I’ve had a lifelong obsession with pocketbooks. As a child, I was always curious as to what women carried in their handbags. I suppressed a deep urge to open and rummage through them when they weren’t looking. I wanted to know what they carried and why they felt it was necessary to tote these items around all day, every day.
I was too young to have any essential items to carry. Yet I recall one of my first purses that was gifted to me by a church member. It was a white and made of fabric — an elegant envelope purse. On the front, in red letters was the designer name, GIVENCHY. I used the purse so much that there was a greasy finger stain on the front where it snapped shut. Even though I could not pronounce GIVENCHY, I knew it was an indicator of status of some sort. On some level I understood that as a woman I was expected to have a handbag, and to fill it with things. (Sidenote: I’ve never since owned a Givenchy anything ;.).
As I moved through puberty, the need to have a handbag increased. In fact, it became a necessity. Where else does a teenager put her pads or tampons? Her lips gloss? Her driver’s license? Keys to the house, the car? It is at this point in life where a woman realizes she does not have enough (if any) pockets in which to store the things that she must carry. How I’ve envied men, who walk out of the house or office with no bag yet still manage to get around in the world doing many of the same things I do. Men’s clothes have pockets and it’s the norm for them to fill pant pockets with change and a wallet, and use a shirt pocket to hold a small notebook and pen. Men are able to easily opt out of a handbag. I once closely observed a co-worker of mine who managed to get by without a purse 90% of the time. She used her phone case as her wallet. It bulged with all her cards and cash, but she was purse-less! A rebel! My admiration was deep.The only drawback was that she was always locking herself out of the office, since she kept forgetting or misplacing her keys.
I put a lot of time and thought into what the functions of my purse are and what it should hold, not to mention how it looks. The contents of my purse have varied as I’ve moved from teenager to young woman to mother to mid-life. As a young mother, I grew to resent the expectation that my handbag was the place to hold the items of others: sunglasses, sippy cups, toys, a dirty pacifier, a balled up diaper. At times, my bag became hodgepodge of sorts, filled with other folks’ items along with my own. At one point I intentionally downsized my purse so that when others asked me to carry their items I could hold it up and say: no room.
And the pocketbooks I love the most, the ones I find most lovely on an aesthetic level also have no room. These are the handbags of the 1950s. They are often handbags that can only be carried on the elbow or by hand. They are not practical for a modern woman by any means. Believe me, I’ve tried to stuff in my smallest wallet, cell phone, and keys, and the purse will not shut. This makes me sad, as I’d love to carry around these vintage bags because of their beauty. I especially love the sound of the clasp as it snaps shut. I love “kiss” locks with their round, shiny metal locks. But my admiration of these purses led me to question the purpose of these slender bags.
In the 1950s, a woman most likely carried gloves, lipstick, keys, and some cash. She had no need for the wallet I have now, with its many slots and pockets, because a woman in that decade could neither open a bank account nor own a credit card in her own name – she needed a husband for that. This means that women carried far fewer credit cards. She likely could use the small wallets that tend to come with these bags. Many of the 50s handbags I’ve owned come with a soft, flat wallet and/or a small kiss lock coin purse. A few even have a special pocket for lipstick, and many include a small comb and mirror. The focus of these bags is appearance, not practicality. The contents of the purse supported the expectation that the woman look a certain way, while also communicating fashion sense, wealth, and status.
When I began to see these purses for signifiers of status and the expectation that a woman always be well-groomed, I began to feel conflicted. While I loved the artful designs of them, I resented the fact that they were an item to be consumed by women in order to fit into society. Purses became not just a place for carrying essentials, but an item that followed the whims and twists and turns of the fashion world. More importantly, they informed a woman on how she should look – and what she should wish to obtain. The handbags even provided the tools to keep her well-groomed. A woman could not get by with just one handbag, either. She needed multiple bags, since handbags were accessories that complemented her outfit. A handbag for shopping was much more understated than the bag she would take to an evening dinner with the spouse.
Therefore, I looked at my collection of bags with new insights, and I decided to repurpose them and in the process make a statement about being a woman and the expectations projected on her by society. The handbags I’ve chosen to repurpose often already had an imperfection of sorts, such as a tear or stain, or significant signs of wear, as I would loathe to alter a bag that was in pristine condition. Therefore, the handbags I’ve altered have two purposes: one is to highlight an element of being feminine that society expected women to conform to, and the other is to give the bag a new reason for being.
The first bag pictured is a patent leather black and red zipper purse. Its extremely slender structure does not lend itself well to carrying more bulky items. The collage on the front represents the 50s expectation that a woman be both beautiful and a great cook and entertainer. Her dreams were dictated to her by the slogans and messages thrusted on her through media outlets, and are highlighted by the images and slogans. Inside are cookbooks that upheld the woman’s place as the ever-happy entertainer and stellar cook, all while looking great.
The next handbag is one that came into my possession with wallet, comb, and mirror all tucked discreetly inside. I really wanted to hold my collection of colored pencils in this bag, but they simply would not fit. The bag is too narrow. But the lines are beautiful, and I decided to make this what I call a travel purse. Inside the handbag are postcards from a trip, held together by a clip earring (also a trend of the 50s). The outside is sparsely decorated with a postcard on each side (one Hopper reproduction, and the other a famous photo of a couple in Paris). For the souvenir, there’s a skeleton key chain from Las Vegas.
The next lovely purse is one of my personal favorites. It has hung in my various homes due to its simple beauty. However, it came to me with a big scratch on one side, and it is on this side that I’ve placed a collection of brooches. Brooches represent yet another thing of beauty – a thing to be owned but that is not a necessity. Much like these fashionable handbags, brooches convey a message of status or preference. The marred side of this bag is decorated, the flip side is not. The bag has been repurposed to hold patterns for women’s clothes – yet another way that we consume and share status or aesthetic tastes through our clothing.
Finally, the final bag fits more with the theme of repurposing than it does with society’s expectations of a woman and her looks and place. The binoculars that were once held in this case are long gone, and I found it with just the lids for the binocular lenses knocking around. I can actually fit my phone and wallet in this one, so it could easy be what is called a “statement” purse and it can be worn on the shoulder or as a cross-body. It has been decorated with a travel theme – from magnets to stickers from Alice in Wonderland to an old birthday card. Interestingly enough, the vintage birthday card has a set of binoculars on it, so it was meant to go with this repurposed binocular case.
Of course, the best way to view these is in-person, as each purse has new contents and additional details that are not captured in the photos. I’m interested in your thoughts, especially if you are a lover of vintage bags, or if you carried one in the 1950s — what were your feelings about your bag? The “need” for one? The expectations of being a woman in that era? Send them to me!