Today, we talk about handbags. I found it worth sharing because it reflects very much the lifestyle of people, the material and technology and even the identity of genders of a time. Initially, as a useful tool for mankind to contain and carry loose items while freeing pairs of hands, handbags have gone much beyond their functions into fashion accessories that reflect the status and tastes of their owners. Handbags from prestigious brands could be items for people to show off their wealth and while bags of cool design could be personal statements. Queen Elizabeth always carried a handbag which became her signature look.
More associated with women than men today, handbags have an interesting history before they arrive as the ways we perceive them today.
The word “bag” can be traced back to older languages meaning load and bundle. Before the convention of carrying bigger handbags, small purses and pockets were hung from clothes to carry coins. Habits of carrying scented pouches to give out good smells could be found in both the East and West traditions and making these ornate purses and pouches has been a testimonial of ladies’ handcraft.
These soft purses and pockets were later replaced by ornate reticules carried by ladies to suit the fashionable slim feminine silhouette while they were integrated into men’s wear as the pockets we commonly found today. As differentiated from harder containers which we normally refer to as “cases” like briefcases, suitcases and luggage case, bags are made of soft materials, which give them the advantages of being less bulky, foldable and collapsible in size. It was not until the industrial revolution period that ladies’ handbags made of leather like mini-briefcases became ladies’ fashion accessories.
In 1841 in England, when the Doncaster industrialist Samuel Parkinson ordered a set of bags in the same leather as his own travelling cases for his wife after noticing that her purse was too small and not durable enough to withstand the journey by railway. This caring husband specifically requested the bags to be made in different sizes to suit different uses and occasions which include a lady travelling case, in modern terms, a tote and a clutch. It is also the period when companies like Louis Vuitton expanded their business into women’s handbags.
Such changes from soft purses to hard cases have aroused Sigmund Freud’s criticism as being unfeminine as he related the softer purse to female genitalia and sexuality. Despite that, handbags have gradually become a woman’s item while men stay with their clothing pockets and functional briefcases and bags. While men’s and women’s roles are getting blurred and unisex design is becoming popular, we will likely see more and more fashionable men’s handbags in near future.
Material-wise, from the use of natural materials and fibres, the invention of plastic made cheap disposable bags available for shoppers. These difficult-to-disintegrate bags are now considered bad for the environment and discouraged. There are creative designers like Freitag who upcycle waste container covers into trendy bags.
As a maker and someone who loves design, I always dream of having my own lines of bags and backpacks. I love backpacks as they do not strain my shoulder and spine even though I have the habit of carrying a lot of things with me like my pencil case, sketchbook, iPad and notebook, apart from the typical daily items.
For my thematic cheongsam brand十八廿二, which means being young at the age of 18and22, I have hand-made a few backpacks inspired by cheongsam. There are more conventional ones that simply play with the combination of fabrics like cheongsam and one that follows the typical cheongsam details in the 18 and 22 logo with a standing collar and a side placket. I have even made one by upcycling my daughter’s cheongsam school uniform into this cute cheongsam backpack. I hope I can further develop these prototypes into real lines of products.
As I always stress, mahjong is also a great source of inspiration for designs. It ranges from bags made of fabric with patterns related to mahjong to clutches and cross bags that are in the shape of a mahjong tile.
For Glocal Mahjong we have designed many patterns from mahjong and hope in the near future we can make more products from these patterns.
Over the weekend, with the embroidery from our shop, yarns in the colour green and white and a zipper, I made this crochet bag. If you are interested to know how to make this, please let me know and I may do a special episode for it.