is known for the minaudière (from the French meaning ‘to be charming’). One of her best-known bags is shaped like a red tomato covered with hand-set red and green crystals.

 

Ultra Rare, Vintage 1981 JUDITH LEIBER, Chinese Hand Warmer Purse, with Swarovski Crystals Minaudiere HandBag
A Judith Lieber minaudière (from IncogneetoVintage on Etsy).

Lucite box purses.These plastic purses started as a fad but have become coveted by collectors. (Lucite should not be confused with Bakelite, a hard plastic that was often used to make jewelry in the ‘20s and ‘30s).

lucite box purse
A1950s lucite box purse (Image from Collectors Weekly)

 

Vintage box purse - vintage Anton Pieck box purse - Billie Ross box purse - Wood decoupage purse
An Anton Pieck lucite-handled Box Purse by Billie Ross, from the 1960s.
Vintage 1950s 50s Lucite Purse Rhinestones Evening Bag
A 1950s Lucite Purse (from littlestarsvintage on Etsy).

Clear Plastic Purses. A variation on the Lucite box purse, these bags seem to contradict the notion that women liked to keep the contents of their purses private. However, the novelty and appeal of the design inspired workarounds—women would wrap their belongings in colorful silk scarfs, which in themselves would become part of their fashion statement. Besides the private aspect, the strategy allowed women buy one purse and change its look to match different outfits. So you could say that it was actually a cost-saving measure!

Vintage 40s INGBER Petite Clear Purse with Rhinestones
A 1940s clear plastic purse with rhinestone detail (from Vintageables on Etsy)

Compacts, cigarette cases, and lighters. Many Lucite purses included matching compacts or cigarette cases mounted on to their lids, says  Collectors Weekly .

The Pochette is a handle-less clutch carried under the arm that may feature elaborate geometric and jazz motifs.

Drawstring bag. These small bags, often homemade, emerged during the 1940s when expensive materials like leather were scarce.

vintage clutch
A vintage white beaded pouchette by La Regale.
original MISSONI pochette / Vintage envelope handbag / italian designer purse / chevron gold blue bag
A Missoni vintage pochette (Skomoroki on Etsy).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bamboo handled bags. Gucci artisans in Japan used bamboo as an alternative to more expensive materials during wartime. The bamboo was bent after heating and shaped into a handle.

Straw Handbag - Summer Handbag - Capelli Purse
Vintage straw purse with bamboo handles by Capelli. (JanetsVintageFinds, Etsy)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Shoulder clutches. Popular in the 1960s, these were dainty bags with long chains or straps.

Metal Bags. The Chatelaine (a predecessor to the minaudière) was the first metal bag, made by Judith Leiber in the 1970s. They were popular in the “glam rock” era and featured lots of buckles, sippers, and rhinestones. 

The IT bag. The Fendi Baguette became the first IT bag in 1997. It was designed to be carried under the arm like a loaf of bread

Fendi Baguette bag
A Fendi Baguette bag (photo via BragMyBag)

Vintage Reproductions

A few designers have revived some of the popular styles from the past. These are not cheap knockoffs, notes Vintage Dancer, but beautifully crafted recreations. Two designers stand out in this regard, according to a post on 1920s bags:

Whiting and Davis has have revived some of the original metal mesh bags that they first produced in the late 1800s.

Mary Frances  makes elegant, artful small beaded bags inspired by 1920s techniques. I checked out her web site and these bags are truly whimsical and unique. The “before midnight” bag, for example, is shaped and decorated like the magical carriage that took Cinderella to the ball (a powerful motif, as I cover in a previous post inspired by my wedding dress) . A few bags depict animals while another is in the shape of a vintage typewriter.

Collectible Lucite purses are made by Llewelyn, Gilli Originals, Rialto, and Wilardy Originals.

Vanity purses laminated with colored or gold glitter, such as these examples from Wilardy, were popular throughout the 1950s.
Vanity Purses made by Willardy. (photo Collectors Weekly)
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.
A carved Lucite bag by Llewellyn. (photo Collectors Weekly)

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