Classic Handbags - a timeline of iconic design through the years

Classic Handbags - a timeline of iconic handbag designs

Stories behind the classic handbags of history

So many amazing women have a connection to some of the most iconic, classic handbags of the past 70 years. Women who have designed the styles, and the women of influence who created the demand.

Read the stories of some of the styles and the women who have inspired:

#1. Classic: 1955 Chanel 2.55

Classic Handbag 1955 Chanel 2.55

Named for the date of launch, February 1955, Gabriele "Coco" Chanel told a reporter she "got fed up with holding my purses in my hands and losing them, so I added a strap and carried them over my shoulder". This is the birth of the first shoulder bag and a real game-changer in handbag design.

The distinctive elements of the 2.55 are said to reflect Coco's personal story. The diamond-quilted leather may reflect her love of horseriding or the window of the nearby abbey; the burgundy lining the colour of her Catholic convent school uniform; the hand-braided chain straps maybe the Nun's key chains; the secret pocket in the flap somewhere to secrete her love letters.

Secured by the Mademoiselle turnlock (a reference to Coco never marrying), the distinctive double flap (both exterior and interior flap) bag would have set you back about $250 in 1955, now a new classic black, around $8700 AU.


#2. Classic: 1956 Hermès Kelly Bag 

Classic Handbag 1956 Hermès Kelly Bag

Founded in 1837 in Paris by Thierry Hermès, the house of Hermès was originally a saddle-maker. In 1892, their first foray into bags was a simple bag for holding a saddle.

Thirty years later, then owner Émile-Maurice Hermès recognised the need for a smaller version of that saddle bag for his wife Julie, resulting in the first Hermès bag designed specifically for women.

In 1937, designer Robert Dumas created a travel holdall with straps for ladies called the Sac à Dépêches (bag for dispatch/ mail). It had a trapezoid shape, two triangular gussets, a sculpted flap, a handle, and good storage space.

Hollywood star, Grace Kelly was introduced to the style during the 1954 filming of Hitchcock’s “To Catch a Thief”, and fell in love with it.

After her marriage to Prince Rainier III, then Princess Grace of Monaco famously used her handbag to shield her baby bump from the paparazzi in 1956. That image was published in hundreds of magazines around the world, and the bag became instantly (unofficially) known as the Kelly Bag. The style was officially renamed in 1977.

Available in eight sizes from 15cm to 50cm, the Hermès Kelly is made from thirty-six leather pieces, six-hundred-and-eighty hand stitches, sixteen small studs, a padlock, a swivel clasp and a leather key cover.

The crafting of each bag takes a single artisan 18 – 24 hours, such is the care taken to ensure a premium finish.

Much like its Birkin cousin, the Hermès Kelly is a timeless, iconic design. However there have been a couple of interesting variations including in 2000 a fun Kellydoll bag, with arms, legs, and a face; the 2004 Kellylakis was an “enhanced” version with zippered exterior pockets on the front; and in 2011, a wicker basket version, the Kelly picnic bag - the poshest picnic basket ever.


#3. Classic: 1959 Louis Vuitton Speedy


Louis Vuitton's story starts in 1834 when 13-year-old Louis left home and walked 300 miles to Paris, where he was eventually appointed as an official box-maker and packer to Napolean Bonaparte's wife, Empress Eugenie de Montijo of France. He opened his first store in 1854.

The original version of the Speedy was 30cm and created in 1930, the first handbag added to the range of luggage for which the design house was famous. Audrey Hepburn personally requested a 25cm smaller version in 1959, before larger sizes were also added.

Classicly made from sturdy canvas with leather handles (which darken with age), over the years the Speedy has been designed in a number of finishes, including the classic monogram, and is still available today. Start saving if you would like to buy a new Speedy 30, it will set you back around $1700 AUD.


#4. Classic: 1964 Gucci Jackie hobo 

Classic Handbag 1964 Gucci Jackie hobo

One of Gucci’s most iconic bags was originally designed in the '50s as a unisex bag known as Constance.

It was in 1964 that Jacqueline Kennedy discovered the style, and bought 6 of them. As a tribute to the former first lady and style icon, Gucci changed the bag's name to Jackie, and it became known as a style for women and claimed a place in fashion history as the first hobo bag.

Jackie Kennedy Onassis loved the effortless slouchy shoulder bag and continued to wear it through the early 80s (pictured in 1981), and her influence as a fashion icon of the time ensured the success of the style.

The Jackie hobo's significance to Gucci is shown by the number of iterations through the decades. It has been re-introduced several times, in several variations, finishes, sizes and in many different fabrics - GG canvas, leather, suede, webbing, exotics, and limited edition pieces.

Interestingly the Jackie has been spotted on the runway as recently as last January for Gucci's Fall/Winter 2020 menswear show. Stay tuned... 


#5. Classic: 1968 Launer (The Queen's Bag)

Classic Handbag 68 Launer Queen Handbag

It is worth noting that one of the most-photographed women in history had a handbag with her at all times.

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II carried a handbag from heritage British luxury handbag brand Launer, identified by iconic structured compact shapes and discreet ‘twisted rope’ signature emblem.

According to Launer, The Queen granted them a royal warrant and they supplied her handbags and leather goods since 1968 until her death in 2022. Her Majesty reportedly owned more than 200 Launer products- mostly black leather Royale or black patent Traviata styles.

The Queen saw her handbag as an integral part of her outfit. Each piece completed her look and Elizabeth herself knew that she "didn't feel fully dressed without her handbag". Both indoors and outdoors, Her Majesty always had her bag with her, usually carried on her left forearm.

There was a rumour that the placement of her handbag was used to message her staff when it was time to move on from a conversation. Clever girl!

Hello! Magazine previously reported that Her Majesty's bag held her reading glasses, handkerchief, mints, fountain pen, and a portable hook (to hang the bag under tables). 
Also possibly treats for her corgis, an occasional crossword puzzle, diary, small camera, handy penknife, small mirror, some family photographs and of course, lipstick. I guess we will have to take their word for it.


#6. Classic: 1981 Hermès Birkin

Classic handbag Hermes Birkin

English actress and young mum Jane Birkin met the Hermès chief executive Jean-Louis Dumas by chance on an aeroplane in 1981.

Jane was fussing to fit her carry-on into the overhead compartment, and ranting to her seat companion that nice bags were never big enough.

Dumas saw the opportunity, and Jane’s thoughts on practical design for an elegant holdall were apparently recorded on the sick bag.

This is how the Birkin was born. 



#7. Classic: 1984 Prada's Vela nylon backpack

Classic Handbag 1984 Prada's Vela nylon backpack

In 1970, Miuccia Prada joined the family leather goods company. The youngest granddaughter of founder Mario, Miuccia had an unlikely background as feminist organiser in the Italian Communist Party, and held a PhD in political science from University of Milan.

It is no surprise that Miuccia introduced design concepts that challenged traditional expectations.

In 1984 Miuccia Prada released the "Vela" which was a two-pocket nylon backpack with leather trimming. Unusually, this bag combines water-resistant nylon called "pocone” (also used for military tents) with leather - a stroke of designer genius.

The result was a bag with a modern aesthetic that was durable and functional yet luxurious and fashionable.

Embellished only with the sleek iconic Prada branding (the triangular metal nameplate), the Vela leather-trimmed nylon backpack was the complete antithesis to other logo-heavy “It-bags” of the 80s, and was a massive hit. It started the transformation of Prada’s image into a young and trendy brand, and on its way to the mega brand now known for modern, refined elegance and luxury.

Miuccia told The New Yorker in 1990 her thoughts behind the design: “I want always to mix the industrial way of doing things, with the patrimonio of the past, with the artisanal tradition.”

Nowadays, the iconic Prada backpack is available in a variety of colours and sizes, and it continues to be a popular symbol of fashionable practicality. #pradabackpack has nearly 30,000 posts on Instagram


#8. Classic: 1994 Lady Dior

Classic Handbag Lady Dior Princess Diana favourite

Released in 1994, the style was originally called “Chouchou” (meaning favourite) by designer Gianfranco Ferré. Identified by its distinctive rattan stitched leather detail, round top handles and signature gold charms; the Lady Dior continues to represent as the flagship handbag for the French design house.

In September 1995 at the opening of the Cezanne Art Exhibition, Paris (Dior was a sponsor), a beautiful classic black bag was gifted to Diana, Princess of Wales by Bernadette Chirac, then-First lady of France.

The style became a favourite for "Lady" Diana, who ordered it in every available version, and was often seen and photographed carrying one. In her honour, the design house renamed the bag the Lady Dior, and it soon became the must have bag for many, selling over 200,000 in the next 2 years.

Each Lady Dior is meticulously made by hand, taking 7 skilled artisans 8 hours to construct. The bag is precisely crafted from 144 pieces of the finest lambskin leather.

The beautiful cannage stitching is said to be inspired by the rattan style Napoléon III chairs once used by Christian Dior to welcome his customers. The metallic charms that hang from the handle, the four DIOR letters with the oversized O, are shaped by hand and are said to be inspired by Christian Dior's lucky charms.

Over the decades, the Lady Dior has been released in 5 different sizes and various fabrics, materials and with only a few minor tweaks. Its perennial design remains one of the most popular in history, and an ongoing symbol of the elegance of Dior.


#9. Classic: 1997 Fendi Baguette

Classic Handbag Fendi Baguette Sarah Jessica Parker

Inspired by her grandmother's beaded bags from the '20s & '30s, designer Silvia Venturini Fendi christened the Baguette because it was made to sit comfortably under the arm in the same way that the French carry their long loaves of crusty bread. The Baguette was launched in 1997.

It was "Sex and the City" that elevated the Fendi Baguette to iconic status. Smartly, Fendi lent Baguettes to the Props Department at HBO.

The style features regularly in the series, particularly for Carrie Bradshaw, who informed a mugger “It’s not a bag, it’s a Baguette” when her purple sequinned bag was stolen.

Baguettes are small, slender, generally rectangular, with flap closure, FF logo hardware and carried on a short strap. Whilst there is a consistent aesthetic, the style can be adapted for different, distinctive looks, colours, and textures.

Following on its SATC cult status, the Baguette is said to be the first “It Bag”, which means it drew a lot of attention initially, thus increasing popularity and so scarcity for a short time, until consumers move onto the next “It” fad, usually a season or two.

There have been over a thousand different variations of the Baguette - embellished, sequined, embroidered, exclusive pieces, Limited Editions, customisable versions, celebrity, and artist collaborations. Luxe but casual, the Baguette has truly weathered the seasons, and we should expect to see more.


#10 Classic: 2001 Balenciaga City Bag

Classic Handbag Balenciaga City Bag

Young Spanish designer Cristobal Balenciaga founded the design house in San Sebastian in 1918. Balenciaga has seen varying success through the years, but things improved when talented designer Nicholas Ghesquire took over as creative director in 1997.

Nicholas’ prototype of Motorcycle style bag was not originally approved for mass production as it was considered too soft and lacked structure, unlike other popular styles of the time.

Preparing for the 2001 runway show, supermodel Kate Moss took a liking to the prototype and Ghesquire ordered a limited edition of 25 bags as gifts for Kate and her model friends.

Of course the Motorcycle style took off from there and became an “It” bag. The earliest version was Lariat or First, then came the larger (and most popular) City bag.

The style was different to other popular bags of the time, there was no logo, but plenty of hardware - studs, buckles, zips and distinctive long leather tassels, a cosmetic mirror and rolled double handles.

The Motorcycle bags have an almost vintage feel to them, partly because of the type of leather used - soft, thin lambskin or goat leather with a natural lined finish that adds to the unique appearance of each bag.

The City Bag is still in the Balenciaga range today.

#11. Classic: 2002 Chloé Paddington

Classic Handbag Chloe Paddington



The heavy, top-handled leather Paddington takes its name from the London suburb and is instantly recognisable for its enormous signature padlock.

The style is a bit boho, slouchy, unstructured, with plenty of design details. Phoebe Philo (Stella McCartney’s assistant) took over as creative director in 2002, and Chloé entered the handbag market.

Pre-orders of the Paddington sold out every one of its 8000 first offerings for spring 2005 before it even hit the boutiques, such was demand as a must-have bag among fashionistas. Owning a Paddington Bag in 2005 showed you were a someone.

Timing was perfect for the ultimate 'It' Bag - internet shopping and social networking were taking off, and the glossy mags amped the hype with the news it was the fastest-selling designer bag ever made.

Those were the days when celebs carried handbags onto the red carpet, and the likes of Kate Moss, Paris Hilton, Nicole Richie, Jennifer Lopez, Lindsay Lohan, Katie Perry all loved their Paddingtons.

Of course, the Chloé Paddington has made a few comebacks over the years, its possibly easier to buy one now than it was 15 years ago. Personally, I am still not keen on lugging around that heavy padlock. 


#12. Classic: 2010 Céline Luggage Tote 

2010 Céline Luggage Tote

The French luxury fashion house Céline, was founded in 1945 by Céline Vipiana and her husband Robert. They started with footwear, then added handbags and other accessories in the early 60s. The brand is now owned by LVMH. 

Creative director Phoebe Philo moved to Celine in 2006. Remember that she was the designer of the Paddington when she was at Chloé. Phoebe brought a new look to Céline who then became known for chic, classic, minimal designs and logo-free bags suited to professional women.

The Céline Luggage Tote was first noticed on the arm of an Olsen twin in 2010, and it quickly rose to “It” status, and it has been a go-to for Celebs and Fashionistas over the past decade.

The style has been offered in 5 different sizes from “nano” to “medium” ( which is big), then comes the Phantoms. Colours and colour combinations (bicolour and tricolour) and the variety of fabrics, leathers, and skins are all part of the appeal.

The Céline Luggage Tote has a definite and identifiable aesthetic.

The elegant 3D leather wave (some say it appears to outline a face), external zip pocket (I think that’s the mouth), and hardware free double handles. The flap out winged sides add to the roominess of the squared tote, which has a zip-top opening, and an additional long strap.

There are lots of appealing elements, so I guess we will be seeing its happy functionality for a while yet. 


Now would you like to see some beautiful leather handbags that you can actually afford?? Discover Willow & Zac quality leather handbags HERE

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