A Brief History of the Wedding Purse
From a practical necessity to fashionable status symbol, the purse is the most enduring and universal accessory in history. It is also the oldest, depicted on everything from Egyptian hieroglyphs to a 3,000-year-old African painting. Some historians even believe that the invention of the purse and satchel pre-dates the invention of clothing!
From the Middle Ages to the Pocket
Although purses have existed in one form or another since the dawn of history, the first purse historically verified as a fashion accessory did not appear until sometime during the 15th century. In this early incarnation purses were worn by both women and men and their size was an indicator of status. Large purses, for example, were typically worn by laboring peasants who had to carry seeds, tools, food, or other goods to market or for work in the fields. Smaller purses indicated the wearer did not need to perform manual labor and hence was a member of the leisure class.
The 15th century also saw the first documented use of the bridal handbag, though it is believed the bridal purse was actually introduced much earlier. Brides, however, did not select their wedding purse; rather, the bridal purse was a traditional gift from the groom to his new bride. As a bridal gift, wedding purses were distinguished from their everyday counterparts by their design; the bridal purse was specifically embroidered with scenes of love or illustrated love stories. Over time the range of wedding purse designs became more elaborate and may have been the driving force behind the rise of the purse as a personal statement or a work of art.
Indeed, toward the end of the 15th century a purse's decoration and design began to overtake size as an indicator of status. While small drawstring purses were still initially favored by both men and women, their size gradually grew as producers incorporated increasingly elaborate embroidery and even jewels into their designs. By the 16th century some purses were actually built around metal frames to handle the extra ornamentation.
By the middle of the 16th century, however, clothing in Europe became much more voluminous, which often made purses awkward and unwieldy. Pockets were developed during this period, taking advantage of the extra folds and space afforded by this new style of clothing. This change in style even gave rise to a new class of thief; as over time the "pickpocket" surpassed the more traditional "cutpurse." As a result, pockets were often sewn or worn on the inside of clothing and hence were much more difficult to rob, further increasing their appeal.
By the 17th century pockets seemed to be on the verge of replacing the purse entirely. Aside from being harder to rob, pockets had the added advantage of allowing women to easily conceal small personal items or intimate effects. In many respects this little taste of privacy was actually among the first freedoms many women ever had. This sense of freedom would take hold, turning the pocket and later the purse into a literal "no-man's land" that women have cherished even through the present day.
From the French Revolution to Chanel
Just as women were beginning to enjoy a newfound sense of privacy, their fashion took a turn towards the delicate. Fueled by the "empire style" dresses of the French Revolution in the 18th century, women's clothing became too frail or styled for pockets and led to a resurgence of the purse. Men's clothing, however, remained sturdy enough to support pockets, turning the purse into an almost exclusively feminine fashion accessory; a trend that has only recently begun to change.
As clothing and the role of women in society continued to develop, purses went through a transitional period through much of the 19th century, often replacing pockets only to be replaced by pockets again, depending on the style of clothing from region to region. Along the American frontier, purses were largely abandoned as fashion accessories while they remained somewhat more popular in Europe.
All of that changed in the 20th century, which saw the rise of the handbag and firmly established the purse as the most popular and practical women's fashion accessory. As dresses became slimmer and more form-fitting, a woman's shape became nearly as important as her dress, making pockets utterly impractical. By the 1920s pockets had vanished from women's fashions almost entirely, allowing the handbag to reign supreme for nearly a century.
With the disappearance of pockets, handbags became an extension of a woman's outfit. Purses were often designed and selected to match or coordinate with specific articles of clothing, while the style and materials used to create the purse became a new kind of status symbol that hinted at the opulence of the 15th century. Designers such as Chanel became household names, and handbags developed a devoted following that spawned an entire fashion industry.
Through much of the present day handbags have become a profound symbol of how women perceive themselves. The interior of a women's purse, following the legacy of the pocket, is a private and intimate place where women keep some of their most personal possessions. As a New York Times reporter even noted in 1945, "There is an aura of taboo about a closed handbag." The exterior of the purse, however, is a veritable billboard that speaks volumes of a particular woman's taste, style, financial background, or even her geographic location!
From Your Wedding to the 21st Century
As fashion, technology, and culture continue to change, the purse is slowly making a comeback as an accessory for both sexes. The growing popularity of the "messenger bag," first used by bike couriers and college students, offers solid evidence that the day of men walking down the street sporting handsome handbags may not be far off.
And although it is no longer a traditional bridal gift, wedding purses are once again becoming a common sight at the modern wedding ceremony. Many brides use handbags as an "emergency" kit containing tissues, extra makeup, aspirin, or other last-minute beauty tools. Many wedding attendants now carry a bridesmaid purse for exactly the same reason. Other brides, meanwhile, use the bridal purse for the "dollar dance," a relatively new and increasingly popular reception tradition intended to raise money for the newlyweds. And still other brides incorporate wedding purses into their bridal designs for the sheer joy of the fashion.
Whether a beautiful addition to your evening gown or simply a home for your car keys, every purse you own is an accessory thousands of years in the making.