The post-war boom brought with it a new informality in fashion. While baskets and novelty shapes suited both the optimism of the 1950s and the flower power of the 1960s, formal, classy, coordinating leather bags were still a necessity.
Perhaps the 1950s’ greatest legacy to handbag design was the Lucite bag – a plastic box bag that came in myriad colours and designs. After years in the style wilderness, these masterpieces of modern design are now appreciated and collected as icons of their time.
THE CLASSIC LUCITE BAG
By the early 1950s, plastic had become ubiquitous in American homes. Meanwhile, innovative handbag manufacturers started using a tough plastic, trademarked Lucite, developed in the 1930s.
For many women in the emerging middle classes, leather and fabric bags were too expensive; Lucite bags, though hand-made, were affordable and their novelty shapes fitted with post-war optimism. By the end of the decade, however, the availability of cheap, mass-produced bags, combined with a return to the fashion for leather, caused the Lucite craze to die out.
The major manufacturers were Myles Originals, Gilli Originals, Wilardy Originals, Llewellyn, Inc., Tyrolean, Inc., Rialto, Dorset Rex, Charles S Khan, Maxim, Majestic, Miami, and Florida Handbags. Most bags were labeled.
When buying Lucite bags, condition is important; cracks, or deterioration such as fogging, will reduce the value.
CHARLES S KHAN
Lucite bags by Charles S Khan are often a solid, metallic color – pink, blue, or gold – with clear lids and handles. Both the lids and the handles can feature geometric or floral cut designs. Other bags feature clear or white Lucite set with gold confetti. Charles S Khan used the three-ball catch favored by Patricia of Miami and Myles Originals.
Like many of its competitors, Charles S Khan made the same style of bag in many colorways and different shapes – oval, rectangular, circular, and trapezoid.
The company was based in Miami, Florida. Bags are usually labeled “Charles S Khan, Inc. Miami,” or “Charles S Khan, Inc. Miami, Florida, USA.”
Clever combinations of metal and plastic are the signature of Dorset Rex’s bags. The company often used a metal filigree, mesh, or basketweave for the body of a bag and gave it a plastic base, lid, and handle. The metal would be white or yellow, and the plastic parts might be black, taupe, or tortoiseshell.
Other basket styles had alternating ribs of plastic and metal, while some bags were barrel-shaped and made entirely from plastic but with a metal overlay around the bottom half of the body.
Dorset Rex also made other unusual designs, such as clear plastic baskets in which the plastic was inset with plastic flowers, and imitation mother-of-pearl evening bags.
The Lucite bags made by Llewellyn, Inc. are elegant and understated. They are often decorated with rhinestones or lined with satin. Llewellyn, Inc. bags may also have ornate metal clasps or inset decoration such as monogram initials or intricate filigree.
The company, which was based on Madison Avenue in New York City, was formed in 1951 when Jewel Plastic Corp. and Fre-Mor Manufacturing Corp. merged. Its trademark was “Lewsid Jewel by Llewellyn.” Some designs, such as the beehive bag with its jeweled lid engraved with bees and flowers, were made by both Jewel Plastic Corp. and Llewellyn, Inc.
Most of the Llewellyn, Inc. bags found today have carrying handles; clutch bags are rare and therefore command a premium.
The Lucite bags made by Myles Originals can often be identified by their metal, three-ball clasps. As with the bags made by other manufacturers, the more intricate the bag, the greater its value.
Inset diamanté gems, fancy clasps, internal trays, and mirrors all add to the desirability of a bag. Color also has an impact on a bag’s collectability. Black, brown, white, and pearlized gray are all common colors; red, pale blue, jade green, and yellow are all rare.
When buying a Lucite bag, check that it does not smell strongly of chemicals. If it does, it means the plastic is degrading and will start to crack and discolor. Bags should not be subjected to high temperatures or left in direct sunlight for long periods.
PATRICIA OF MIAMI
This line of elegant Lucite handbags was named by Morty Edelstein, head of Miami Handbags, in honor of his wife Patricia. Morty Edelstein had previously worked for Fre-Mor and Llewellyn in New York before joining Miami Handbags in Florida.
The bags often feature solid-colored bodies and cut, clear Lucite lids with the three-ball metal clasps also seen on Myles Originals and Charles S Khan bags.
Patricia of Miami’s distinctive designs include elongated box bags with two openings separated by a band of filigree metal; bags made from clear Lucite with gold threads set inside it, gold with gold threads, or gray with silver threads; and bags made from Lucite set with lace or glitter.
Evening bags were set with rhinestones. The bags were often marked “Patricia of Miami.”
Lucite bags embellished with cut designs, or with applied jewels or flowers, are the hallmarks of the Rialto company. Cut designs often featured flowers, heart-shaped leaves, stars, or geometric patterns. Applied flowers would be made from fabric, threads, and beads. Rialto bags often feature the company’s signature “stirrup and turn” style latch. They may be marked “Rialto Original, NY.”
Some Rialto box bags were covered with acetate sleeves. Other box bags were actually made from acetate; these are often confused with the Lucite bags. Telling the difference can be a challenge to the inexperienced eye, but acetate tends to look slightly yellow when compared to Lucite.
As well as Lucite bags, Rialto made fabric handbags, which were decorated with floral designs and had vinyl coverings.
Bags made by Tyrolean, Inc. of New York are always distinctive. The company’s designers favored classic box and cylinder shapes embellished with panels of intricate metal filigree. As well as gilt metal clasps, the bags usually have gilt metal feet and other hardware.
The majority of Tyrolean’s bags were made from brown tortoiseshell-effect Lucite, sometimes with clear Lucite lids. Other colors include gray, cream, and white, although bags with blue Lucite panels are known. The bags are usually marked “Tyrolean.”
The company also made leather and clear plastic bags with gilt metal frames. One of the most innovative was a pyramid-shaped leather wrist purse with three compartments marked “W,” “P,” and “C,” possibly standing for “wallet,” “purse,” and “cigarettes” or “cosmetics.”
The revolutionary appearance, the futuristic material, the solid, practical shape: nothing epitomizes 1950s handbag design better than Lucite box bags, and few firms were as influential as Wilardy of New York.
Will Hardy (he used an amalgamation of his names for his line of bags) joined his father’s handbag firm in 1948 and immediately concentrated on the production of hardwearing Lucite bags. Shapes were radical and boldly geometric with gentle curves and lollipop handles.
Although a man-made material, the plastic made his handbags expensive, as each example was cast and soldered by hand. Rhinestones, glass, and filigree work finished the exteriors and increased the level of exclusivity, making the bags popular with socialites and celebrities.
The invention of injection molding, however, enabled manufacturers to mass-produce plastic items cheaply; as a result, Wilardy soon lost out to competitors and the Lucite box lost its position as the must-have bag of the decade.
Established in 1959 in Texas, the Enid Collins company was known for producing unusual, distinctive box bags that continue to win a huge number of fans today. Rectangular in shape, and solidly made from wood, the bags were sturdy and hardwearing, and each was finished to a high standard.
Sequins, paint, and faux jewels adorned the flat surfaces; this cheerful decoration tended to be more delicate and feminine, and was prone to wear. Toward the end of the 1960s, do-it-yourself bag kits were introduced to coincide with the hippy-inspired craze for hobbies and crafts.
As well as box bags, Enid Collins produced canvas bags, decorated with similar designs, although these tend to attract less interest today. Many bags are signed “Enid Collins” or with a lower case “ec.”
WALBORG POODLE BAGS
Icons of 1950s glamor can sometimes appear rather kitsch, but this in no way decreases the demand for handbags with fun and frivolous motifs from the exuberant post-war period. As all eyes looked to France for fashion instruction, the French poodle became a symbol of chic sophistication in the US and Europe. Novelty poodle bags remain a particular favorite with collectors today.
American manufacturer Walborg is famed for its beaded bags and purses, and its shaped bags are extremely desirable. In the late 1940s, Walborg produced a line of black poodle purses hand-beaded in Belgium. It followed these in the 1950s with white poodles, hand-beaded in Japan.
Both colors are the same size, equally rare, and of similar value. Walborg also made a black beaded cat purse. The cat, shown in a seated position, is exceptionally rare. Bags typically feature beaded “fur,” and may have diamanté collars or gold-colored zippers.
THE CLASSIC 1950S BASKET
As handbags became more “boxy” in shape during the 1950s, designers revisited the humble straw shopping basket for inspiration.
Baskets in all shapes, made from straw or raffia, were adorned with three-dimensional velvet flowers, real shells, or fabric berries, as well as other small objects such as faux pearls. The traditional woven basket had moved from a practical necessity to a decorative fashion item.
Although home-made in appearance, many examples were commercially produced and sold at popular holiday resorts such as Palm Springs. Novelty shapes, including animals and hats, are sought after today, as are hand-made Nantucket baskets, which are tightly woven and feature carved ivory plaques depicting seaside motifs.
The wicker in all 1950s baskets tends to be delicate and liable to damage, as is the applied decoration. As a result, examples in good condition attract the most interest.
WICKER ANIMAL BAGS
Novelty bags are an expression of post-war frivolity. During the 1950s, fashions became less formal and so required less formal accessories. Add to this the buying power of the new teenage market, and the demand for novelty bags was assured.
Open baskets became a summer must-have. Manufacturers began to use wicker to create an amazing number of handbag creatures, including elephants, frogs, poodles, and fish. These animal shapes are particularly sought after by collectors today.
This wicker elephant is especially desirable because he comes with his own brush, which can be removed from his trunk and used to dust him down before a night out.
Born in Budapest in 1921, Judith Leiber trained as a handbag-maker before emigrating to New York, where she worked for a number of well-known companies, including Nettie Rosenstein.
By 1963, Leiber had her own business, and in 1992 she won the Handbag Designer of the Year Award, followed two years later by a lifetime achievement award from The Council of Fashion Designers of America.
By far the most recognizable, and avidly collected, of her works are minaudières. Taken from the French word “to charm,” these tiny bags were inspired by the small metal purses introduced by Van Cleef & Arpels in the 1930s. They are costly to produce as each bag is individually cast in metal and then covered with thousands of tiny Swarovski crystals, all applied by hand over a period of several days.
Shapes include monkeys, cats, birds, and teddy bears. As well as minaudières, the Judith Leiber company still makes handbags in leather, suede, beadwork, and other luxurious materials.
Vintage Pucci is unmistakable. The bold, geometric patterns and bright color schemes convey so much about the revolutionary design of the 1960s and 1970s.
Emilio Pucci (1914–92) opened his first shop in 1949 in Capri, where he introduced “Capri Pants” and a huge range of exciting clothes and accessories in his signature prints. By the 1960s, he had established himself as a leading designer and was a key figure in the success of post-war Italian fashion design.
Pucci handbags, typically in vibrant psychedelic designs, are produced in high-quality materials such as silk and velvet, and are often finished with kid interiors and metal fastenings. The signature “Emilio” can often be found to the interior. In recent years the company has enjoyed a revival, with famous figures such as the pop star Madonna wearing Pucci creations.
Stylish, unfussy bags by the house of Hermès have been delighting women since the 1880s, when Emile-Charles Hermès turned the attention of his Parisian leather-working company to producing wallets, cases, and handbags.
Even in the early days, Hermès bags were known for their sturdy and functional shapes, which were updated in keeping with the fashions of the time. One of the greatest innovations was the introduction of a modern fastening: the recently invented “zipper.”
Some of the classic Hermès designs have entered into fashion legend. The Kelly bag, launched in the 1950s and named after the film star Grace Kelly (who was famously photographed with one), was one of the most successful. Extremely sought after today, it can change hands for huge sums of money. Other bags that have caught public attention are the 1980s Birkin and the 1990s Macpherson bag.
Austrian-born Nettie Rosenstein emigrated to the US as a child. She began her career as a milliner in 1927. By the 1930s she was working as a fashion designer, and began to make both handbags and costume jewelry to complement her clothes.
Her handbags were made in the Italian city of Florence, a place renowned for its high-quality leather goods. Her couture designs were featured in Vogue magazine in the 1940s, and newspapers and magazines continued to publicize her designs throughout the 1950s and 1960s.
In 1961, Nettie Rosenstein stopped making clothes to concentrate on her accessory lines. Sometimes the influence of her costume jewelry line can be seen on the clasps of her handbags.
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