LENA’S PICKS: TOP FIVE ICONIC HANDBAGS OF ALL TIMEDate: 05/28/2021
History was one of my favorite subjects in school – I loved imaging the details of the lives of people from different centuries and decades. What did they wear and why? What were the politics of the time? Were the challenges similar or dissimilar to mine? So when I sat down to write this post, I couldn’t help but start at the beginning. The history of fashion and specifically the premier houses that have created timelines fashion statements with their handbags.
For instance, did you know that the most popular and iconic handbags were designed for or inspired by powerhouse women of their day? Jane Birkin is one icon who comes to mind, she actually sketched the idea for the now-iconic Birkin handbag on an airplane sick-bag during a chance, in-flight encounter (More on that later). It’s amazing the stories our bags carry; really, we seem to be simultaneously wearing and creating history whenever we incorporate these timeless, authentic pieces into our wardrobes.
So, in honor of the handbag and in honor of the women who stand out most in handbag design history, here’s a list of what I believe are the top five most iconic handbags of all time.
Lena’s 5 Most Iconic Handbags of All Time
There are handbags, and then there are cultural artifacts and ornaments that stand the test of time. In my opinion, the five handbag designs listed below encompass much more than just fashion glory – they are artifacts that tell stories of the fabulous women who made sure the world knew what they wanted to wear, and how they, in their own various ways, revolutionized the handbag industry. Women also (as it happens) managed to revolutionize the very brands you and I wear on our arms today.
Who are my top five? For sure we have the Hermès Kelly in first (duh) and Chanel’s 2.55 as a close second. It was tough to choose three, four and five, but in the end, I put Hermès’ Birkin third, and then rounded out the list with Dior’s Lady Dior and Louis Vuitton’s Speedy!
Read on below to find out more about the incredible stories behind these iconic designs.
From what history tells us, the Kelly bag wasn’t always known by that name. Formerly known as the Sac à dépêches, this leather handbag by Hermès was renamed after it became popularized by Grace Kelly herself through the lens of Mr. Alfred Hitchcock. As the story goes, a costume designer on Hitchcock’s film To Catch a Thief purchased several Hermès accessories for the film. Grace Kelly as the star, it is said she immediately became enamored of the Sac à dépêches and purchased several for herself.
Later, after she became the princess of Monaco, Kelly was photographed with the handbag, only for it to come out that she had been using it to hide her first pregnancy from the intense and invasive eyes of the paparazzi. From that moment on, the handbag was an incredibly popular item that eventually, in 1977, became known as The Kelly.
With that story in mind, I also find it curious that this incredibly famous bag was based on a design that was originally meant to hold a saddle or boots (being based on a design from 1892), largely since in those days, Hermès main brand focus was on riding accessories.
Modified for its day, the original Sac à dépêches was (in 1928) designed to carry important papers and news—so much so that eminent male poets and politicians were known to carry one, including the Duke of Windsor and John F. Kennedy. Although the brand was already moving towards handbag accessories for women, it wasn’t until Kelly brought the bag into the limelight that Hermès truly became established as the ‘elegant, haute couture ladies’ brand we know today. This later-famed onset has been most attributed to the fact that when the bag debuted, a smaller, wristlet style purse was in vogue.
Chanel Classic 2.55 (Chanel Classic Flap)
In 1929, Coco Chanel designed her first true handbag since, at the time, shoulder straps were completely unheard of and by some considered altogether uncouth. Then, in 1955, Chanel debuted an updated version of her original design (hence, 2.55) to include a shoulder strap. “I got fed up with holding my purses in my hands and losing them, so I added a strap and carried them over my shoulder,” Chanel is reported to have said. A few sources agree that this was a revolutionary design at the time for women’s wearables and fashion, and that it ruffled its share of feathers. Gasp – a shoulder strap!
Another fun fact: the clasp featured on the lock became known as the mademoiselle lock per Chanel’s unmarried status (eye-roll), but more interestingly, the quilted leather that is now synonymous with the brand is speculated to have been in honor of Chanel’s love of riding as a girl, at a time when (according to Glamour) ‘quilted materials were worn only by boys working in the stables’.
And though it’s mere speculation, I am a bit of a sucker for a good secret love story, and I can imagine so many bashful tales when I think of the rumor about an early part of Chanel’s design – a zippered compartment in the bag’s front flap – and how it was meant to store hidden love letters from prying eyes. It wouldn’t be until much later that newly-appointed creative director Karl Lagerfeld would arrive on the scene to update the design to include the Classic Flap and the signature CC turn-lock clasp.
Often mistaken for number one on our list, The Birkin in recent years, may have become even more iconic than the original Kelly design. Before we get into why, here is a little intel on how to tell the difference between the Hermès Kelly and the Birkin:
- The Birkin is slightly wider and can hold more, while only the Kelly needs a closed clasp during regular wear.
- The Kelly bag, being designed first, still has a single top-handle but comes with a detachable shoulder strap. The Birkin on the other hand is considered a ‘tote’ bag with two handles meant to be carried at the elbow.
- The Birkin is the less structured of the two, and considered more for ‘everyday’ use, whereas the Kelly was designed (and has always been considered) a luxury bag to be worn by royalty.
As I mentioned near the beginning of this article, the Birkin itself was born of a conversation that took place on an airplane in the early 80’s. Then Hermès chief executive Jean-Louis Dumas was minding his own business in first class when Jane Birkin, a rising UK actress, was upgraded and seated next to Dumas. On her trek to change seats, some of the contents of her purse are said to have spilled into the aisle, to which Dumas quipped that perhaps she needed a bag with pockets.
The rest, it is said, is history: Birkin and Dumas began having a conversation about her dream accessory, and Dumas ended up noting down her specifications about a ‘handbag that is bigger than the Kelly but smaller than Serge [Gainsbourg]’s suitcase’ on an airplane sick-bag!
Hermès designers then went on to create and launch the Birkin handbag to a greatly desiring public, and to the joy of Birkin herself, who immediately fell in love with the item. At the time, Birkin was considered among the first to really beat the bag into shape, saying: “There’s no fun in a bag if it’s not kicked around, so that it looks as if a cat’s been sitting on it – and it usually has. The cat may even be in it!’. Wonder if my sweet Faro can fit in one? Not a chance.
The Birkin has since become merely a ‘wishlist’ item—meaning you might only get one by mere luck, hope, and fairy dust (also one of the reasons its number three on the list). It is wickedly expensive, yet somehow, though only 200,000 Birkin’s are said to be in circulation, Victoria Beckham is rumored to own around 100 Birkin bags, at a cost of around $2.3M!
Although many of us know it by no other name, the Lady Dior by Dior was first launched in 1994 from designer Gianfranco Ferré, who would nickname the bag simply, Chouchou, the French word for pet or favorite. But that would all change just a year later when Princess Diana of Wales herself was seen in Paris with the bag on her arm—a gift of welcome from France’s then first lady to celebrate the inauguration of Paris’ Cézanne exhibition, premiering at the Grand Palais.
Suddenly, the bag had a nickname, and it is said that the Princess ordered the bag in every color from then on, and was often seen carrying it (my favorite being the simple black version with this stunning tangerine suit-dress). Later, Dior would go on to change the name of the bag officially from Chouchou to the Lady Dior, and the item has ever since been the jewel of their design efforts.
Since then, special care has gone into the design and creation of each Lady Dior piece. Each is created by hand (much like the others on this list), with seven separate artisans needed to create just one. Even the signature Dior letters and charms are shaped and cured by hand, just as they were in the original design.
One of the most standout features of both the brand and this particular handbag, though, would have to be how committed Dior has been to maintaining close ties with designers and artists, fulfilling the promises of its Dior Lady Art Project (introduced in 2016), which has seen artists of all kinds reinterpret this bag from their own creative mindset. Since 2008, the brand has also committed to representation by Marion Cotillard, who is not only a French actress and singer, but an environmental activist and face of Lady Dior
Last, but definitely not least on the list is the Louis Vuitton Speedy. Introduced in 1930, the original design for this ‘keep-all’ duffle/luggage bag targeted luxury travelers of all kinds. When it became hugely successful later down the line, LV introduced an Express version of the bag, thereon named the Speedy.
It wouldn’t be until 1959 (some say 1965) however, when actress Audrey Hepburn put in a request that LV come up with a smaller, more tote-able version that she could carry around on a daily basis, that the bag underwent yet another redesign. Being hugely famous herself, and an icon of that era, that iteration of the handbag became a main-stay of the brand from that moment on.
Finally, just a year after the smaller ‘speedy’ version was designed (so-named after the desire to live a fast-paced lifestyle), Louis Vuitton created the monogrammed version of the bag to battle against a large increase in profiteering by frauds and copy-artists—some of which still find much success in the trade today. Not that it has stopped LV from modernizing their design each season, even collaborating director super-star Sofia Coppola for her own version of the bag, called the SC bag, which was a coming-together of the original Speedy and Express designs, and debuted in 2010. (source).
History is in Vogue
With all of this in mind, I like to raise my head (and handbag!) a little higher knowing I’m supporting the long-standing efforts and traditions of great artisans who still practice their art today. I also enjoy knowing that these designers and brands were willing to listen to the outstanding voices of the day’s female icons (or designers, in Chanel’s case), which led to massive success for these brands in new and exciting markets. In some cases, as you can see from reading, these brands were able to reinvent themselves entirely in response to the influence of a Princess, several actresses, and a renowned designer.
Today I am proud to represent these traditions through my own wardrobe inspirations and choices. I’m particularly keen when these brands explore new and exciting potential with designers who view their long-standing designs in a new light, particularly this recently premiered Dior Lady bag—which caused quite a stir on my Instagram!
Anyhow, I hope you enjoyed this little compilation, and were inspired by the history that we have been carrying around this whole time! Let me know your thoughts, and whether you would have listed another member of the extensive handbag design family in my top five. I’m always keen to hear your opinions and want to see your favorites.
Wishing you all love and health,
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