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.

Beadwork bag with cream and white floral design, beaded clasp and catch, and gilt metal chain strap. Cream silk lining is labeled “K&G Charlet Bag.

Beadwork bag with curling thread motif, and with beaded catch and clasp. Lining is labeled “Bags by Josef Hand Beaded in France.” 1930s

Evening bag with hand-beaded and enameled frame and clasp. Labeled “The French Bag Shop, 1116 Lincoln Road, Miami Beach, Florida.” 1930s


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.

Fre-Mor box bag with black beadwork, twisted beadwork handle, and silver-tone metal surround; has five internal compartments. 1940s

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.

Fre-Mor box bag with bronze-colored beads, twisted beadwork handle, gilt metal frame, and five internal compartments. 1940s

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.



Witty and slightly surreal, the remarkable bags by Anne Marie of Paris are avidly collected today. Forms included everything from pianos to telephones and clocks to powder puffs. Great emphasis was also placed on the functional aspects of the bag; openings and fastenings, such as the “roll-top” lid on a desk-shaped bag, were often an integral part of the themed design.

Anne Marie of Paris playing cards bag: buckskin with gold motifs and ivory dice clasp. 1940s

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.

Anne Marie of Paris telephone bag of black buckskin with gilt frame. Made as a gift for VIPs at the Ritz Hotel, Paris. 1940s

Champagne bucket bag by Anne Marie of Paris: black buckskin with clear Lucite “ice cube” lid and gold-plated trim. 1940s

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.


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.

American handbag with
voile body and butterscotch
Bakelite frame. 1940s

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.

Black silk evening bag with Bakelite and diamanté clasp. c.1930

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.

Schiaparelli bag in black calfskin, with gilt metal clasp; made in Italy. 1930s

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.


Alligator-skin handbag with brass hardware. 1930s

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.

Argentinian brown crocodile-skin bag,
with two handles and gold-tone hardware,
marked “Industria Argentina.” 1940s

Honey-colored crocodile-skin handbag.

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.

Brown crocodile-skin clutch bag, marked “British Made.” 1930s

Crocodile-skin bag with black leather lining and gilt clasp. The good condition of this bag increases its desirability. 1940s

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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