Back to School: History Lesson - Stories Behind the Most Famous Handbags

Last month on Instagram we asked if our followers were interested in knowing the history of Hermès Kelly bag and over 60% pressed “YES”. So September turned out to be a perfect time to share some stories and to take you through histories of the most famous, beloved and cult handbags of our time. These handbags are conversation starters, and not only status symbols but cultural symbols as they carry a plethora of cultural references and stories behind them. They don't only belong to our wardrobes and private collections, but also films, museums and art exhibitions.

 

Hermès - Kelly

The coveted Kelly bag has not always had this name. Originally it was called Sac à Dépêche (A Mail Bag), when it was designed by monsieur Hermès’ son-in-law, Robert Dumas, in the 1930’s and hit the stores in 1935. Its design rejected the embellishment aesthetic, considered trendy at that time, and the focus was on simple lines and beautifully crafted leather. History goes that the bag got into Grace Kelly’s hands through the legendary Hollywood costume designer Edith Head, who from the approval of Alfred Hitchcock, supplied some Hermès accessories for the set of his movie To Catch a Thief in 1955. The actress loved this bag so much that she carried it with her off-screen during important events, including her engagement announcement to Prince Rainier of Monaco. After their wedding, in the early weeks of the Princess of Monaco pregnancy, she famously shielded her tiny baby bump with this Hermès bag from paparazzi. The photos made it onto Life Magazine. People, who were watching Princess’ every move christened this handbag “Kelly”. However, officially it was renamed from Sac à Dépêche to “Kelly bag” only in 1977. Up until today it still one of the most popular, desired and iconic handbags out there.

 

In 2010, along with other notable wardrobe pieces from Princess Grace's collection, her Kelly bag was loaned from the palace archives of Monaco and placed on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Louis Vuitton - Speedy

One of the most popular creations from the house of Louis Vuitton is its iconic Speedy bag. As a matter of fact, a company that specialized on travel accessories like trunks and spacious duffle bags, created Speedy as their first ever everyday purse in 1930 and named it “Express” as an homage to the era’s travel revolution. It was created as a smaller version of their classic Keepall travel bag and was what now is known as Speedy 30, which is 30 cm wide at the bottom. However the handbag changed the whole direction of the company, who now is the leader in the handbag market, due to its strong connection with celebrity and style icon - Audrey Hepburn. The history claims that in 1959 (or some sources say it was 1965)  the actress personally requested a mini version of her Keepall duffle for daily use, only 25 cm wide so that it would be more comfortable to wear for her slender frame - and this is how Speedy 25 was created. Louis Vuitton made a special request and added the model to its selection - and this is a very popular style up until today. 

  

Throughout the years, the Speedy became a staple, being available in all materials and leather versions, including Limited Editions by artists like Stephen Sprouse, Takashi Murakami, Richard Prince, Yayoi Kusama, Kansai Yamamoto, Jeff Koons, as well as other seasonal variations. The Sofia Coppola version of the bag, known as the SC Bag, which is a melding of design elements of both the Speedy and the Keepall, joined the family in 2010. In 2011, Vuitton added a variation of the bag, the Speedy Bandoulière, featuring a long strap that allows to wear it as shoulder bag or cross body.  The miniature Nano size was introduced in 2015, and most recently launched as part of the Spring/Summer 18 season, the Speedy Doctor.

Dior - Lady Dior

The history of Lady Dior handbag by Christian Dior was discussed in detail in our December 2020 blog, Status symbol: Princess Diana and her handbags. But it is such an iconic handbag that we could not skip it from this list.

According to the fashion legend, during Princess Diana’s visit to Paris in 1995 for Cezanne Art Exhibition, the First Lady of France, Madame Bernadette Chirac, gave Lady Di, the latest handbag design by Dior, as a diplomatic gift. Created in 1994 under the creative direction of Gianfranco Ferre, the tote was first called “Chouchou,” which means “Favorite” in French. Lady Diana fell instantly in love with the bag, and as the most photographed woman in the world, the bag was highly photographed on the arm of one of the world’s most beloved woman of all time. Marie Claire magazine reports that the late Princess loved it so much, she ordered the bag in every colour. She has been photographed wearing the variation of the bag multiple times, for official, gala and state visits. Most memorably she paired it with a tangerine Versace suit on a visit to Liverpool that year, and with a John Galliano for Dior slip dress to the Met Gala in 1996, devoted to 50 years of Christian Dior. The Lady Dior handbag became an instant success. This was the time when Lady Di’s divorce from Prince Charles finalized, so the handbag also became a symbol of her new-found freedom, both personal and sartorial.

In honour of Lady Di, the house of Dior decided to rename its iconic bag and pay tribute to the Princess of Wales, and since 1996, the bag has been known as the “Lady Dior” handbag.

 

Fendi - Baguette

The iconic Fendi Baguette purse was designed by Silvia Venturini Fendi in 1997. The designer christened the bag the Baguette because this shoulder bag was made to sit comfortably under the arm in the very same way that the French are usually seen carrying this long, thin baton-esque loaf of crusty bread. However it gained its tremendous popularity thanks to the TV-show Sex and the City and Carrie Bradshaw in early 2000’s. Do you remember an episode, where she got mugged in the street of New York? The robber asks for her "bag", to which Carrie replies "it's a Baguette”. Or how Samantha Jones purchased a fake Baguette from the trunk in the alleys of Los Angeles?  In that episode this handbag even became a metaphor for “fake versus authentic” narrative of the episode.

Fendi was the first luxury house to lend a piece to Patricia Field, the show's costume designer and stylist. Sarah Jessica Parker has credited this bag for establishing the show and her character, Carrie Bradshaw, saying "Having Carrie wear the Baguette was a defining moment for us, and marked the beginning of everything”. Since then fashion houses started lending their products to the show and for Fendi it was the biggest commercial success.

It is said that Fendi Baguette has started a whole “It Bag” fashion movement. As LVMH acquired Fendi in 1999,  the Baguette has been sold over a million times in addition to the thousands of style variations - embellished, sequinned, embroidered, exclusive pieces, limited editions. It was worn by countless celebrities 20 years ago, even in films and music videos, and is extremely popular today amongst influencers, seen on social media. In 2021 Fendi re-introduced Baguette 1997, a re-edition of the original It-bag.

In 2019 Fendi, when relaunched the Baguette, their campaign featured the purple sequinned Baguette, that Carrie had got stolen. It has become such an iconic piece, that a new generation of fashionistas were chasing it until it appeared on Sarah Jessica Parker’s shoulder, with her famous line “It’s not a bag. It’s a Baguette”.  And in 2020 in the exhibition “Bags: Inside Out” in Victoria and Albert Museum in London feature that one purple sequinned Baguette, that now has its place in the pop culture and fashion history.

 

Gucci Bamboo

While Gucci has many signature handbags, we wanted to tell you a history of the most iconic Gucci purse- The Gucci Bamboo bag. The classic Gucci Bamboo has been reproduced for over 50 years, but the bamboo handles are part of the House of Gucci’s DNA and have been reimagined in a variety of handbags, most notably with the recent issue of Gucci Diana bag in the summer of 2021.

The first Gucci Bamboo was created in 1947 and are truly an example of ingenuity of House of Gucci - it was shortly after the World War II, and the materials were still rationed and in short supply. Gucci’s artisans developed a method of heating and bending bamboo canes, which were easily imported from Japan, to create strong, rigid handbag handles. The bamboo is softened and worked over an open flame by hand to manipulate the material into a semi-circular shape. Then, the handle is coated in multiple layers of lacquer, after which it’s toasted in order to achieve a shiny golden-brown finish. Once cooled, the handles are affixed to the top of the leather frame of the bag. Due to this meticulous process, not a single bamboo handle is ever the same. Understandably, Gucci has patented this unique method and to this date, all bamboo handles are still handcrafted by trained artisans in the Gucci factory just outside of Florence.

It’s been a favourite purse of various Hollywood actresses, from Elizabeth Taylor and Ingrid Bergman in the 1950’s and 1960’s, to contemporary stars like Naomi Watts, Carla Bruni, Jennifer Lopez and many more.

  

The handbag was revived by Frida Giannini, Gucci’s creative director, in 2010 and named “The New Bamboo”. 

 

Most notably it was recently reimagined by Alessandro Michele, who  redesigned various handbags with a bamboo top handle (like Dionysus and Padlock), reissued the classic Gucci Bamboo, played with its gender-neutrality, and reimagined a Bamboo handles tote from 1991, beloved by Princess Diana, and christened it Gucci Diana in her honour.

 

 

 

Chanel Classic Flap 

Chanel Classic Flap is one of the most recognizable, desired but also controversial bags due to its bi-annual price increases. Still, no matter how high the price of this Chanel purse goes up, it is still the House’s most popular handbag.

The Classic Flap bag is based on Chanel 2.55 purse, but the main difference is an interlocking CC clasp lock of a Classic Flap bag. The 2.55 handbag bears that name because it was originally issued in February 1955, although it was based on a carry-in-hands bag that Coco Chanel created in 1929. It featured a simple Mademoiselle lock - the iconic CC were added only in the 1980’s by Karl Lagerfeld! In 2005 to celebrate 50 years of 2.55 bag, Karl Lagerfeld relaunched the purse and named it Reissue 2.55, which is a newly created model but an exact recreation of the original. That means that technically 2.55, Reissue (produced after 2005) and Classic Flap (with CC lock) are all different models, although one is based on another.

When the hanging from a shoulder OG 2.55 was created by Coco Chanel herself, it quickly became very popular, as according to stories, that was the first time that it got acceptable that ladies from upper class circles could free their hands and carry a bag on a shoulder.

As everything that Mademoiselle Chanel touched, it is surrounded by myths and stories. They say that Coco Chanel wanted to ease the high society’s ladies life by freeing their hands with shoulder hanged bags. Although common for the working class, it was not favourable within the luxury circles dames, and Chanel created a fashion revolution in that circle. Every detail of this purse bears some personal stories of Coco Chanel. It is said that the quilting of the bag inspired by the jackets worn by male stablehands that she was so particularly fond of. Also, the inside tiny zipper compartment under a top flap was used by Chanel to hide her love letters from her lovers! Another story claims that the shade of burgundy leather that has long been used to line the original 2.55 flap bags and some Classic Flaps, was chosen because of the uniforms worn by Chanel as a little girl at the convent orphanage in Aubazine where she was raised. Also the chains on a purse was reportedly the same chains that the nuns used to dangle keys from their waists.

 

Hermès Birkin

And we are finishing today's History Lesson with the most iconic and top bag in the hierarchy of handbags, crème de la crème - the Hermès Birkin bag, named after the actress Jane Birkin. This is quite the famous story but with a lot of not that known details. In early 1980’s a Paris-based British actress was flying from Paris to London. She recalls that in the interview to Telegraph in 2012 - "I remember it well. I'd been upgraded by Air France on a flight to London, and was sitting next to a man. I'm not quite sure what type of bag I had with me - my husband, Jacques Doillon, had reversed his car over my basket, crushed it two days before. Little did he know that on this airplane journey, when everything fell out of whatever bag I had, the man next to me said: 'You should have one with pockets'. I said: 'The day Hermès make one with pockets I will have that', and he said: 'But I am Hermès and I will put pockets in for you’." The man was in fact Jean-Louis Dumas, the chief executive of Hermès. Together they began designing and drew a new design of a bag on a sickbag. Dumas proposed that he give Birkin the bag in exchange for her lending her surname to christen the design, and in 1984 it hit the shelves.

According to Jérôme Lalande, an antique dealer specializing in 20th-Century leather goods, the Birkin wasn’t an immediate hit: it only really took off in the late ’90s, at the dawn of the It-bag era, that has started with Fendi’s Baguette. Up until today the company pays the actress annual royalties of tens of thousands of dollars, which she then donates to charities of her choice. Unlike celebrities, who collect and can boast hundreds of Birkin bags (Victoria Beckham or Kardashian-Jenner sisters), the actress has had only five of her namesake purses by 2015 - she’d wear one by one until it gets too worn out, patched with stickers and decorated with talismans, then it gets sold for charity auctions. Today we can tell that the success of the handbag has surpassed the fame of the actress. She laughs that when she goes to America to sing, they ask her, 'Birkin - like the bag?’

 

There are lots of stories and urban myths that keep the desirability very high around Hermès bag. One is that it is impossible to purchase one in the store unless a buyer has a purchase history and a good relationship with the sales associates and that the wait list for a brand new Birkin are years-long. It has become a signature feature of iconic pop culture figures and participated in many movies, the bag has been included in art exhibitions, performances and conversations around art, fashion and consumerism. Unique and rare, Birkin bags keep selling at astronomical prices at auctions, thus reinforcing an urban legend that it is better to invest in the Hermès bags, than in gold. Whether some of them are true or not, a Birkin bag has definitely became an ultimate status and culture symbol in our world.

 

 

 

 

Sources for facts and images:

https://www.seattletimes.com/life/fashion/the-not-so-humble-handbag-from-stars-to-royals-to-everywoman-its-right-there-with-us/

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