The purse, that iconic True Fashionista place for your stuff carried by women (and yes a lot of men too) has a long, varied history. Perhaps Hillary Clinton put it best in a 2011 Harper’s Bazaar UK interview, “No one should make fun of anyone else’s handbag choices… handbags are a deep psychological need. It’s a desire to organize and contain that which is important to your daily life.” Further proving the point, a 2014 study of women with dementia found that they responded well to having handbags with them, suggesting that even after a time, we treat our handbags as an extension of ourselves. Surprisingly, or not so surprisingly, we find that handbags actually began as a man’s accessory.

Historically, handbags have always functioned as symbols of power, beauty and status as well as for their practical uses. Medieval purses were not only used for carrying money, but also had great symbolic weight representing marriage and betrothal, and were often embroidered to depict love stories. They were often embroidered to depict love stories, shares Readers Digest. 

Bags are not a new idea in the least. As long as we humans have had items to carry, we have created bags in which to carry them. As early as 38,000 BCE, hunter-gatherers were using bundles and pouches made from fibers to store and transport food and tools. From Ancient Rome til the Renaissance and beyond, the drawstring purse was worn dangling from a belt by both men and women. The woman’s handbag as we know it, however, is a much more recent development in the storied history of the bag, as portrayed in the “100 Years of 100 Handbags” exhibit that was on display at the Women’s Museum of California in 2017.

The world’s oldest purse was discovered in Germany in 2012. Studded with dog teeth, it was dated from between 2,500 to 2,200 B.C. The world’s oldest handbag is a 700-year-old clutch (that would be from 1300, math geniuses) discovered in the city of Mosul in Northern Iraq. 

The man-purse went away due to the invention of pockets in 1670, and purse became exclusively women’s fashion. When big, puffy dresses were all the rage in Elizabethan times, the tiny purse women would carry tended to get lost among the folds, so purse sizes increased as well.

The modern handbag was birthed in the nineteenth century first as a smaller piece of luggage that tourists carried while traveling the country on the newly invented public train.  Bags got larger still during World War II when the war brought practicality into the look.  In the 1960s and ‘70s, boomers in their the teens and twenties begat a more youthful, carefree look in everything, including handbags made out of all different materials.

The “It” bag in today’s culture is its own beast where exclusivity, as opposed to functionality, defines it. Wrote Vogue’s Plum Sykes, “An It bag is an It bag only if you’re unlikely to possess it.” Wait lists exist for purses from in-demand designers such as Fendi, Alexander Wang, Hermès, Gucci and more. Highlights from Vogue’s It bag Hall of Fame include the Kelly from Hermès circa 1935. Named for American actress turned Monica princess, Grace Kelly, it was said that he used it to hide her pregnancy. The 1984 Prada backpack is on the list, as is Christian Dior’s oversized Princess Bag inspired and used by the late Princess Diana. Enjoy the complete Vogue list of It bags here.