From the glamorous geometric styling that is a hallmark of 1930s Art Deco bags to the practical roominess of wartime bags, this was a time of contrasts. Beaded and embroidered bags continued to be popular – especially home-made bags when wartime shortages meant new ones were hard to come by – while box bags made their first appearance.
Anne Marie of France and the Italian designer Elsa Schiaparelli added novel and surreal notes to handbag design, which would echo for years to come.
In the 1940s, Fre-Mor was renowned for its range of beaded bags. The bags were made in various shapes, such as round, rectangular, and hexagonal, with gilt metal frames and silk linings.
Today, collectors will pay a premium for round or rectangular bags. In addition, they look for bags with intricate frames or frames set with Bakelite, both of which add to the value. Also sought after are bags decorated with iridescent “carnival” glass beads. Similar bags were made by companies such as DuBonnette.
The owners of Fre-Mor Plastics later merged with Jewel Plastics Corp. to form Llewellyn, Inc. The Llewellyn company is best known for its Lucite handbags, produced during the 1950s.
Anne Marie used materials, such as Lucite, that were new and innovative and created a playful look, while the black suede used on many bags ensured a glamorous feel.
One notable example of Anne Marie’s work is a 1930s bag shaped as a mandolin, complete with “strings,” and an interior decorated with an opera program. Another is a striking 1940s bag shaped as an ice bucket, with Lucite “ice” and a bottle of Reims champagne, which was made as a Christmas gift for VIP residents of the Ritz Hotel, Paris.
ART DECO BAKELITE BAG
In the 1920s and 1930s, plastic was an exciting new material that opened a world of possibilities to designers of handbags, jewelry, and other accessories. Bakelite was a form of plastic patented by Dr. Leo Baekeland in 1907.
It was initially used as an electrical insulator, but was soon living up to its reputation as “the material of 1,000 uses.” As well as being colorful, Bakelite was easy to carve into intricate and highly decorative shapes.
The Art Deco bag featured on these pages shows the many possibilities Bakelite brought to handbag design. The creamy yellow body has been inlaid with pieces of red, green, and black Bakelite. In addition, the bag has a Bakelite handle and clasp.
One of the most influential designers of the 20th century, Elsa Schiaparelli (1890–1973) was known for radical and witty clothing inspired by modern and surrealist art. Her handbags, like her other accessories, were often created from new, man-made materials in striking colors and forms.
Examples from the 1930s included bags shaped as snails and balloons, or made from newsprint fabric or Cellophane. One flamboyant handbag featured a telephone and was created with the help of the artist Salvador Dali. Despite such innovation, many of her bags were feminine and classically stylish and worked well with more conventional outfits.
Schiaparelli also worked on themed ranges. Handbags in her 1937 “Music” collection played tunes when opened, while her “Pagan” bags were decorated with suede leaves. Always keen to attract publicity with groundbreaking and practical bags for modern women, Schiaparelli continued to make handbags into the 1950s.
THE CLASSIC ALLIGATOR / CROCODILE BAG
Relatively early in the history of handbags, designs began to appear in exotic animal skins such as python, antelope, and shark. It was alligator skin, however, that really captured the fashion world’s imagination.
Alligator bags enjoyed their first wave of popularity during the 1880s, when Bloomingdale’s offered them for sale in all shapes and sizes. The commercial success of the material led to manufacturers introducing “faux” alligator bags made from grained goatskin.
In the 1930s the craze went one step further, with designers using the whole animal to create a bag. These examples – which can feature the creature’s head and feet – are not to everyone’s taste today, but are still highly collectable. During the 1950s, Hermès used alligator skin for its famous “Kelly” bag. Two alligators were used for each bag: the belly formed the bag’s body, while the flexible neck skin was used for the sides.
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