Pockets to Pouchettes: Southern Purses in the 1950s

If you know anything about Southern culture, you’ll know that purses, handbags, and pocketbooks have always been a crucial part of any belle’s wardrobe. But how did they become such an integral element of women’s fashion? The answer lies in a longstanding battle in the fashion world.

Long before Kelly bags and snakeskin came into fashion, women needed a way to carry essential items without weighing themselves down. Designers and manufacturers of women’s clothing refused to add pockets to their dresses, citing a need to maintain whichever elegant figure was in vogue at the time. Women, therefore, had to outsource their need. They began by sewing small pocket-like bags and tying them around their waist, under their petticoat.[1] In the eighteenth century, reticules, “minuscule bags that women carried in their hands rather than on their hips,” became the most common method of substituting pockets.[2] The tradition of embroidered and lavishly decorated handbags originates here, as reticules became more and more common.[3] Like any trend, the materials and decorations of the bag turned into a status symbol.

Moving into the twentieth century, the purse became more and more common and amplified its role as a status symbol. As women, especially mothers, needed to carry more and more with them during the day, handbags grew in size. However, evening bags followed the opposite trend, becoming smaller and smaller as time went on. Just as the size of reticules indicated the wealth or status of the woman carrying them, so too did purses. The smaller the bag, the higher status you were, as higher-class women didn’t need to carry money or keys with them, just a tube of lipstick and a compact. After the Second World War, the pressure to perform and present social class grew exponentially, and the evening bag was a central symbol.[4] As with every other popular item, production exploded in a rainbow of materials, shapes, and models. The iconic crocodile and alligator skin, gold lamé, black velvet, and even lucite comprised just a fraction of the new and inventive materials women carried everywhere.[5]

Down at Andalusia, the Cline-O’Connors were not immune to the trends of the era. There are seven handbags in the collection, each one displaying a different facet of ‘50s culture.

Andalusia Collection: 2018.1.74

This classy black bag is instantly recognizable as a remnant of postwar culture. Its unconventional shape represents the innovation that comes from the sheer number of bags produced, resulting in all sorts of inventive shapes. The classic black color implies its frequent use, with its neutral color easy to complement.

Andalusia Collection: 2018.1.76

A standard of its time, this beige purse reflects an easy transition from day to night, large enough to carry a wallet and makeup but small enough to still be seen as respectable. Its classic clutch shape implies that the owner has a hand to spare, rather than a strap to alleviate the need.

Andalusia Collection: 2018.1.77

Reminiscent of the older reticules, this pouchette style bag indulges in luxurious beading and embroidery. Its short drawstring makes it an “easy to carry travel bag” while still maintaining an air of sophistication.[6]

While not as common today, and certainly not as integral a part of a complex social order, handbags still remain as a definitive element in fashion. Purses (and their designers) are only becoming more inventive as time goes on. Flannery herself may not have had much to say on the topic, but she still remained a part of the culture.

[1] “Wearing Pockets,” A history of pockets (Victoria and Albert Museum, Cromwell Road, South Kensington, London SW7 2RL. Telephone +44 (0)20 7942 2000. Email vanda@vam.ac.uk, February 8, 2013), http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/a/history-of-pockets/.

[2] Rachel Lubitz, “The Weird, Complicated, Sexist History of Pockets,” February 19, 2016, https://www.mic.com/articles/133948/the-weird-complicated-sexist-history-of-pockets.

[3] David James, “The History of Handbags – a 5-Minute Guide,” 5-Minute History, May 1, 2017, https://fiveminutehistory.com/the-history-of-handbags-a-5-minute-guide/.

[4] “1950s Handbags, Purses, and Evening Bag Styles,” Vintage Dancer, accessed May 22, 2020, https://vintagedancer.com/1950s/1950s-handbags-purses-styles/.

[5] Patricia Ryan, “1950s Purses & Handbags: Styles, Trends & Pictures,” RetroWaste, accessed May 22, 2020, https://www.retrowaste.com/1950s/fashion-in-the-1950s/1950s-purses-handbags-styles-trends-pictures/.

[6] “1950s Handbags, Purses, and Evening Bag Styles,” Vintage Dancer, accessed May 22, 2020, https://vintagedancer.com/1950s/1950s-handbags-purses-styles/.

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