A History of Vintage ’20s Handbags, Downton Abbey Style

By Chere Di Boscio

We wouldn’t think of leaving the house without one today, but handbags weren’t always such a fashion must-have. After all, most ladies stayed home all day anyway, and when they went out, what they needed would fit into pockets, which were often built into their voluminous dresses.

When dresses became more streamlined in the 1920’s, handbags became a necessity, but they were so small, they could be worn around the wrist or held in one hand. Back in the day, the Dorothy Bag was one of the most popular styles. It was a small, gathered pouch in a fabric that would match a wealthy woman’s dress or coat; often, intricate beading or embroidery patterns distinguished her bag. She’d take this little number out on the town or to dinner, and it was just big enough to fit in a pair of  opera glasses, handkerchief or a folding fan, but rarely would money be placed inside–wealthier women’s husbands or sweethearts would always pay for them when they went out. Makeup was considered ‘trampy’ so would not likely have been placed in a bag.




The “pochette” was another popular style. This was a kind of clutch that also appeared after the First World War, and it was nonchalantly tucked under the newly-unrestricted arms of women, who were enjoying some satorical freedom after having been restricted by long, heavy layers and rigid corsets for decades, if not centuries. Often decorated with geometric motifs, the pochette reflected the style of the emerging Jazz Age, but accessories were also influenced by the    discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1923–Egyptomania and gold motifs of cats, shells, and palm trees became all the rage. In the mid-to-late 1920’s, lipstick became popular thanks to stars like Clara Bow, so some women may have tucked a lippy into their pochette.



Working class women had different needs: they were away from the house for more time, and so they often used larger handbags, such as the Boulevard bag, the classic handbag held in the crook of the arm or by hand, or leather shopping bags, worn on the shoulder. These larger bags could hold what they needed most: handkerchiefs, gloves, hat and hairpins, and possibly a photo or two of a loved one, house keys and money.



In Downton Abbey, the class difference is very clearly communicated by clothing, including handbags. In our main image, for example, the rather plain bags of the ‘downstairs’ staff are larger than the evening bags used by the ‘upstairs’ women. While the form of the working-class women’s bags may imitate those popular with the upper classes at the time, there is much less embellishment, and the fabrics are simpler.

Fans of the show should pay particular notice to the bags next time you watch–in particular, watch for the Dorothy Bags, which are most commonly seen on the show. Still, you’ll have to keep a sharp eye out: while gloves and hats were de rigueur at the time, bags were far less necessary, especially with the upper classes.

To see more vintage bags like those shown above, or to buy, please click here.

Main image credit here.

Chere Di Boscio

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